Takeaways from Margaret Heffernan’s “Willful Blindness”

To answer a question about exploratory testing, Alister Scott recommends testers to read a Margaret Heffernan book, titled “Willful Blindness“. He tells us that we have to be less blind when we’re exploring in order to find bugs in systems under test. We have to keep on looking, we have to continuously question things, we have to choose to know and understand how the system works. Reading Margaret’s book has helped me realize what being willfully blind meant and how we become blind without noticing. It has helped me be more aware of the different ways I can misjudge things, and thus helps me get better. Cognitive limits, biases, division of labor, money, hierarchy, relationships, feelings of belonging or ostracism, all these and more play a part in how we behave in various situations. They affect how we perform our software testing too.

Some takeaways:

  • We can’t notice and know everything: the cognitive limits of our brain simply won’t let us. That means we have to filter or edit what we take in. So what we choose to let through and to leave out is crucial. We mostly admit the information that makes us feel great about ourselves, while conveniently filtering whatever unsettles our fragile egos and most vital beliefs.
  • Most people marry other people very like themselves: similar height, weight, age, background, IQ, nationality, ethnicity. We may think that opposites attract, but they don’t get married. Sociologists and psychologists, who have studied this phenomenon for decades, call it “positive assortative mating” – which really just means that we marry people like ourselves. When it comes to love, we don’t scan a very broad horizon. People may have an interest in people who are different from themselves but they don’t marry them. They’re looking for confirmation, for comfort.
  • All personalization software does the same thing: make our lives easier by reducing overwhelming choice. And software is doing it the same way that our brain does, by searching for matches. This is immensely efficient: It means that the brain can take shortcuts because it is working with what it already knows, not having to start from scratch. When we find what we like, part of our pleasure is the joy of recognition. But the flip side of that satisfaction is that we are rejecting a lot along the way.
  • We like ourselves, not least because we are known and familiar to ourselves. So we like people similar to us – or that we just imagine might have some attributes in common with us. They feel familiar too, and safe. And those feelings of familiarity and security make us like ourselves more because we aren’t anxious. We belong. Our self-esteem rises. We feel happy. Human beings want to feel good about themselves and to feel safe, and being surrounded by familiarity and similarity satisfies those needs very efficiently. The problem with this is that everything outside that warm, safe circle is our blind spot.
  • Bias is pervasive among all of us, whether we think we’re biased or not.
  • The argument for diversity is that if you bring together lots of different kinds of people, with a wide range of education and experience, they can identify more solutions, see more alternatives to problems, than any single person or homogenous group ever could. Groups have the potential, in other words, to be smarter than individuals; that’s the case put forward so compellingly by James Surowiecki in his book, The Wisdom of Crowds. But the problem is that, as our biases keep informing whom we hire and promote, we weed out that diversity and are left with skyscrapers full of people pretty much the same.
  • But while it’s true that all of us now have access to more information than ever before in history, for the most part we don’t use it. Just like newspapers, we read the blogs that we agree with – but there we encounter a virtually infinite echo chamber, as 85 percent of blogs link to other blogs with the same political inclination.
  • Our blindness grows out of the small, daily decisions that we make, which embed us more snugly inside our affirming thoughts and values. And what’s most frightening about this process is that as we see less and less, we feel more comfort and greater certainty. We think we see more – even as the landscape shrinks.
  • Indeed, there seems to be some evidence not only that all love is based on illusion—but that love positively requires illusion in order to endure. When you love someone, he or she may even start to adapt to your illusion of him or her. So there is a kind of virtuous circle: you think better of your beloved who starts to live up to your illusions and so you love him or her more. It sounds a little like a fairy tale, but kissing frogs may make them act like princes or princesses. It is indeed a kind of magic, illusions transforming reality. We don’t have to love people for who they are but for who we think they are, or need them to be. This is something everyone does: overlook the flaws, discount the disappointments, focus on what works. Our love for each other allows us, even compels us, to see the best in each other.
  • One of the many downsides of living in communities in which we are always surrounded by people like ourselves is that we experience very little conflict. That means we don’t develop the tools we need to manage conflict and we lack confidence in our ability to do so. We persuade ourselves that the absence of conflict is the same as happiness, but that trade-off leaves us strangely powerless.
  • Because it takes less brain power to believe than to doubt, we are, when tired or distracted, gullible. Because we are all biased, and biases are quick and effortless, exhaustion makes us favor the information we know and are comfortable with. We’re too tired to do the heavier lifting of examining new or contradictory information, so we fall back on our biases, the opinions and the people we already trust.
  • People stay silent at work—bury their heads in the sand—because they don’t want to provoke conflict by being, or being labeled, troublemakers. They may not like the status quo but, in their silence, they maintain it, believing (but also ensuring) the status quo can’t be shifted.
  • Hierarchies, and the system of behaviors that they require, proliferate in nature and in man-made organizations. For humans, there is a clear evolutionary advantage in hierarchies: a disciplined group can achieve far more than a tumultuous and chaotic crowd. Within the group, acceptance of the differing roles and status of each member ensures internal harmony, while disobedience engenders conflict and friction. The disciplined, peaceful organization is better able to defend itself and advance its interests than is a confused, contentious group that agrees on nothing. The traditional argument in favor of hierarchies and obedience has been that of the social contract: It is worth sacrificing some degree of individuality in order to ensure the safety and privileges achieved only by a group. When the individual is working alone, conscience is brought into play. But when working within a hierarchy, authority replaces individual conscience. This is inevitable, because otherwise the hierarchy just doesn’t work: too many consciences and the advantage of being in a group disappears. Conscience, it seems, doesn’t scale.
  • Human beings hate being left out. We conform because to do so seems to give our life meaning. This is so fundamental a part of our evolutionary makeup that it is strong enough to make us give the wrong answers to  questions, as in Asch’s line experiments, and strong enough to make us disregard the moral lessons we’ve absorbed since childhood. The carrot of belonging and the stick of exclusion are powerful enough to blind us to the consequences of our actions.
  • Independence, it seems, comes at a high cost.
  • The larger the number of people who witness an emergency, the fewer who will intervene. The bystander effect demonstrates the tremendous tension between our social selves and our individual selves. Left on our own, we mostly do the right thing. But in a group, our moral selves and our social selves come into conflict, which is painful. Our fear of embarrassment is the tip of the iceberg that is the ancient fear of exclusion, and it turns out to be astonishingly potent. We are more likely to intervene when we are the sole witness; once there are other witnesses, we become anxious about doing the right thing (whatever that is), about being seen and being judged by the group.
  • It is so human and so common for innovation to fail not through lack of ideas but through lack of courage. Business leaders always claim that innovation is what they want but they’re often paralyzed into inaction by hoping and assuming that someone else, somewhere, will take the risk.
  • The greatest evil always requires large numbers of participants who contribute by their failure to intervene.
  • Technology can maintain relationships but it won’t build them. Conference calls, with teams of executives huddled around speakerphones, fail to convey personality, mood, and nuance. You may start to develop rapport with the person who speaks most—or take an instant dislike to him or her. But you’ll never know why. Nor will you perceive the silent critic scowling a thousand miles away. Videoconferencing distracts all its participants who spend too much time worrying about their hair and whether they’re looking fat, uncomfortable at seeing themselves on screen. The nervous small talk about weather—it’s snowing there? It’s hot and sunny here—betrays anxiety about the vast differences that the technology attempts to mask. We delude ourselves that because so many words are exchanged—e-mail, notes, and reports—somehow a great deal of communication must have taken place. But that requires, in the first instance, that the words be read, that they be understood, and that the recipient know enough to read with discernment and empathy. Relationships—real, face-to-face relationships—change our behavior.
  • The division of labor isn’t designed to keep corporations blind but that is often its effect. The people who manufacture cars aren’t the people who repair them or service them. That means they don’t see the problems inherent in their design unless a special effort is made to show it to them. Software engineers who write code aren’t the same as the ones who fix bugs, who also aren’t the customer-service representatives you call when the program crashes your machine. Companies are now organized—often for good reasons—in ways that can facilitate departments becoming structurally blind to one another.
  • We want money for a very good reason: it makes us feel better. Money does motivate us and it does make us feel better. That’s why companies pay overtime and bonuses. It may not, in and of itself, make us absolutely happy—but, just like cigarettes and chocolate, our wants are not confined to what’s good for us. The pleasure of money is often short-lived, of course. Because there are always newer, bigger, flashier, sweeter products to consume, the things we buy with money never satisfy as fully as they promise. Psychologists call this the hedonic treadmill: the more we consume, the more we want. But we stay on the treadmill, hooked on the pleasures that, at least initially, make us feel so good.
  • Motivation may work in ways similar to cognitive load. Just as there is a hard limit to how much we can focus on at one moment, perhaps we can be motivated by only one perspective at a time. When we care about people, we care less about money, and when we care about money, we care less about people. Our moral capacity may be limited in just the same way that our cognitive capacity is.
  • Money exacerbates and often rewards all the other drivers of willful blindness: our preference for the familiar, our love for individuals and for big ideas, a love of busyness and our dislike of conflict and change, the human instinct to obey and conform, and our skill at displacing and diffusing responsibility. All these operate and collaborate with varying intensities at different moments in our life. The common denominator is that they all make us protect our sense of self-worth, reducing dissonance and conferring a sense of security, however illusory. In some ways, they all act like money: making us feel good at first, with consequences we don’t see. We wouldn’t be so blind if our blindness didn’t deliver the benefit of comfort and ease.
  • Once you are in a leadership position, no one will ever give you the inner circle you need. You have to go out and find it.
  • We make ourselves powerless when we choose not to know. But we give ourselves hope when we insist on looking. The very fact that willful blindness is willed, that it is a product of a rich mix of experience, knowledge, thinking, neurons, and neuroses, is what gives us the capacity to change it. We can learn to see better, not just because our brain changes but because we do. As all wisdom does, seeing starts with simple questions: What could I know, should I know, that I don’t know? Just what am I missing here?
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