top of page

So what is wilful blindness?

In the seminars and courses I run, I talk about the presence and impact of a phenomenon called wilful blindness. The term is thought to have its roots in the English court system. Sometimes referred to as the ostrich instruction it is also known as conscious avoidance, wilful ignorance, contrived ignorance, intentional ignorance, or Nelsonian ("ships, I see no ships") knowledge.

I became interested in the concept of wilful blindness after finding out that other people working in the hospital where my sister Alison was being abused had known what was happening but hadn't intervened. Wilful blindness is a useful term to describe a wide range of situations in which it emerges after an event that information was ignored. This often occurs due to the presence of numerous known biases, behaviors, and coping strategies, some unconscious, which can lead to detrimental and sometimes devastating outcomes. 

Wilful blindness is present to some degree in every aspect of our lives, in ourselves, our families, the communities we live in, the organisations we work for, the institutions we rely on, and wider society itself. The word "wilful" is slightly misleading in some respects because many of the biases humans rely unconsciously upon as coping mechanisms lead to its presence. Wilful blindness is more often than not the predictable product of some widely accepted socially normalized behaviors that occur on a daily basis.

Our propensity for wilful blindness manifests most readily and obviously in our deep-seated evolutionary need for acceptance. To be excluded from the group when we were hunter-gatherers was effectively a sentence to death by starvation, predation, or disease. Our compulsion to "not rock the boat" is a deep-seated response to avoid exclusion from the groups we live our modern lives in.     

Why does it matter?

Our need to go with the flow and not challenge the hierarchy which was key to ensuring the survival of our ancestors, no longer serves us as usefully as it once did. Wilful blindness can be a useful coping mechanism allowing us to retain our sanity and protect our sense of self in the midst of a challenging world, but the evolutionarily necessary ability we acquired to rationalize and ignore the things that make us uncomfortable or afraid, also has significant downsides. 

The wilful blindness and behavioral biases that exist in all of us mean that many of the issues we should be paying attention to and addressing in ourselves, our communities,  the organisations we work in, and the wider world we live in, fail to register on our individual and collective radar. As Margaret Heffernan so eloquently put it, "we are ignoring the obvious at our peril".              

This matters on many levels and has significant impacts in many areas of life. An obvious global example of our collective wilful blindness is climate change. Many of us suffer from a form of wilful blindness called scale blindness, this occurs when we do nothing in the face of an issue we feel is simply too big to address. We deal with its presence by rationalizing our inaction, "I'm just one person what difference can I make", or we point at the failures of others while ignoring our own lack of action, "At least we're not as bad as them".

When people fail to challenge wrongdoing or raise concerns about poor practice in healthcare settings, it is often because they are afraid of speaking up, of being seen as potential boat-rockers, and of risking their place in the group. But staying silent in such situations leads to patient harm and preventable deaths.      

How can wilful blindness be addressed?

There is no quick fix. A deep-rooted survival behavior and embedded coping mechanism we rely on to maintain our sense of self is no small thing to address. But if improvement of any type and on any scale begins with understanding, the starting point in addressing the challenge of our individual and collective wilful blindness is acknowledging its presence. 

When I'm working with people and talking about the presence of wilful blindness and its often negative impact, the "aha" moment comes when they realise how many of their behaviors, actions, responses, and thoughts are driven by a deep-seated need to belong, and that the need to rationalize and ignore the things that make us uncomfortable is not a negative character trait but an entirely rational and natural part of being human.

Wilful blindness should not be seen as a "bad thing" per se, an entirely negative character trait to be eradicated and despised. It is something we possess and live with individually and collectively, a naturally occurring phenomenon to be understood considered, and managed in a contextually specific way. It remains true that if the human brain were simple enough to be understood we would be too simple to understand it.

The transition from wilful blindness toward wilful awareness, just like the infinite process of continuous improvement, is a journey without an endpoint for individuals and organisations. The good news is that there are some simple measures that can be taken and tried and trusted methods that can be employed to help in the transition. Get in touch if you'd like to know more...   

Useful videos about wilful blindness, ethical fading, whistleblowing, trust, and conformity

Ethical fading explained (McCombs School of Biz)

Kelly Richmond Pope; why we hate whistleblowers

Wilful blindness and the power of questions

The profound power of an authentic apology

What we don't understand about trust

A crisis of conformity & need for a moral compass

bottom of page