The New York Times
Why Red Flags Can Go Unnoticed
By Nancy F Koehn - April 2nd, 2011
IN the wake of recent disasters - from nuclear reactor failures to oil spills to the collapse of the subprime mortgage market - we have focused on which people and institutions might be to blame. How, we ask in hindsight, could people and institutions have failed to foresee clear signs of trouble - even in the face of warnings?
In "Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at Our Peril" (Walker & Company, $26), Margaret Heffernan argues that such failures are part of a "human phenomenon to which we all succumb in matters little and large."
Ms. Heffernan, a former radio and television producer and a former C.E.O. of several multimedia companies, explores many ways why people can persist in failing to see problems. She wants to know, for example, "What are the forces at work that make us deny the big threats that stare us in the face?" and "Why, after any major failure or calamity, do voices always emerge saying they'd seen the danger, warned about the risk - but their warnings had gone unheeded?"
Part of the reason is that the brain's cognitive limits don't let us absorb everything we encounter, she writes, so we must filter what we take in.
Some of this filtering is beneficial. It "oils the wheels of social intercourse when we don't see the spot on the silk tie, the girlfriend's acne, or a neighbor's squalor," she writes. At a basic level, selective vision also helps us remain engaged and optimistic day to day.
But Ms. Heffernan is chiefly concerned with the dangerous effects of this blindness. She offers a wide range of examples, including spouses who ignored evidence of a partner's adultery, homebuyers who took on excessive mortgage debt, and companies whose compliant employees assumed "levels of risk beyond their ability to recover."
Writing in clear, flowing prose, she draws on psychological and neurological studies and interviews with executives, whistleblowers and white-collar criminals. She analyzes mechanisms that limit our vision - individually and collectively - and thus jeopardize our safety, economic well-being, moral grounding and emotional wholeness.
Love, ideology, fear and the impulse to obey and conform all play important roles in rendering us blind to the makings of personal tragedies and corporate collapses.
Information overload is also a big factor, especially in our technologically sophisticated age. Ms. Heffernan explains how multitasking and excessive stimulation, combined with exhaustion, restrict what we see and do.
We all know that it is harder to concentrate when we are tired. That's because the brain is working so hard to stay alert that higher-order brain activity must be conserved and thus restricted, Ms. Heffernan explains.
The book offers numerous scientific findings and real-world answers about the consequences of this problem. For example, studies of the effects of sleep deprivation found that medical interns scheduled to work 24 hours at a stretch "increased their chances of stabbing themselves with a needle or a scalpel by 61 percent, their risk of crashing a car by 168 percent, and their risk of a near miss by 460 percent."
Industrial engineers, air traffic controllers and the rest of us are no less susceptible to effects of exhaustion. In March 2005, an explosion at a BP refinery in Texas City, Tex., resulted in the deaths of 15 people. In looking back at the tragedy, Ms. Heffernan writes that the plant had gone through cost-cutting and that many of the operators in the refinery were simply too tired to see critical warning signs. The operator in front of the control board that day, she says, had been working 12-hour shifts, seven days a week for 29 consecutive days.
Not only does fatigue narrow our vision and reduce our effectiveness, Ms. Heffernan argues, but it can restrict our moral engagement. For example, Staff Sgt. Ivan L. Frederick II, who in 2004 was sentenced to prison for abusing inmates at Abu Ghraib in Iraq, was found to have worked 12-hour shifts, seven days a week, with few days off.
Fatigue was certainly not the only factor at Abu Ghraib, but the fact that Sgt. Frederick "was surrounded by colleagues just as ill-trained and just as exhausted," the author says, "meant no one was awake enough to have any moral sensibility left."
Ms. Heffernan also looks at how a focus on making money can circumscribe what we see and do - and she connects this obsession with the notion of willful blindness. In the late 20th century, she asserts, "public energy suddenly centered on money," and though she does not develop this argument, it has an eerie ring of relevance from a historian's perspective. The last 20 years have witnessed an increasing preoccupation - among all manner of people and organizations - with financial gain.
Some doctors, Ms. Heffernan writes, may be influenced by money to order more tests, recommend expensive treatments and treat patients differently based on financial motives. She describes one orthopedic surgeon as lamenting the role that money plays in medicine: "The minute you see dollar signs in your patient's eyes, it changes how you think."
Ms. Heffernan argues that the busier we become chasing financial gain, the less likely we are "to see clearly and work thoughtfully" and to consistently consider the interests of others. "It keeps us silent, too, fearful lest debate or criticism jeopardize salaries," she continues. This is a potentially powerful argument, and Ms. Heffernan has some ad hoc data to support it. But it would have been stronger with a larger, more structured set of evidence.
The book closes with a relatively brief discussion of how to mitigate the conditions in which willful blindness can flourish. The author advances several possible strategies, including acknowledging our biases, overturning corporate cultures that reward long working hours, actively seeking out dissenters in our circles of friends and colleagues, re-examining the role of obedience in all kinds of organizations, and teaching critical thinking.
Ms. Heffernan's final salvo is a hopeful one: the idea that willful blindness, as "a product of a rich mix of experience, knowledge, thinking, neurons, and neuroses, is what gives us the capacity to change it."
The book would have been richer if its examples had gone deeper. And the author might have hammered even harder on how the phenomenon is affecting our response to issues like climate change. Even so, the book made me think long and hard about how the pace and priorities of our daily lives can hinder our ability to live as decently and as truthfully as we can.