The psychology of willful blindness

The psychology of willful blindness

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The concept of willful blindness, examined by entrepreneur and author Margaret Heffernan in her book “Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at Our Peril”, is the intricate cognitive and emotional mechanism through which we choose – consciously or not – not to see in situations where “we could know, and should know, but don’t know because it makes us feel better not to know.” Heffernan proves that we actually do that through some case studies ranging from dictatorship to love affairs who end badly, because “the more tightly we focus, the more we leave out”.

This concept comes from law and it originates from legislature passed in the 19th century – it is the idea that you are responsible “if you could have known, and should have known, something that instead you strove not to see.” This means that it doesn’t really matter if you avoided the truth consciously or not. This mechanism occurs in every aspect of life, Heffernan says. The good news is that there are things we can do to lift our blinders before we engage ourselves in dangerous situations that could later make us exclaim: “How could I have been so blind?” Apparently, we manufacture alibis for our inertia. Heffernan writes:

“Whether individual or collective, willful blindness doesn’t have a single driver, but many. It is a human phenomenon to which we all succumb in matters little and large. We can’t notice and know everything: the cognitive limits of our brain simply won’t let us. That means we have to filter or edit what we take in. So what we choose to let through and to leave out is crucial. We mostly admit the information that makes us feel great about ourselves, while conveniently filtering whatever unsettles our fragile egos and most vital beliefs. It’s a truism that love is blind; what’s less obvious is just how much evidence it can ignore. Ideology powerfully masks what, to the uncaptivated mind, is obvious, dangerous, or absurd and there’s much about how, and even where, we live that leaves us in the dark. Fear of conflict, fear of change keeps us that way. An unconscious (and much denied) impulse to obey and conform shields us from confrontation and crowds provide friendly alibis for our inertia. And money has the power to blind us, even to our better selves.”

But let’s see what is one of the subtlest yet most pervasive manifestations of this willful blindness – it is our choice of mates. This is why we choose people very much like ourselves:

We all want to feel that we have made our own choices, that they weren’t predictable, that we aren’t so vain as to choose ourselves, and that we are freer spirits, with a broader, more eclectic range of taste than the data imply. We don’t like to feel that we’re blind to the allure of those who are not like us; we don’t like to see how trapped we are inside our own identity. […] We like ourselves, not least because we are known and familiar to ourselves. So we like people similar to us — or that we just imagine might have some attributes in common with us. They feel familiar too, and safe. And those feelings of familiarity and security make us like ourselves more because we aren’t anxious. We belong. Our self-esteem rises. We feel happy. Human beings want to feel good about themselves and to feel safe, and being surrounded by familiarity and similarity satisfies those needs very efficiently.”

The old saying that “love is blind” has strong psychological roots, as:

When we love someone, we see them as smarter, wittier, prettier, stronger than anyone else sees them. To us, a beloved parent, partner, or child has endlessly more talent, potential, and virtue than mere strangers can ever discern. Being loved, when we are born, keeps us alive; without love for her child, how could any new mother manage or any child survive? And if we grow up surrounded by love, we feel secure in the knowledge that others believe in us, will champion and defend us. That confidence — that we are loved and therefore lovable — is an essential building block of our identity and self-confidence. We believe in ourselves, at least in part, because others believe in us and we depend mightily on their belief. As human beings, we are highly driven to find and to protect the relationships that make us feel good about ourselves and that make us feel safe.. Those mirrors confirms our sense of self-worth. Love does the same thing … and that seems to be just as true even if our love is based on illusion. Indeed, there seems to be some evidence not only that all love is based on illusion — but that love positively requires illusion in order to endure.

These blind spots seem to have a physical foundation in the brain. Heffernan quotes neurologist Robert Burton who says:

“Neural networks don’t give you a direct route from, say, a flash of light straight to your consciousness. There are all kinds of committees that vote along the way, whether that flash of light is going to go straight to your consciousness or not. And if there are enough ‘yes’ votes, then yes you can see it. If there aren’t, you could miss it. But here’s the thing: What does your brain like? What gets the “yes” vote? It likes the stuff it already recognizes. It likes what is familiar. So you will see the familiar stuff right away. The other stuff may take longer, or it may never impinge on your consciousness. You just won’t see it.
Imagine the gradual formation of a riverbed. The initial flow of water might be completely random — there are no preferred routes in the beginning. But once a creek is formed, water is more likely to follow this newly created path of least resistance. As the water continues, the creek deepens and a river develops.”
However, this willful blindness is not a fatal diagnosis of the human condition. It may be our tendency, but it is something that it’s in our capability to diffuse with the right combination of intention and attention.
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Caroline Parker has a Bachelor of Arts degree in American Studies from the University of Bucharest. She is currently pursuing a master's degree in the same field. She specializes in gender issues, ethnic minorities, and has a passion for literature, but she loves to find out more about any subject she comes across. When she is not busy with her studies, she is attending conferences, seeing plays which deal with contemporary issues in society, traveling, taking photos for her Instagram account, and watching beauty related vlogs. She aims to become a published writer and to pursue a Ph.D. is the field of gender studies.

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