31/10/2012 11:10 GMT | Updated 30/12/2012 05:12 GMT

An Epidemic of Wilful Blindness: Savile, Armstrong, LIBOR, HSBC...

When I published my book on willful blindness, I believed strongly in my thesis - that the worst crimes are committed in public where everyone can see them but tries not to. But I had no idea it would be proved and proved again with such monotonous regularity. First there was Deepwater Horizon, then phone hacking, child abuse in Rochdale, then Winterborne View, the Catholic Church almost continuously, the LIBOR rate fixing, HSBC money laundering and now Lance Armstrong and Jimmy Savile.

We should by now be weaned off of the idea that these disasters are caused by a few bad apples, or the comforting myth that the only bad people are bankers. What all of these crimes have in common are that they involved large numbers of people and persisted over many years. There were multiple warnings and opportunities to intervene - all of which were shirked.

It continues to be comforting to scapegoat a few people or particular institutions: Rupert Murdoch or the BBC. But the harder truth inside these stories is that there were multiple failings on the part of individuals who made choices, the wrong choices, to remain silent. But we all like to think we're good and ethical, that we could never behave this way. So what goes wrong?

1. We idolise charismatic individuals. We all like being in love and celebrity-worship is a lite version of the same experience. Celebrity adulation won't admit failure or flaws; we believe the positive hype and conveniently dismiss the rumbling undertones of doubt. Many people recognized an overly-imperial style of leadership when John Browne ran BP - but no one questioned him. Plenty of cyclists muttered about Lance Armstrong's drug use - but everyone preferred the miracle man. Hyping and idealizing these individuals does them no favour and leaves us feeling stupid and bereft.

2. We're busy and distracted. It may feel cool to be multi-tasking like mad, reading, writing and listening to YouTube simultaneously. We may even imagine that yes, we can keep watch TV programmes that simultaneously combine interviews with stock tickers, weather forecasts and sports scores. All the neuroscience in the world will tell you that you can't, that our brains have hard cognitive limits. The busier we are, the less capable we become of critical thinking: knowing right from wrong. Some might say that is what much new media is for.

3. We're conflict averse. Few people have the courage or skills to start or conduct a coherent argument. They've gone through an education system that encourages them to seek correct answers, not challenge them. They've been trained to be obedient and conformist. Pile people with debt and their incentive to take a risk evaporates. Demonize whistleblowers and perpetuate the myth that they are all always crazy (when in fact quite the opposite is true) and you can take smart people and render them silent.

4. We're obedient. Nearly half a century of social psychology shows that most of us will do as we are told. Nothing in our culture addresses or dislodges this behaviour. While there are programmes around the world to teach people how to stand up against unethical or illegal instructions, few of them are used in the U.K.

5. We're conformist. For 50years, social psychologists have proved that, given the choice between fitting in and standing out, most people want to be part of the crowd. We would rather make a wrong decision than risk exclusion. This is a particular problem in the medical profession where it is understood but where little or nothing is done to counter-act it.

6. We mistake talk for action. In many instances of abuse, you'll discover that people have been talking about the problem - but to each other, not to anyone who is prepared to take action. That means it feels like we've done something when really we haven't. We think that 'someone' will do something - just not us. The iron rule of bystander behaviour is that, the more people who witness wrongdoing, the less likely it is that anyone will intervene.

It's the easiest thing in the world to demonize bankers - they're all psychopaths - or the BBC - asleep at the wheel. But the truth is that for truly bad things to happen on the scale of any of these nightmares - Armstrong, Savile, PPI, the Catholic Church, BP, Barclays, HSBC etc - you need hundreds or thousands of people to turn a blind eye. Which we very reliably do.

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