The very fact that willful blindness is willed makes it interesting to understand 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.
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 ‘objective’ perception 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? No, she took offense 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!”
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!
‘Willful blindness’ is the scientific term for ignoring the obvious. Psychologist, author, CEO and part-time lecturer Margaret Heffernan explains the psychology of willful blindness in her book, ‘Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at our Peril:’
“The psychology of 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 the psychology of willful blindness and 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 ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ or both.
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