What leads to willful blindness

Kai Ryssdal: The news of the British press world has been relatively quiet today. Prime Minister David Cameron named a commission to help investigate the phone hacking scandal this morning. Yesterday, Rupert Murdoch and his son James faced a parliamentary committee. Apologies, denials -- about what was expected.

Also though, a question about whether Murdoch senior might have been guilty of "willful blindness." Murdoch said absolutely not. But it did get us thinking about that phrase. So we dialed up Margaret Heffernan over in the U.K.; she's written a book on this very topic. Welcome.

Margaret Heffernan: Thanks a lot.

Ryssdal: The common sense definition of this thing we can kind of figure out. But there is also a definition of willful blindness at law, as well, isn't there?

Heffernan: The law defines willful blindness like this: if there's information that you could have had and should have had but somehow managed not to have, the law deems that you're willfully blind and treats you as though you had known. In other words, ignorance is no excuse; you were still responsible.

Ryssdal: You actually quote the judge in the Enron case, just to go back a good decade or so; I mean, he actually laid it out.

Heffernan: Judge Simeon Lake laid out this idea when he was instructing the jury in the trial of Jeff Skilling and Ken Lay. And I was reading that pretty much at the same time as the banks were all collapsing, and it just, you know, lit a lightbulb in my head.

Ryssdal: You know what it's a little bit like? It's a little bit like when your five-year-old, you tell them that you want him to do something, and he sticks his fingers in his ears and goes "lalalalala." Right?

Heffernan: That's absolutely right. I mean, it's also, there's a very kind of common thing where you don't really say what you want, you just say what the results are. So in management-speak, it's 'don't bring me problems, bring me solutions.' And implicitly what that's saying is sort of, 'I don't really care how it gets done, as long as it does get done.' Well, you know, the opportunity for some ethical problems there is just immense.

Ryssdal: And there are, of course, all kinds of psychological reasons this happens -- it's just easier sometimes to pretend something's not happening. But lay it out for me in the corporate structure: how does it come to be that a guy running -- in Rupert Murdoch's case -- a 53,000-person organization can conceivably say, 'I just don't want to know'?

Heffernan: Well, first of all, the very size of the organization may be part of the problem. It's virtually impossible to have any kind of clear line of sight across all the operations of an organization like that. In addition, you have to take into account what we know about human psychology. People are obedient; they will follow instructions even when they're unethical. This is what the New York psychologist Stanley Milgram proved in the '60s, and the data has been robust ever since. You can add to that other experiments we know about conformity: given the choice between giving a wrong answer that keeps you part of the group, or a right answer that makes you an outsider, most people would rather give a wrong answer. There is enormous psychological pressure on individuals to do what the organization wants and what their boss wants.

Ryssdal: Well since this concept, then, is so tied up in that sweet spot of corporate behavior and human nature, what's the answer?

Heffernan: Definitely I think we all need, as managers and executives, to learn to be very good at negotiating conflict. The people who see most clearly are those who seek disconfirmation. They want people who are prepared to argue with them. They want data that challenges their beliefs. That's how they keep alert, paying attention -- because if you're surrounded by a lot of yes men and women, the chances are, they will all keep you blind to the stuff that collectively you just do not want to see.

Ryssdal: Margaret Heffernan, she's author of the book called Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at Our Peril. We've got an excerpt of it here (PDF). Margaret, thanks a lot for your time.

Heffernan: It is my pleasure, thanks a lot.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.

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