20/20 Vision and the Psychology of Willful Blindness

20/20 vision is a term used to express normal visual acuity (the clarity or sharpness of vision) measured at a distance of 20 feet. Visual acuity is measured by your ability to identify letters or numbers on a standardized eye chart from a given distance. About 35% of the adult population have 20/20 vision and can see clearly without glasses, contact lenses or corrective surgery.  

Check your Vision and Perception of Reality

Vision is a broader term than visual acuity or eyesight, in addition to sharpness of sight or simply a description of the ability to see, the term ‘vision’ usually includes a wider range of visual abilities and skills which include contrast sensitivity, the ability to track moving objects, color vision, depth perception, focusing speed and so on.

Our eyes can be tested, and corrected if required, which tends to make us think that our view of things reflects an objective reality, but this is often not the case. What we perceive as an ‘objectiveperception of reality is actually a creation of our own minds, a figment of our imagination, an image we have created, and our perceptions can be wrong.

The problem is that once we have created our perception of reality we don’t like to see it proven wrong and will perform all kinds of mental gymnastics to demonstrate that we are right. Even the most objectively testable ideas can be right and wrong at the same time (according to our own personal perceptions) and can co-exist until such a time as they must be tested.

I thought about this concept of being simultaneously right and wrong while I was in Madrid last week, exploring the city with my youngest daughter Alizé. Alizé was my navigator and her mission was to guide us from El Retiro Park back to the city center. Once we’d walked further than I’d expected and noticed her confidence started to wane, I dropped some subtle hints that maybe we were going the wrong way. Alizé insisted she was right but, looking at the map, I realized that we’d gone in the totally opposite direction!

Having pointed out my daughter’s navigational errors, did she willingly change her mind to match my perception, or that of reality? No, she took offence that I questioned her map reading skills!

My critique was delivered in the calmest and most nonchalant of ways. I was not angry, I was not worried about being lost, nor were we expected anywhere, so everything was just fine. Using the map as an objective test of reality I eventually proved to my lovely daughter that we were indeed in the wrong place. Once her perception had been shattered, she resigned her position with immediate effect and said in a very theatrical manner, “Who needs a map anyway? This map is stupid. I can find our way back just using my intuition!

We’re lost! What do you mean lost?

I burst out laughing, proven wrong and pushed in a corner with no way out, my daughter’s reaction was to crack a joke and be flamboyant!

There is a scientific term for ignoring the obvious, in psychology it is called ‘willful blindness.’  Psychologist, author, CEO and part-time lecturer Margaret Heffernan explains:

“Willful blindness is a human phenomenon to which we all succumb in matters little and large. We can’t notice and know everything. So, this means that we train our brain to filter or edit the information we want to let in. Consequently, what we choose to let out is crucial. The tendency is for us to let in information that makes us feel good about ourselves, whilst conveniently filtering out whatever unsettles our fragile ego and most vital beliefs. Fear of conflicts and fear of change keep us that way. The problem with this is that everything outside that warm, safe circle is in our blind spot, making us willfully blind!”

Physician Robert Burton who also authored ‘Believing You Are Right Even When You’re Not’ and ‘A Skeptic’s Guide to the Mind: What Neuroscience Can and Cannot Tell Us About Ourselves’ has studied why our brains tend to reject information that challenges our worldview or broadens our outlook; he illustrates his findings with a beautiful analogy:

“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 continue, the creek deepens, and a river develops. Over the course of our lives, our accumulation of experiences, relationships, and ideas shapes the proverbial riverbed of the mind and the water begins to flow with less and less resistance, which in turns produces a sense of certainty and ease that only deepens the riverbed.

Our minds have ‘riverbeds,’ channels through which we see things because that’s how we’ve always seen things, anything outside those channels are filtered out.

The good news is that willful blindness, or ‘channel-thinking’ isn’t a fatal diagnosis of the human condition. Margaret Heffernan also explains:

Willful blindness may be our natural evolutionary cultivated tendency, but the plasticity and responsiveness of our minds is what makes each of us most remarkable and our capability to change can never be underestimated.”

Understanding that our perceptions are not objective reality is important for many reasons. For instance, the world is full of conflict from nations at war, to couples fighting over who does more chores, to children fighting over a toy, or map reading in Madrid. These conflicts often occur in part because we think that we are right and that the person we are disagreeing with is wrong. But the truth is that we both are seeing our own biased perceptions of things. The other side has a different perception of how things are, but that does not mean they are wrong.

Your mission, should you decide to accept it, is to see more clearly, be aware of your own misperceptions, and most importantly keep a sense of humor and grace whether you are ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ or both.

This, my dear friend, is Your Quest.

34 thoughts on “20/20 Vision and the Psychology of Willful Blindness

  1. You are the very first person to read all three stories of the trilogy “The Journey of a Thousand Tongues.” Thank you. I really like your enthusiasm and your beauty, and I’m not just speaking of the physical. You know, you remind me of Athena. She is real.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Fair point! I remember that scene from Bruce Almighty which was hilarious but also demonstrates the point very well. So between filtering too much information in a bias kind of way and letting everything through, my advice would be to follow the ‘Middle Way’ (Lao Tzu Eastern philosophy) or Aristotle ‘Golden Mean’ (Western Philosophy).

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Good advice. I think it’s akin to just being able to judge how much salt goes into your cooking; taste it and see. If it’s not right the first time, there is always a second, and a third, and a ….Just got to keep on cooking rather than opting for ready-made.

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      2. There is a (possibly apocryphal) story of Henry Ford taking candidates for senior positions to a restaurant, for an interview over lunch. Anyone who blindly salted the food without first tasting it, was deemed too closed-minded to work for him. 😯

        Liked by 1 person

    1. We are all guilty of being wilfully blind to some extent. From my perspective one should chose their battles carefully. Some fights are worth fighting others aren’t. Map reading in Madrid for example is not a fight worth fighting for but ending the argument with a joke and in a very theatrical manner will lighten the atmosphere nicely.

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  2. Change is something I write about often, as Albert Einstein said we are all in a constant state of flux, and change is inevitable, we should understand and nit resist it. The Tao speaks of water often to explain it’s teachings, perhaps that is where the saying ‘go with the flow’ comes from. I accept your challenge.

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    1. Thank you Rosie for stopping by, for this insightful comment 😀🙏 and for accepting the daily challenge of trying to see more clearly, being aware of our own misperceptions and keeping a sense of humour and grace in the process!👏 Way to go.

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  3. This is interesting and also useful for me. Although it’s something we all struggle with, my son has autism and has a very strong sense of right and wrong which he will argue with you about to an extreme level. Through his condition, he doesn’t naturally see other people’s point of view and can’t understand why people don’t always agree that he’s right. I’m going to read this with him to show why and how people might not see his point of you – and why he might be struggling to see theirs. Hopefully he can learn in time to be more moderate in his reactions.

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    1. Dear Lisa. Your comments and feedback on my article really touched me 😀🙏! Thank you so much for sharing your personal experience dealing with ‘willfull blindness’. It means a lot to me that somehow the words, knowledge and wisdom I shared in this article may help you and your son somehow. Have a blessed day.

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  4. Love the groundedness of your writing; such a brilliant metaphor! Its all too true that we can ignorantly defend our subjective points of view to protect our egos. I’m so interested in intersubjective space because it’s where we have the freedom to have differences but also understanding of eachother. Such an important lesson, thank you! Xx

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    1. Thank you Anna-Rose 😀🙏for your comment. So glad to hear that this article resonnates with you. You articulared very well the importance of the intersubjective space. I agree with you that that space allows us the freedom to have differences, as long as we keep our subjectivity in check, till the time objective test of reality can test it. There is a lot more wisdom such as this in my book. Check it out! Xx

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  5. I am often judged for my understanding of reality wherein free will does not exist, but instead is a brilliant statistical calculation of the brain on an often unconscious level- a calculation to find which choice will bring most benefit to the individual. What rewards me the most?

    I am, more often than not, treated with hostility when I politely bring up the idea that free will is just “willful blindness.” I don’t ever mean to offend, merely express my own opinion, but everyone else gets offended, which sets off my intuition to believe that they are in denial of something which is actually making sense. 🤷‍♀️

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you 😀🙏 for stopping by and for your comment. I think that we all suffer from willful blindness at some point. The key is to be aware that we are doing it when presented with objective tests of reality.

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