Blind Spots: Why Smart People Do Dumb Things, by Madeleine L. Van Hecke (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 2007, ISBN 978- 1-59102-509-2) 256 pp. Paper $18.00.
Madeline Van Hecke displays her extraordinary talent for written communication as well as psychological savvy in her book, Blind Spots: Why Smart People Do Dumb Things. Van Heck discusses ten “blind spots”—areas in which we might improve our thinking, reasoning, logic, or interpersonal skills—by recommending that we first recognize what these blind spots are and then work to overcome them.
Psychology, she reminds us, has “a long history of being fascinated with ‘intelligence’ but has only recently turned its attention to ‘stupidity’” (p. 13), and she reinforces this premise with an example from the comic strip Dilbert, the text of which reads: “As of tomorrow, employees will only be able to access the building using individual security cards. Pictures will be taken next Wednesday and employees will receive their cards in two weeks” (p. 17).
Are you stupid . . . or just experiencing a blind spot? This discussion becomes one of the foci of the book. Those whom we might dismiss as “stupid” may have excellent reasons for doing “stupid” things; reasons that we, upon examination of their motives, might find not so stupid. Van Hecke encourages an open-minded approach—one of inquiry— to that which seems illogical or just plain wrong when taken at face value.
She makes a very important distinction when encouraging open-mindedness: open-mindedness is not the same as empty-headedness. The former is an extremely important asset in that it enables us to see an opposing point of view or even solicit one, leading us to either change our minds, reinforce our own reasons for thinking and feeling the way that we do, or simply appreciate that we are part of a larger picture composed of numerous worldviews.
Another outstanding premise of Van Hecke’s, the recognition of multiple intelligences, is presented with an argument of psychologist Howard Gardner with a citation from author Daniel Goleman. Essentially, the term intelligence traditionally applies to academic ability and scholarship, while “ability” traditionally applies to skills: athletic ability; being able to fix a car; the capability to construct beautiful poetry or stunning illustrations; a knack for business, arguing cases, or pleasing a lover, etc. Each of these abilities, among numerous others, are intelligences in and of themselves that are every bit as important as academic mastery.
Van Hecke laments information overload, which she considers the downside of the Information Age, as it often coerces us into making snap decisions that are not firmly based on facts. “This is one challenge that we face in our age, where sound-bite advertising, three-sentence executive summaries, and two-minute news capsules tend to replace, for many people, longer articles, books, and reports that could provide a more complete analysis of the issues” (p. 169).
On the subject of scientific thinking, Van Hecke may incite a controversy among nonbelievers when she states, “We will have a blind spot if we let the breathtaking power of scientific thinking lead us to forget its limits or to act as if speculation about, or faith in, any reality that isn’t detectable through scientific methods is inevitably foolish” (p. 195). I am among those who disagree with Van Hecke here; my adherence to the belief in the divineness of humanity, and not a higher power, is a spot of illumination, not a lack of sight.
The mechanics of the book can be distracting. With sections and subsections clearly partitioned by headings, the book reads more like a textbook than the casual reader might anticipate. However, this is a minor issue in light of the pleasant writing style. The relevant psychological information is presented without much jargon; the book describes a series of challenges for self-improvement, and the humorous anecdotes scattered throughout the book reinforce points in a light-hearted, refreshing way.