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Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at Our Peril | [Margaret Heffernan]

Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at Our Peril

Margaret Heffernan argues that the biggest threats and dangers we face are the ones we don't see - not because they're secret or invisible, but because we're willfully blind. A distinguished businesswoman and writer, she examines the phenomenon and traces its imprint in our private and working lives, and within governments and organizations, and asks: What makes us prefer ignorance? What are we so afraid of? Why do some people see more than others? And how can we change?
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Publisher's Summary

Margaret Heffernan argues that the biggest threats and dangers we face are the ones we don't see - not because they're secret or invisible, but because we're willfully blind. A distinguished businesswoman and writer, she examines the phenomenon and traces its imprint in our private and working lives, and within governments and organizations, and asks: What makes us prefer ignorance? What are we so afraid of? Why do some people see more than others? And how can we change?

Covering everything from our choice of mates to the SEC, Bernard Madoff's investors, the embers of BP's refinery, the military in Afghanistan, and the dog-eat-dog world of subprime mortgage lenders, this provocative book demonstrates how failing to see - or to admit to ourselves or our colleagues - the issues and problems in plain sight can ruin private lives and bring down corporations.

Heffernan explains how willful blindness develops before exploring ways that institutions and individuals can combat it. In the tradition of Malcolm Gladwell and Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Margaret Heffernan's Willful Blindness is a tour de force on human behavior that will open your eyes.

©2011 Margaret Heffernan (P)2011 Audible, Inc.

What the Critics Say

"[Heffernan] gives us an insightful look into the psychology of denial and makes an ethical and pragmatic argument for engagement rather than deflection. Heffernan's cogent, riveting look at how we behave at our worst encourages us to strive for our best." (Publishers Weekly)

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  •  
    Lynn 06-06-11
    Lynn 06-06-11
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    "Why We Ignore What Is About Us"

    Margaret Hefferman makes visible a human failing in “Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at Our Peril.” In this book she approaches answers to why we willfully ignore what we need to acknowledge the most. The subject is important, according to the author, because we fail to see dangers right before our eyes. From marrying the wrong person, to the Enron fiasco, to the housing bubble, Hefferman alerts the reader to how the persons involved had the requisite information before them all the time and how the situations may have been avoided. Of course, hindsight is better than foresight, but her observations and presentation of research is informative. Hefferman is strongest when applying research to specific situations. She is weakest when she digresses into preaching about current events. She is most informative when she is explaining why organizations and individuals have willful blindness and lacking when she is on a soap box. All of it is valuable, but some of the book is more helpful than others. Her analysis of organizational structure and how it influences the decisions of large organizations is worth the price of the book. She details, for example, the problems of BP in Texas as well as the Gulf spill and explains why top management was blind to what was taking place. Willful blindness afflicts us all. Now, Hefferman has shown light on this timely subject. She reads her own text and does it well.

    23 of 24 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Cynthia Monrovia, California, United States 06-29-13
    Cynthia Monrovia, California, United States 06-29-13 Member Since 2012

    Audible listener who's grateful for a long commute!

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    "How Not to Be the Blind Leading the Blind"

    Margaret Heffernan's "Willful Blindness: Why we Ignore the Obvious at Our Peril" (2011) is in Audible's Nonfiction:Science & Technology:Social Science, along with Malcolm Gladwell's books, including "Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking" (2005) and "The Tipping Point: How Little Things Make a Big Difference" (2007). Jefferson's "Willful Blindness" is definitely on par with Gladwell's work, but without the publicity Gladwell has, I'm worried that not enough people will find out just how great this book is for people who want to understand what individual and organizational psychological problems can cause monumental failures.

    Heffernan begins with a dramatic description of a tragic British Petroleum disaster - but not the 2010 Deep Water Horizon blow out that killed 11 workers and badly harmed a great deal of the coast of the United Stated. She describes the 2005 Texas City Refinery explosion that killed 15 workers and wreaked havoc on a vital part of the economy. Some of the factors that made the workers blind to the problem that caused the explosion were lack of sleep caused by long shifts with not enough time off; not enough workers; and poor design of equipment. Management at the local level didn't have the power to change the situation, and executives determined to cut costs refused to hear them. What's surprising to Heffernan is that when BP's Deep Water Horizon blew, people were astounded. The management and the corporate culture hadn't changed. Why wouldn't it happen again?

    Heffernan's book is full of similar case studies, some well known - like the federal government's disastrous handling of Hurricane Katrina. Some are not well known - like the installation of pumps that will not work in New Orleans after Katrina.

    Once again, I do wish Audible had a true table of contents. Since it doesn't, here it is (with thanks to Google Books): Introduction; 1. Affinity and Beyond; 2. Love is Blind; 3. Dangerous Convictions; 4 The Limits of Your Mind; 5. The Ostrich Instruction; 6. Just Following Orders; 7. The Cult of Cultures; 8. Bystander; 9. Out of Sight Out of Mind; 10. De-Moralizing Work; 11. Cassandra; 12. See Better. Chapter 11, which starts with the myth of Cassandra, who was gifted with knowing the truth and the future but cursed not to be believed, is a powerful discussion about encouraging those in an organization who know the truth to speak up.

    Heffernan narrates the book herself, and it was hard to get used to her unusual accent. I checked her bio, and she was born in Texas, raised in the Netherlands, and attended college in England. No wonder I couldn't place it.

    I definitely recommend this book for managers and executives who want to strengthen their teams.

    [If you found this review helpful, please let me know by clicking the helpful button. And Audible, how about adding this one to the Business section also???]

    21 of 26 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Douglas C. Bates Boston, MA 04-29-11
    Douglas C. Bates Boston, MA 04-29-11 Member Since 2010
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    "Preachy Collection of Stories"

    Heffernan's book is a collection of interesting stories and research on willful blindness, but it suffers from two flaws. 1. It lacks coherence. While the book has a clear subject, it's like a brain dump on the subject. The author doesn't pull the information together in a way that forms a coherent narrative. 2. It's preachy to the point that it's annoying.

    13 of 16 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Elizabeth United States 10-21-11
    Elizabeth United States 10-21-11
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    "Mesmerizing introduction, but from there..."

    After the best introduction to a book I have heard in a long time...one that kept me enthralled and wanting to write down every word she said...I was stunned to find the book changed tone and became studied, boring and more like PhD dissertation than the exciting book she started out writing.

    5 of 7 people found this review helpful
  •  
    CodeMonkey 08-22-14
    CodeMonkey 08-22-14 Member Since 2014
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    "Insightful. Must Read."
    Where does Willful Blindness rank among all the audiobooks you’ve listened to so far?

    For the fan of neuroscience and psychology or simply one desiring to understand how people operate and how to lead them, this is a must-read book.


    Have you listened to any of Margaret Heffernan’s other performances before? How does this one compare?

    No, but I personally found the pitch of her voice a bit uncomfortable for the volume I wish to hear her at. In the end, it was still worth the listen though.


    What’s the most interesting tidbit you’ve picked up from this book?

    It's extremely important to recognize our proneness to not really think and if we are truly thinking it's extremely important to be the one speaking out lest everyone's silence encourage worse things to happen. There are many examples of people slowly turning a blind eye like a frog in a pot.


    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Kazuhiko TUXEDO PARK, NY, United States 05-06-14
    Kazuhiko TUXEDO PARK, NY, United States 05-06-14
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    "It took me some willingness to finish listening"

    This is an important book that everyone should read, but, after I bought it, it took me several months before I finally got around to listen to it because the title, "Willful Blindness", (I thought) also hinted at my own problem of this nature operating in my own life. But the book is not so much about psychological analysis at personal levels but more about how the societal structure (e.g., division of labor) lead to major catastrophes due to willful blindness of those who were suppose to be in charge (yes, I know, I could be causing a catastrophe) . The author goes through many examples of this problem (e.g., Hurricane Katrina, the 2008 financial crisis, etc.).

    Yes, yes, I get it - the author's analyses and observations are convincing, and we need to do something about this type of problem, but it is unlikely that corporate executives or federal officials would read this kind of book. So, we need structural changes (regulations) in society. It is not just those who are at the top - the whole town could be going along with it, in some cases. Thus, the purpose of the book is to raise awareness on this issue.

    I am generally against authors narrating their own books, and this is another example that reinforces my opinion on this. The upside is that you get to hear her frustrations with the nature of the willful blindness in these examples. The downside, to me, was that, of many examples she went through, she was often quoting those whom she researched or interviewed, and sometime I got confused if "I" in the segments was the author or the person whom she was quoting. A professional narrator could have clarified the distinction by using different tones.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Kimberly Brown 08-25-13

    Proofreader, Editor, Writer & Book Lover Extraordinaire!!

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    "Ignorance is Bliss!!"

    I was very glad that I came across this book. As a 'Cassandra' this is the first time I have ever heard the term Willful Blindness explained or examined this way. I really never realized that people were not intentionally turning their back, or that they were not completely ignorant in general. Thank you Margaret for making me feel not so alone and also much more educated. How about a book like "Cassandra: The Survival Guide"

    1 of 2 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Donna 07-11-13
    Donna 07-11-13 Member Since 2013
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    "Everyone Should Read This Book!"

    This book contains many organized thoughts explaining the faults of human thought and how one may avoid such faults. Everyone should read this book in order to improve one's understanding of the world around them and what happens in it. I TRY TO SUGGEST THIS BOOK TO EVERYONE I KNOW.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Daniel Marietta, GA, USA 03-13-13
    Daniel Marietta, GA, USA 03-13-13 Member Since 2008
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    "There's a kernel of a good book in here"
    Would you say that listening to this book was time well-spent? Why or why not?

    It did have some valuable insight into contemporary failures at a grand level. Like Enron and the mortgage crisis.


    Who was your favorite character and why?

    No characters in here really.


    What didn’t you like about Margaret Heffernan’s performance?

    Unfortunately, her reading sounded just as smug as some of the passages in the book. The book probably would have been better with someone who was objective.


    If this book were a movie would you go see it?

    No.


    Any additional comments?

    It should have been called "If they had only asked me."

    Unfortunately, the author presents a rather confusing story of failures and their causes. She wallows in the usual stereotypes of evil corporate directors and their helpless victims while glossing over root cause analysis of these issues. It is easy and gratifying to impugn the characters no one loves while sanctifying the "victims" but life is much more complicated than that. What about all the "Cassandras" (as she calls them) who were wrong? I'm sure there were many more who were wrong than right. But in the author's world, the cure for blindness is 20/20 hindsight. Not very helpful.

    She describes all kinds of issues with biases. And then presumes to believe that she has none. And that the obvious disasters she describes are proof of her theories, despite knowing that the same general processes she faults have also resulted in major advances.

    The answer is, of course, that we need a more compelling mix of oversight (hierarchy) while at the same time encouraging local (non-hierarchical) control. Not sure how she reconciles these two incompatible modes in her world. The listener won't learn here either.

    1 of 2 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Stacey AUSTIN, TX, United States 07-23-12
    Stacey AUSTIN, TX, United States 07-23-12 Member Since 2012
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    "Thoughtful, well-researched, and interesting."

    The author uses personal examples, psychological studies, and newsworthy events to show how people fail to see the (sometimes dangerous) reality around us.
    This book was very well-paced and interesting to listen to. Though the work seems to have a very solid basis in scientific research, the author does a wonderful job of conveying the concepts in easy to understand terms and using examples to illustrate the concepts and help the listener relate to the situation being discussed.
    This book is useful for understanding willful blindness in everyday personal and working relationships, as well as understanding the institutional flaws that lead to large scale disasters involving BP, Enron, and Wall Street.

    1 of 2 people found this review helpful
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