Illuminating Blind Spots

Interview with Madeleine L. Van Hecke, author of Blind Spots and Co-author of The Brain Advantage
By Vern Burkhardt
"Our minds work for us in wonderful ways – 80 or 90 percent of the time. But the rest of the time, functioning in the very same ways, our minds work against us."

Vern Burkhardt (VB): You offer the following programs: "From furious to Curious: How to Overcome Workplace Negativity"; "Between a Rock and a Hard Place: What to Do When You Can't Do It All"; "Getting to the Second Right Answer: How to Encourage Innovative Thinking"; "Don't Shoot the Messenger! – How to Turn Bad News into Useful Feedback"; and "Sitting in the Draft of an Open Mind: How to Be Open-minded – and Still Stand Up for What You Believe In". Would you talk about these programs, and what the response has been from participants?

Madeleine L. Van HeckeMadeleine L. Van Hecke: Probably the most popular of these programs has been "Getting to the Second Right Answer." This program focuses on how to be more innovative, and people are always interested in ways to encourage creativity.

Some of the other programs have a message that is thought provoking, but also a little disturbing, so reactions to these are more mixed. For example, a main message in the program "From Furious to Curious" is similar to one of the main messages in Blind Spots. In that talk, I encourage people to be less judgmental of others. Instead of disparaging others by thinking, "What an idiot! Why would anyone do that?" I encourage people to ask that same question in a different tone of voice. To ask with genuine curiosity, "Well, why would someone do that?"

Similarly in "What To Do When You Can't Do It All," I am partly challenging people who are overly perfectionist to consider trying to change themselves. Some people are uncomfortable in these sessions, because I am asking them to consider changing their own attitudes and behaviors – and that's not easy for any of us.

VB: You also are available for speaking engagements about why smart people do dumb things. Do you have a lot of examples for your presentations?

Madeleine L. Van Hecke: Absolutely. The program on why smart people do dumb things is along a lighter vein, drawing examples from sources such as The Darwin Awards and stories of "stupid" criminals.

One of my favorites is the story of the criminal who attempted to rob a large department store. When he realized that someone had notified security, he tried to blend in with the other shoppers. But as he tried to appear nonchalant looking over the store's items, he neglected to remove the nylon stocking that he had pulled over his face as a disguise.

VB: Before you retired from your tenured professorship at North Central College to have more time to write you taught classes in creative and critical thinking. Would you talk about the assignment you gave students called "poles-apart," including its intended lessons?

Madeleine L. Van Hecke: In the "poles apart" assignment, students were required to choose some issue that they felt strongly about, and then research that issue in order to write about both sides of the debate. For example, a teacher in the class who opposed home-schooling wrote about it; a Christian woman who opposed sex education in the schools chose that topic; and a fellow who condemned "alternative" medicine chose that to write about.

Now, in college classes students often have to choose controversial topics and write about them. What made this different from the more typical assignment is that the goal was for the students to be able to change from thinking, "I don't understand why anyone would think that way – choose home-schooling, support sex education, or go to an alternative medical approach" – to saying, "Well, now I can see why others think differently than I do."

So the assignment required students to either read first-person accounts or interview people who held the views that were poles-apart from their own in an attempt to truly see the world through the other person's point of view. This is the ability that I think is so hard for us to exercise on a day-to-day basis. When we encounter people who hold views that, to us, are wrong or abhorrent, it's very hard for us to keep an open mind and try to understand their view instead of simply condemning it.

VB: What is a blind spot?

Madeleine L. Van Hecke: A blind spot is an inability to see something that is obvious to others, and that can become obvious to us once it's pointed out. That's why I use the analogy of the blind spot in our side mirrors to get this concept across. If a car pulls up next to your car, but is in your blind spot, you'll miss it. Yet a car is a BIG object. No one standing on the corner would miss seeing it. And you wouldn't miss it either if you turned your head and looked at that area. So every time someone says, "I can't believe I didn't realize that!" it's likely they missed something that in retrospect is "obvious."

I like the analogy because it emphasizes that blind spots are built into the way we think, just as a blind spot is part and parcel of our side view mirrors. The very things that make us smart most of the time work against us some of the time, and create blind spots. For example, our minds naturally think in terms of categories. Even a child thinks in terms of simple categories, like "things to eat" and "things we wear." This helps us organize and understand the world. But this useful skill can work against us.

Remember Silly Putty? The engineers who developed Silly Putty thought of it as a new compound for the rubber industry and then couldn't think of any way to use it. It took a toy store owner to see the playful side of this material, because he could think outside of the industrial category. The engineers were thinking inside the box because our minds naturally see the world in terms of categories, little boxes, and it's a great advantage most of the time. It helps us organize what we know, but it also created the blind spot that made them miss Silly Putty.

VB: "Only when we detect that we have a blind spot can we decide to do something about it." How can we detect our blind spots?

Madeleine L. Van Hecke: There are different techniques that we can use to detect our blind spots, and these vary depending on the type of blind spot we're trying to address. Think again of Silly Putty. The toy storeowner, who saw its potential, wasn't "smarter" than the engineers who couldn't find a use for it. In fact, the toy storeowner was doing exactly what the engineers were doing. He was looking at the substance through the lens of his specialty – selling toys.

The lesson in this example is that we can be more innovative by bringing people together from different areas to discover perspectives that we'd otherwise miss. This isn't a new idea, but it's one we all too often neglect. Pixar, the innovative film studio for animated films, intentionally designed their building space so that people from different departments would run into each other because of where the atrium, mailboxes, coffee, and rest rooms were located. Their President, Ed Catmull, commented, "It's hard to describe just how valuable the resulting chance encounters are."

Another common blind spot is "missing the forest for the trees." To overcome this blind spot, we can train ourselves to routinely ask how the larger system is influencing the situation we are trying to improve. Once at a meeting on how to encourage more honest communication an employee of the company asked, "Is there anything about our organization as a whole that discourages honest communication?" The question momentarily brought the discussion to a standstill because people recognized its importance, and it fueled an intense discussion.

cover of Blind SpotsIn Blind Spots, I discuss ten different blind spots and then offer various strategies for overcoming each of these.

VB: Is it almost always the case that when people become aware of their blind spots, they change the way they think and behave?

Madeleine L. Van Hecke: Hmm. I'd love to know the answer to that question.

I think how much people will change depends a lot on what's at stake for them to acknowledge the blind spot and what the potential rewards are for doing so. Consider an athlete who doesn't realize something she's doing on the field until she sees a film, or her coach points it out to her. Now that it's obvious, she'll work hard to change if she's motivated to succeed.

Consider a different situation in which an individual has trouble seeing herself clearly. Imagine a woman who is a perfectionist to such an extreme that she is constantly anxious, re-doing work that is perfectly adequate, and driving other people crazy because she micromanages them in an attempt to always have perfect outcomes. When her perfectionism is pointed out to her she usually acknowledges that she's a perfectionist, but she may deny that she has any ability to change. She might say, for example, "Well, that's just how I am; I'm a perfectionist." In that case, it's unlikely she'll try to change because there's too much at stake for her. She believes that her perfectionism is a totally positive trait. It's become part of her identity, and she can't admit that there are drawbacks to it.

VB: Do our emotions play a large role in our blind spots?

Madeleine L. Van Hecke: I think our emotions play a large role in some of our blind spots. For example, the emotion of fear influences us. When we feel threatened, a number of things happen. For one, we are likely to defend against what is threatening to us. In the case of the perfectionist, if it is too threatening to admit that our perfectionism makes us less than perfect, then we'll resist acknowledging that.

Strong emotions also have the effect of narrowing our focus and sometimes causing us to act impulsively without stopping to think first. This narrow focus and impulsivity contributes to some blind spots. The thief who failed to remove the nylon-stocking disguise was probably influenced by his anxiety at the time. He didn't stop to think. He was so narrowly focused that he failed to even notice he was wearing that mask!

VB: Is discovering our blind spots a useful component of being creative?

Madeleine L. Van Hecke: Absolutely.

Some people think of creativity as the ability to see the familiar in a new light, or the ability to combine familiar elements in an unusual way. Many of the techniques helpful in overcoming blind spots work by helping us see connections or perspectives that we previously missed. In this sense, they also enable us to be more creative.

VB: Of the ten blind spots you write about, is there one you find most interesting and perhaps the most useful to overcome?

Madeleine L. Van Hecke: It's hard for me to say that overcoming one blind spot is more useful than overcoming another. So much depends on the situation that you are dealing with.

If you are hoping to resolve conflicts, whether on a personal or international level, then it's crucial to overcome the blind spots that make it hard to see the perspective of the other party and hard to see ourselves as they see us. On the other hand, if you were trying to discover the cause of a disease, then it would be more critical to overcome the blind spots that make us miss hidden causes.

To me, one of the most interesting blind spot is that we don't know what we don't know. Some of the so-called stupid things that we do happen because we believe we know something – but we're wrong. It turns out that there's a neurological reason why we so often believe we are right. As neurologist Robert Burton discusses in his book, On Being Certain Believing You Are Right Even When You're Not, it seems that the brain creates a "sense of knowing" that can convince us we're correct. This is the feeling you get when you say, "It's on the tip of my tongue." You can't say the answer, but you know that you know it. The brain creates the sensation that you know for sure you know something. Often we are right, but sometimes the sense of knowing convinces us we're right even when we're not.

VB: Should we always start by assuming a blind spot exists when we have a disagreement with someone or don't understand why someone is doing what appears to be "strange" behavior?

Madeleine L. Van Hecke: Assuming a blind spot exists is always a useful beginning. Most of us act reasonably most of the time based on the assumptions we're making. Our actions just appear unreasonable to others because other people don't know what assumptions we're making.

Assuming that blind spots are contributing to a disagreement is also useful, because it can take some of the sting out of the discussion. If we attribute someone else's statements or behavior to a blind spot, we won't condemn them as quickly. If we consider that we, too, may be in a blind spot it can change the tone of the discussion. This recognition might lead us to say to the other person, "Help me understand," instead of dismissing them as stupid or bad.

VB: What does it mean to "stop to think?"

Madeleine L. Van Hecke: We often operate on automatic pilot. In fact, developing routines and carrying them out without much thought can be great for efficiency. Who would want to always drive a car the way we did when we first learned how, needing to pay conscious attention to every move we make? Instead, the brain automates repeated behaviors.

To stop and think means we intentionally step out of automatic pilot, and step back from the situation to consider what we're doing. It's useful to do this periodically. It's also often useful to step back from situations when we are feeling very emotional. This will help ensure that we don't act too impulsively.

VB: Is stopping to think a useful way to discover our blind spots?

Madeleine L. Van Hecke: Sure.

Take the example of a mother who's at the zoo with her three kids. She had been looking forward to a really fun day. Instead, she's frustrated and angry because the two older kids have been irritating one another and she can't control them very well because the baby is fussy. She's reactive to the situation. Imagine that she says to herself, "I need to stop and think." She steps back from the situation and considers it. This makes her realize that the day has turned colder and grayer than she expected – it's not a great day for the zoo. She also recognizes that she has been acting as if the goal is to see everything in the zoo, so she has been pushing the kids to move on even when a particular display was engaging them. Plus she realizes the baby may be teething.

Now, this stopping to think might help her with at least two other blind spots. For one, she has been able to see the situation more from the perspective of the children who want to linger in the lion house and don't care about the birds. For another, she might be able to see herself more clearly. She might be able to say, "Yes, there I go again. I've always been goal oriented, and here I am changing a fun time into an activity with a goal of seeing the entire zoo."

VB: Does a failure to stop and think explain some of the major failings of business or political leaders, perhaps even decisions to engage in warfare?

Madeleine L. Van Hecke: I think failing to stop and think can certainly contribute to poor decisions, in business, politics, or warfare.

It is likely the Andersen partner David Duncan might have acted differently had he stopped to think. Instead, his order to shred key Enron documents ultimately brought the entire company down.

But I want to emphasize that stopping to think, though crucial, may not be enough in itself. It's important to ask, "Now that I have stopped to think, what do I most need to think about?" Maybe as the leader you are missing the big picture, failing to see an important perspective, or accepting as fact an assertion that should be questioned.

VB: How do you decide when "now would be a good time to stop and think"?

Madeleine L. Van Hecke: There are three situations where we commonly fail to stop and think. The first is when we are feeling intense emotions. The second is when we feel great time pressure. And, paradoxically, the third is when things are just humming along with no pressure at all.

In the first two situations we can train ourselves to notice when we are feeling pressure or emotional, and use those very feelings to trigger the thought, "I need to stop and think. I need to take a time-out now."

In the third situation, where there's no pressure, we sometimes need to stop and think to see if there might be a better way of doing things than the "routine" that we are caught in. The easiest way to make this happen is to build time-outs in our routine, times when we periodically step back from our day and think about how things are going and what might improve them.

VB: You identify two tactics for discovering what you don't know: Create a question map; and prepare lists of what we know and what we don't know. Would you share one or two examples where these tactics have helped identify blind spots, and led to new ideas?

Madeleine L. Van Hecke: One of my favorite examples is the story of how Dr. D. Carleton Gajdusek discovered the cause of kuru, a terrible and fatal neurological disease that was afflicting the Fore people of Papua New Guinea. One of the puzzling aspects of this disease is that only the Fore women and children were getting sick – the Fore men were not. In a list of "what we know" and "what we need to know" would definitely be the question, "What are the women and children of both sexes doing or experiencing that the men were not?" It turned out that the women and children were engaging in a custom of eating a small portion of the brain of deceased persons as they were preparing the body for burial, thus infecting their own bodies with the virus which was causing the disease.

Once we have these two lists, we can guard against the blind spot of not knowing what we don't know by looking at the "what we know" list and questioning it. In the kuru example, Dr. Gajdusek knew that whatever was causing kuru was a slow-acting agent, and he also "knew" that viruses are always fast acting. So initially he rejected the idea that a virus could cause kuru. Today, as AIDS dramatically illustrates, we know that viruses are not necessarily fast-acting. They can sometimes wreck their havoc months or even years later. It was only when Dr. Gajdusek questioned the prevailing wisdom about viruses that he was able to discover the virus that was causing kuru, a discovery that ultimately won him a Nobel Prize in Medicine.

VB: "Our conscious thoughts, feelings, and beliefs often pass undisguised through our minds." How can that be?

Madeleine L. Van Hecke: One of the things we know now about the brain is that it is always active. If you step back from your own thoughts, and ask yourself, "What was just going through my mind?" you can easily report on it. These thoughts are conscious; they are easily accessible to us.

The reason we are so often unaware of our thoughts is that there is a stream of consciousness. One thought leads to another, one emotion follows another, and one daydream fades into a different scene.

My point in the quote you cited is that unless we stop and step back from our thoughts, we might not realize we have those thoughts – even though these thoughts are not hidden in the "unconscious." This is why it's so helpful to have friends who are good "sounding boards." They help us realize what we think and feel.

VB: What does it mean to "really listen", and how can we learn this skill?

Madeleine L. Van Hecke: "Really listening" involves both intention and attention. To really listen means that we listen with the intention of understanding the other person, and we put our attention on them – their words, nuances, tone of voice, and body language. All too often what we do instead is start preparing our reply to what others are saying while they are still talking.

How to learn this skill? Really listening is one of those activities that are simple, but not easy. Here are some simple – but not easy – steps:

  1. Slow down. Take the time to focus on the other person. See if you can "read between the lines" of the surface meaning based on the information that you can pick up from the person's tone of voice or body language. For example, someone says, "Okay, I can take on that assignment." But you pick up on a hesitation. So you respond by saying, "You're willing to take it on, but you're a little unsure?" That way you can invite them to talk more about what they aren't saying, or reassure you that they aren't hesitant.

  2. Make sure you understand what they have said before you respond. Rephrase what you think the person meant and ask them, "Is that what you meant?" If you feel puzzled by what they've said, let them know and ask them, "Could you say a little more? I'm not sure I understand what you mean." Let them elaborate. Try to maintain an attitude of "help me understand."

  3. When you feel yourself getting defensive or angry in reaction to what's being said, try to go "from furious to curious." Ask the other person, "What is it that makes you believe that?" or "Why did you do that?" If you can ask questions like these with genuine curiosity, and not in judgment, you will often learn a lot.

  4. What you don't do is nearly as important as what you do. When the purpose of the conversation is for you to understand the other person better, then you resist the common reactions that shift attention back to yourself. Don't interrupt, tell your own story, top their story, and defend your ideas.

  5. At the end of the conversation, tell the person, "I'm really trying to understand what you're thinking better. Is there something you think I still don't understand?" Ask them to talk to you more about that.

VB: You talk about misunderstandings between women, who seek "troubles talk," and men, who instead offer "problem-solving advice." Is this also a frequent blind spot in the workplace?

Madeleine L. Van Hecke: It was Deborah Tannen who first talked about "troubles talk" compared to "problem solving talk," pointing out that often women seek emotional support from others about problems they are experiencing. Men more often want to solve the problem so may jump to problem solving before women are ready. This makes both parties feel misunderstood. The women can't understand why the men aren't offering the emotional support they need, and the men can't understand why the women are getting mad when all the men are trying to do is to help them.

In her follow-up book, Deborah Tannen explicitly talked about how these tendencies can affect people in the workplace. In the workplace, leaders have the responsibility for making things happen. They have goals they need to reach, and their job is to effectively lead their teams to meet those goals. Under these conditions, it's easy to focus on seeking solutions using problem-solving approaches. But all too often, the real problems that are holding a project back are not technical – they are about people and their relationships. For example, team members may be frustrated because they don't think their boss or upper-level management realize how difficult it is to implement changes that have been mandated. In this case, they may need "troubles talk," time to vent and, if possible, be heard by their superiors. They need their efforts to be acknowledged. Feeling understood will reduce their frustration and allow them to move forward. Leaders who view this kind of conversation as nothing but unproductive griping are blind to how important it may be to the ultimate success of the project.

VB: Would you talk about the "Rhetoric of the Merely," and how it can contribute to our having blind spots?

Madeleine L. Van Hecke: The "rhetoric of the merely" is a wonderful phrase from cultural anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson. It refers to the idea that we often dismiss what we don't understand or don't like by saying, "Oh, that's just …" or "That's merely…."

This kind of phrasing comes up a lot in male bashing and women bashing. "That's men for you!" and "What do you expect from a woman?" are variations on the rhetoric of the merely.

A wife tells her husband that their son has been diagnosed with a learning disability – the young boy has great trouble reading. She feels devastated by this news; she herself loves to read; and she fears not only that this will hold their son back academically but also that he'll never have the joy of reading that she has. What she wants, at this moment, is "troubles talk." Instead, her husband is out of the room in two minutes searching the Internet for information about learning disabilities in order to "solve the problem." What she doesn't understand about him is that he too is devastated, but he believes that what it means to be a dad is that you fix what is wrong. That's what he's trying to do. Now, if she dismissed her husband's behavior as "Just like a man, he can't talk about his feelings," she's talking the rhetoric of the merely. If he explains his wife by saying, "Just like a woman, she's so emotional," he's doing the same. If instead they tried to understand one another's reactions, they'd become closer and would be more able to give one another what they need in this difficult situation.

VB: "People are blind to their thinking errors because the thread of reasoning that underlies what we think or believe is often invisible, blinding us to the mistakes we may be making." Is making our reasoning more visible a key recommendation?

Madeleine L. Van Hecke: It sure is.

Here's a great example from consultant Brad Kolar. You put forth an idea, and the words are barely out of your mouth when someone else says, "That'll never work." Instead of getting upset, Brad suggests that you say, "Help me understand your observation! Tell me all the reasons that this will never work." Make a list of those reasons. The list will reveal the assumptions the other person is making, the links that lead him to believe that it will never work.

Once that list is on the table, you can do two things. First, you can question the assumptions. How sure is the person that these assumptions are true? What evidence supports them? Suppose the person says, "This will never work because the corporate office will never support it – it's too expensive." You can question the assumption that the idea cannot be implemented inexpensively. It might be true, but it might not. Second, you can see the person's line of reasoning and make sure it's logical. For example, the person says, "That will never work because it only addresses part of the problem." You might point out that addressing part of the problem is a good beginning, and that it's more reasonable, and perhaps logical, to take the proposed action than to do nothing.

VB: "We human beings have a bias to seek only confirming evidence, a bias that you can see in everyday life." Since this is a relatively well-known phenomenon, why do even intelligent people continue to have this bias? Does it go beyond having blind spots?

Madeleine L. Van Hecke: That's a very interesting question, and one that I can only speculate about.

It seems likely to me that this bias may be related to how the brain works. We know now that the brain keeps track of our experiences so that it develops a sense of what it expects to happen. For example, depending on our past experiences, we may either expect a new boss to support us or to give us a hard time. We may expect another team member to come through on his promise or to show up without the information we asked for. Usually these expectations are based on probabilities.

cover of the Brain AdvantageWe learn to expect that the sun will rise 100% of the time, but for most other events in life our expectations are more like the weather forecasts. We have a sense there's an 80% probability that the boss will support us, or only a 20% probability that our colleague will come through for us.

What does this have to do with our bias towards confirming data? I think that once the brain has detected a pattern, it's more attuned to information that tends to support that pattern. It seems to take a major deviation for the part of the brain to click in that says, "Uh-oh, something really different is happening here."

So this blind spot may be caused by a basic neurological tendency, but as I said, this is speculation. I'd love to see some direct data related to this question.

VB: You indicate psychologists have found that creative people are more able to live with ambiguity. Does it mean they are also able to more quickly resolve such ambiguities by coming up with novel solutions and possibilities?

Madeleine L. Van Hecke: Perhaps it's closer to say that creative people don't feel as great a need to resolve those ambiguities. Instead, they can live with them; in fact, they can reveal those ambiguities in their artistic endeavors.

We might begin reading a novel with a clear opinion that one character is bad while another is good. But an excellent novelist might bring us to the point of thinking, "It's more complicated than that. In some ways, it's very hard to say that A was right about this. A was right, but maybe not entirely right either."

Even in scientific creativity, where scientists do search for answers, some of the greatest discoveries come from living with ambiguity for a long time before being able to resolve it. One of the reasons that Einstein's theory of relativity is so difficult for most of us to grasp is because the idea that time is relative is counterintuitive to what we experience in our everyday lives. We find it very difficult to live with the idea that time flows at different rates. Such a notion turns a clear, unambiguous idea of time into a very ambiguous phenomenon.

VB: You point out that scientific questions about the material world can blind people to philosophical and religious attempts to address existential questions. Is it possible that the apparent human need to have such existential questions answered is also a blind spot?

Madeleine L. Van Hecke: I think that human beings have a built-in need to make sense of the world, and to make sense of their experiences in the world. People who have a strongly scientific bent, meaning they believe the best way to answer questions is through scientific investigation and experimentation, sometimes believe that the only questions worth thinking about are those that can be investigated scientifically. One criticism of this stance is that there are other kinds of knowledge besides scientific knowledge, and those other sorts of knowledge should be respected and not dismissed.

Among those "other sorts of knowledge" are the philosophical and religious attempts to answer existential questions such as, "What is the purpose of life?" Is the apparent human need to have answers to such questions a blind spot? I don't think so. I think this human need is simply an expansion of our general need to find meaning in the world, and to make sense of our experiences in the world. But our desire for answers to these kinds of questions is sometimes so strong that it might blind us. Our desire might make us close our minds to the possibility that such questions are unanswerable.

As far as blind spots and religious or philosophical beliefs are concerned, I would rephrase the question in this way. "What should our attitude be towards assertions or claims that, by their very nature, cannot be settled or addressed or resolved through scientific investigation?" For example, whether or not God exists, whether or not there is some "transcendental reality" that cannot be grasped by human senses is a question that cannot be resolved through scientific investigation. Does that mean that we should assert, "there is no transcendental reality" because we can't demonstrate, either way, whether or not there is? Personally, I don't think so. It would seem arrogant to me to do so. If I can't demonstrate something, either way, then it seems that I have to leave that matter as an open question.

VB: "One reason that people believe weird things is because they want to: the beliefs console them, give them hope, or make them feel they can control what happens in their lives." If we realize this fact, will it make it easier to reduce our blind spots, including biases, prejudices, and false arguments?

Madeleine L. Van Hecke: I would hope so.

We can find consolation and hope in other ways such as the comfort of friends, family, and community life. We can find hope based on the positive events, which are so often underreported in the news. We can find peace in letting go of trying to control what is ultimately outside our control.

VB: Since you have become increasingly aware of the concept of blind spots, has it changed the way you interact with others and the manner in which you address your personal challenges?

Madeleine L. Van Hecke: Definitely! As you know, my book is filled with personal examples in which I discovered blind spots of my own. These revelations had a great impact on me. I wish I could say that I always live up to what I encourage in others. But I'm only human, so I fail at times. I do try, though, to live out what I believe.

Recently, for example, a reader of Blind Spots sent me an email which essentially accused me of being anti-Semitic in the book. This person's email was a great challenge. My first reaction was simply to want to defend myself; to prove them wrong. It was not easy to apply everything I talk about. Trying to see the perspective of the other person, and trying to truly see myself and my writing through their eyes to discover my own possible blind spots about this issue. But when I tried to do this, and responded more along those lines, I got a response that helped me understand what it was they were reacting to.

VB: Do you have any secrets for how we can convince our political leaders and their advisors to take the time to overcome their blind spots?

Madeleine L. Van Hecke: I think what makes this really tough is that our political system, like our legal system, is designed in a way that encourages adversarial relationships. People want to get re-elected. If the way to do that is to distort what the "other side" is saying and demonize the "enemy," then I am afraid that's what many political leaders on both sides of the aisle will continue to do.

In the political arena overcoming our blind spots would mean being able to acknowledge the value of our opponents' ideas and acknowledge some of the downsides of our own. This is risky. It is all too likely that our opponents will use our concessions, and perhaps distort our real meaning, in order to win over us. So it seems that it would be very difficult to convince leaders and their advisors to overcome their blind spots, and then act on the wisdom that they gain when they do so.

In his book, God's Politics, Jim Wallis talks about an image of Washington politicians all walking down the street holding a finger up in the air trying to see which way the wind is blowing. Wallis' point is that political leaders will always be influenced by which way the wind is blowing and, instead of expecting fearless leaders who will go against the wind when they believe it's the right thing to do, citizens should do something else. Citizens should be active proponents who determine which way the wind blows. I believe that if enough citizens demanded a Congress that worked together more collaboratively to solve the many challenges our nations face then politicians would respond.

VB: You say you won't live long enough to see the new world, in which genuine mutual respect will make a cooperative, peaceful, global community possible, emerge fully. Are you optimistic we are headed in that direction?

Madeleine L. Van Hecke: I am.

I am hopeful that, despite the backward steps we sometimes take, cultural evolution is occurring. For example, 200 years ago slavery was an accepted practice. The whole idea that there are basic human rights that no one should violate is even more recent. In 2008, we celebrated the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that Eleanor Roosevelt introduced to the United Nations. Today you would be hard-pressed to find anyone who would defend slavery as moral, and more and more nations are recognizing the legitimacy of concepts such as basic human rights.

There are other examples of cultural evolution, such as the rise of democratic forms of government, so overall I am optimistic that we are moving, albeit with many stops, starts, and regressions, towards a better world.

VB: Have you discovered the complete answer to the "central puzzle" posed in Blind Spots – "how is it that adults make logical errors in reasoning, yet even preschoolers seem capable of logical feats"?

Madeleine L. Van Hecke: Well, I'd never assume I had a "complete" answer to puzzles like these!

We are always making new discoveries, especially about how people think. But I do believe that the explanations I talk about can account for many of logical errors that adults make, despite the inborn ability that children have to think logically.

One reason why adults make mistakes is that logic problems, such as determining whether or not the conclusion of a syllogism is valid, require us to define "valid" in a very particular way. As a result, if the conclusion of a syllogism is true in the real world, it might still be "invalid" according to the rules of logic. So adults who don't understand the rules of the logic games will respond with reasonable answers to logic questions, and get them "wrong."

VB: What is the most interesting or surprising story you know about someone's blind spots revealing human fallibility?

Madeleine L. Van Hecke: A very intelligent engineer who was trying to figure out the best way to get a squirrel out of his basement told me one of the most surprising stories. He came up with the idea of opening one of the basement windows and then building a ramp up to that window. On the ramp he placed nuts leading to a pile of nuts which he placed just outside the window.

This is a great example of how we can miss an alternative perspective. He might lure the squirrel out of the basement. But, of course, his idea might also end up luring more squirrels into the basement!

VB: To what extent has Eastern philosophy, including Buddhism, influenced your thinking?

Madeleine L. Van Hecke: Eastern philosophy has influenced me in the sense that the whole idea of "stepping back" from our own thoughts and being a nonjudgmental witness of them, is part of Zen Buddhism and many meditation methods.

I was early on influenced by Jon Kabat-Zinn's book, Wherever You Go, There You Are. I believe that this sort of meditation can be especially useful in helping us overcome the blind spot of not seeing ourselves, because it makes us aware of the thought and feelings we have – even when we might normally want to ignore or squash those.

Pima Chodron's writing has also influenced me, especially her meditations that encourage compassion. The kind of thinking she encourages can help us overcome the blind spot of not seeing the perspective of others.

VB: What questions remain in your quest to find answers to the puzzle of how smart people can do dumb things?

Madeleine L. Van Hecke: I have a lot of practical questions about how to help people overcome their blind spots.

How do you create enough safety in a discussion group, a classroom, or a seminar to enable people to really look at their own possible blind spots?

Going back to your earlier question about encouraging members of Congress to overcome their blind spots, how do you shift an adversarial system to a more collaborative one so that it would be safer to acknowledge our blind spots?

In real life, what does it mean to "go from furious to curious?" What, for example, should you say or do when someone else says or does something that you find incredibly offensive, insulting or wrong?

How can you stand up for what you believe in, and still treat others with dignity?

To what extent do your decisions about what to do need to be "practical" – what's called "realism" in politics. And to what extent do you need to forego short-term gains in order to change the way to work together in the long term?

All of these sorts of questions intrigue me.

VB: When you made the decision to resign your tenured teaching position, did you question whether it was due to a blind spot?

Madeleine L. Van Hecke: I took a long time to make the decision to resign, so I didn't think the decision itself was likely to be the result of a blind spot. Since I've resigned, I haven't found myself thinking, "Oh, if only I had realized X, I would never have stopped teaching." In fact, I continued teaching occasional classes as an adjunct faculty member for about ten years after I stopped teaching full-time, and this was very gratifying to me. So in general I haven't had the feeling that somehow my decision was a mistake due to a blind spot.

On the other hand, I did have one big blind spot that my husband, Greg, helped me resolve which, in turn, enabled me to make the decision in the first place. At the time most of the retirement funds we had were related to my teaching position. And I was worried that something drastic could happen to the market. This was all long before the events of the past few years. So one day I said to Greg, "What if I resign, in three years the market crashes, and we lose a lot of our retirement funds?" And Greg answered, "Well, what if you don't resign and spend the next three years not doing what you most want to be doing, and, instead, put even more money in the retirement funds? Then if the market crashes we'll lose even more money?" Hmmm. The answer was obvious!

VB: What projects are you currently working on? Are you working on another book?

Madeleine L. Van Hecke: I've just completed a second book that is a collaboration with one of my former students, Lisa Callahan, and two other people – business consultant Brad Kohler and Northwestern University neuroscientist Ken Paller. Our book, The Brain Advantage: Become a More Effective Business Leader Using the Latest Brain Research was just released. In The Brain Advantage, we begin each chapter with a summary of some intriguing brain research, and then talk about the implications of that research for business leadership.

VB: Do you have any other advice about how to avoid our blind spots?

Madeleine L. Van Hecke: Try to sustain a sense of humor. Humor can help us in so many ways.

Humor makes it easier to laugh at, and therefore accept, our own dumb mistakes and the blind spots that cause them.

Humor can help diffuse tension in conflict situations, and humor helps us see a different perspective since it often involves seeing situations from a different point of view. My favorite story in this regard is about a police officer called to investigate a possible domestic violence situation. As he climbed the front stairs to the house, he could hear shouting. Suddenly, a TV crashed through the window and fell onto the porch. He banged on the door. "Who's there?" yelled an angry voice from within. Inspired, the officer answered, "TV repair." Now that humor won't solve all the problems in that household, but it was a first step at handling the immediate situation.

VB: Thank you for talking to us about blind spots and sharing your stories and humor.

Everyone who drives vehicles is aware of the blind spot in the side view mirror. Author Madeleine Van Hecke advises that it may be because of their blind spots that smart people do what appears to be "dumb" things, think "stupid" thoughts, or interpret the world differently than us. And we are reminded that we also have blind spots, the implication being we are also vulnerable to doing and thinking dumb things.

A separate chapter is devoted to each of the ten major blind spots all of us experience. Overcoming our blind spots will enable us to be more creative, tolerant, and better able to deal with the blind spots of others in a productive and positive manner. It will make us smarter.

Madeleine L. Van Hecke's bio:
Madeleine Van Hecke, is a licensed clinical psychologist; a former Professor of Psychology at North Central College in Naperville, Illinois; a lecturer at Common Ground in Deerfield, Illinois; and a speaker, trainer, and workshop leader for Open Arms Seminars.

As a full time psychology professor at North Central College for 15 years up to 1993, Dr. Van Hecke won numerous teaching awards, was actively involved in faculty development, and taught undergraduate classes in developmental psychology and clinical psychology. In 1993 she resigned her full-time position to have more time to think and write, but continued to teach classes in Creative Thinking and in Critical Thinking in the college's graduate program. A creativity exercise in one of her classes led her to develop the family word game, Wicked Words, which was carried nationwide by Barnes and Noble during one holiday season.

Madeleine Van Hecke received her PhD in psychology from DePaul University.
She is the author of Blind Spots: Why Smart People Do Dumb Things (2007) and co-author with Lisa Callahan, Brad Kohler, and Ken Paller of The Brain Advantage: Become a More Effective Business Leader Using the Latest Brain Research (2010).

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