Willful Blindness Book Summary - Willful Blindness Book explained in key points
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Willful Blindness summary

Margaret Heffernan

Why We Ignore the Obvious at Our Peril

4.6 (23 ratings)
15 mins

What is Willful Blindness about?

Willful Blindness (2011) is about a common phenomenon through which humans block out the uncomfortable realities of the world. These blinks explain how and why people so often fail to see what’s right in front of their noses and outlines the steps we can all take to open our eyes to the truth.

Table of Contents

    Willful Blindness
    summarized in 6 key ideas

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    Key idea 1 of 6

    People tend to ignore uncomfortable facts and divergent views.


    In law, willful blindness refers to the principle that a person is responsible for an action if he could and should have known something was problematic, but decided not to see it.

    For instance, imagine a drug trafficker whose stash gets discovered at the airport. To avoid jail time, he might say that he was never told what was in the packages he was carrying and didn’t have any intention of breaking the law. He’d be out of luck, since the law isn’t interested in the reasons you were blind to a reality, only that you chose to be, in this case by not watching your luggage.

    That being said, willful blindness applies to much more than crime. In fact, it’s common for humans to adopt such a position in a variety of situations, often with disastrous consequences. Just consider the housing crash of 2007. Virtually nobody saw it coming and willful blindness is to blame.

    In the years leading up to the crash, the US housing market was expanding at a shocking pace; people with little to no income were buying lavish homes with small or nonexistent down payments. Since everybody was doing it, nobody imagined that anything could be going wrong.

    Meanwhile, the financial sector was producing ever more complex financial instruments, like the credit default swaps and derivatives that eventually brought down the market. However, all of these investment vehicles were premised on the illusion of endless market expansion. People really should have known better. So, why didn’t they?

    It all comes back to a single human impulse: the unconscious urge to surround ourselves with people who think the same way that we do. After all, challenging our views is uncomfortable. It’s much easier to reduce our exposure to people with different ideas and values.

    In the case of the housing crash, the people who were pointing out the dangers had a difficult time making themselves heard or backing up their case because nobody wanted to hear a dissenting view.

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    Best quote from Willful Blindness

    You had to keep dancing. Why wouldnt you? It was fine as long as everyone else kept doing it too.

    —Margaret Heffernan
    example alt text

    About the Author

    Margaret Heffernan is a CEO, bestselling author, TED speaker and lecturer. Her other publications include Naked Truth and Women on Top.

    Who should read Willful Blindness?

    • Readers who have a hard time thinking for themselves
    • People pleasers
    • Anyone who thinks they might be growing out of touch with reality

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