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What I'm reading #24: Wilful blindness: why we ignore the obvious at our peril

By Sam Instone - June 17, 2022

Why, after every major accident and blunder, do we look back and say, how could we have been so blind?

Why do some people see what others don't?

And how can we change?

In a week when the average entry price paid by an investor in Bitcoin became greater than its current value, perhaps even the President of El Salvador might have a few things to learn...

Willful blindness started life as a legal concept in the nineteenth century.

In her book on the topic, Margaret Heffernan sees it everywhere; in the Catholic Church, Nazi Germany, at BP, in Russia, in our continuing failure to meaningfully reform the broken banking and financial system.

But also at a domestic level too. 

In failing marriages: why had she never asked about all those business trips? In hospitals: why had he skipped his check-up? Why had she carried on smoking? And when we know so much about cancer and obesity why is everyone busy sun-tanning and overeating?

At home: how could he have made that mistake with our family finances? Why didn't we think before we invested? 

This week, over a trillion dollars has been lost in cryptocurrencies (a number of stunning magnitude). 

This is despite widely published warnings from Dogecoin's own co-founder in July last year:

"cryptocurrency is an inherently right-wing, hyper-capitalistic technology built primarily to amplify the wealth of its proponents through a combination of tax avoidance, diminished regulatory oversight and artificially enforced scarcity. 

The cryptocurrency industry leverages a network of shady business connections, bought influencers and pay-for-play media outlets to perpetuate a cult-like “get rich quick” funnel designed to extract new money from the financially desperate and naïve.  

Financial exploitation undoubtedly existed before cryptocurrency, but cryptocurrency is almost purpose-built to make the funnel of profiteering more efficient for those at the top and less safeguarded for the vulnerable.

Cryptocurrency is like taking the worst parts of today’s capitalist system (e.g. corruption, fraud, inequality, money laundering, financial crime, widespread environmental damage) and using software to technically limit the use of interventions (e.g. audits, regulation, taxation) which serve as protections or safety nets for the average person.

Lose your savings account password? Your fault. Fall victim to a scam? Your fault. Billionaires manipulating markets? They’re geniuses.

This is the type of dangerous “free for all” capitalism cryptocurrency was unfortunately architected to facilitate since its inception. 

But these days even the most modest critique of cryptocurrency will draw smears from the powerful figures in control of the industry and the ire of retail investors who they’ve sold the false promise of one day being a fellow billionaire. Good-faith debate is near impossible."

Will we look back at the Governments desperate to promote 'technology', regulators blatant inaction, hyper-capitalistic companies and greedy investors in the future and talk about another case of willful blindness? 

It isn't hard to think about many other areas where this concept permeates our lives and decisions.

The law doesn't care why you remain ignorant, only that you do.  

But I am fascinated by why we choose to keep ourselves in the dark.

What are the forces at work, making us deny the big threats staring us in the face?

What stops us from seeing the reality, thus making an illusion more powerful and us so much more vulnerable?

Why, after any major failure or calamity, the voices always emerge saying that they'd seen the danger, warned about the risk - but their warnings had gone unheeded?

And why, as individuals, companies and countries, do we so regularly look in the mirror and howl: how could we have been so blind?

The reality is complicated.

Margaret Heffernan explains the cognitive limit of our human brain means we have to filter and edit what we take in. 

So what we choose to let through and leave out is crucial.

We mostly admit the information that makes us feel great about ourselves, while conveniently filtering out whatever unsettles our fragile egos and most vital beliefs.

Fear of conflict, fear of change, fear of missing out limit us.  

And money has the power to blind us, even to our better selves.

Of course, willful blindness isn't always disastrous - it's evolution's way of protecting us.  

But the mechanisms that make us blind to the world also put it in peril.

Ideologues, refusing to see empirical data and events that challenge their theories.  

Fraudsters only succeed when they depend on our desire to blind ourselves to the questions that would expose their schemes, and all the time the perils go unacknowledged, they grow more powerful and more dangerous. 

In his book 'Awareness', Anthony De Mello says,

"Most people, even though they don't know it, are asleep. They're born asleep, they live asleep, they marry in their sleep, they breed children in their sleep and they die in their sleep without ever waking up."

He explains waking up is unpleasant, uncomfortable, and irritating. 

And that no wise guru will attempt to wake people up.

Perhaps we turn a blind eye to things and remain asleep in order to feel safe, avoid conflict, reduce anxiety, and protect prestige?

But greater understanding/awareness leads to solutions and personal growth.

It's only by challenging our biases, encouraging candid debate, discouraging conformity, and by not backing away from difficult or complicated problems, that we can be more mindful of what's going on around us and be proactive instead of reactive.

We may think being blind makes us safer, when in fact it leaves us crippled, vulnerable, and powerless.

When we confront facts and figures and ask searching questions, we achieve real power and unleash our capacity for posi+ive change.

And as for good financial and investment advice?

1. Put your money in a low-cost portfolio of globally diversified equities.

2. Go live your life.

That’s it.


Further reading

How should affluent investors understand and deal with risk?

What I'm reading #22: The power of connectedness

One simple way to get your children interested in investing

Goals vs. capital: Are yours aligned?

The current state of the markets: 5 questions answered [video]


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