Is Willful Ignorance Influencing Your Enterprise Security Decisions?

February 26, 2019
Andre Durand
CEO & Founder

I recently watched an enlightening video (“The Secrets of Food Marketing”) on the concept of “willful ignorance.” In this 7-minute video with more than 8 million views, Kate Cooper, a marketing consultant to the food industry reveals the methods she uses to compel us to buy certain food products. She explains how food marketers use very specific language like “farm fresh” and “100% natural” to market eggs and meat, even though the reality is far from the truth.  


Cooper makes no apology for her tactics and says her word choices are designed to create mental images of animals roaming freely in green pastures—a mental picture we’d all like to believe is true, but that we know isn’t.

As Cooper comes clean on how she lures us into believing what she wants us to believe, she explains that her tactics, while loathsome, only work because we as consumers want to believe the lie. According to Cooper, if it weren’t for our “willful ignorance” as consumers, or our willingness to believe what we want to believe, she wouldn’t be successful.


What Is Willful Ignorance?

As I ponder my own complicity in Cooper’s ruse, I couldn’t help but wonder why we choose to believe things we know aren’t true. In his recent Medium article on the topic, Thomas Oppong explores willful ignorance (aka willful blindness) through the lens of author Margaret Heffernan. In her book Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at Our Peril. Heffernan, a former CEO, breaks down the reasons why we choose to believe in lies even when we could and should know better.

According to Heffernan, our natural tendency is to filter out information that threatens our egos. We’re particularly stubborn about considering alternatives that challenge what we already know how to do, are really good at and are financially invested in. And since our brains can cognitively process only so much, any input is going to get filtered. In many cases, the “choices” we make about what to edit and what to keep are subconscious.

“The biggest threats and dangers we face
are the ones we don’t see — not because they’re secret or invisible, but because we’re willfully blind.”

Margaret Heffernan, Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at Our Peril

But that doesn’t mean we’re wholly at the mercy of our minds either. We can interrupt this pattern and take control of our otherwise unconscious responses. We can create new neural pathways and effectively change our tendencies by asking more questions of ourselves and others. As Heffernan explains, “we can learn to see better, not just because our brain changes but because we do.”

It takes consistent practice and a heck of a lot of discipline to retrain our brains. Just like if you were training for a cycling race or a Tough Mudder, you have to put in the time and effort. But even more than that, you have to place yourself in a position to envision and attempt things you may have considered impossible.

Just as you can physically condition yourself to accomplish things you never have before, you can also condition your mind to see new possibilities. Like Heffernan says, willful ignorance may be our natural tendency, but it isn’t our only option. We can interrupt the pattern, and we can start by asking the hard questions.

Asking the Hard Questions about Identity Security
As an identity security professional, I can’t help but think about how willful ignorance shows up in our industry. All of us in this business know that enterprise security isn’t easy. It’s a big, hairy, messy problem. In the same way that the problems with massive food production are hard to solve, the complexity and magnitude of the challenges we face in enterprise security can feel mind-boggling.

Yet, we’re still lured in by inflated claims, empty promises and marketing spin. How can that be? I’ll tell you how. It’s because the more complicated the problem is, the more our minds want to shut down and seek the simplest solution. When we’re faced with what feels like an insurmountable challenge, we default to the easy button instead of taking a harder look at the problem.

“You cannot resolve a problem that you refuse
to acknowledge. As long as it remains invisible,
it is guaranteed to remain insoluble.”

Margaret Heffernan, Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at Our Peril

In our business, that might mean focusing on a narrow set of use cases that are relatively easy to solve, while shutting out harder-to-solve requirements, even when we know that ultimately solving both is critical. It might be choosing to believe that there is an easy solution that can be extrapolated to remedy all of our problems, instead of facing the deeper truth and demanding more. It might be that the need for immediate action results in us choosing a solution right now, instead of the solution that is truly right but will take longer to implement.

Heffernan writes, “Seeing [the truth] starts with simple questions: What could I know, should I know, that I don’t know? Just what am I missing here?” I’ll take that a step further and suggest that we ask the hard questions, too.

Like when it comes to cloud. This is a classic case where it would be tempting to turn a blind eye to the realities. Because it’s so easy to address phase one needs, some may be lured into doing just that. It’s so much more convenient to tackle only what’s needed now and figure out the rest later. But anyone who’s executing cloud-first strategies or moving identity services to the cloud knows that it’s a complex, multi-phased initiative.

Some applications may never be migrated, while others are being hosted in a variety of public and private clouds. You may need to host applications in a hybrid environment either temporarily or permanently. And you still need to provide secure and seamless access to all of them.

Like many of the challenges in our business, it’s a tough problem to solve, but it’s not insurmountable. And the stakes are high enough to warrant a deeper exploration of what’s really needed to satisfy your requirements.

There’s a saying that if it seems too good to be true, it probably is. When it comes to identity and access management, this adage serves us well. Often what looks like the simplest option on the surface comes with hidden costs and unexpected surprises. Pushing fast to solve for simple needs—such as provisioning—can come at the future cost of compromising security. If you’re not willing to face up to the full scope of your requirements, you could end up vulnerable or unsupported as your needs unfold and evolve.

Seeing the Truth Beyond our Blindspots
I can’t deny or ignore the truth of Cooper’s words. While it’s not comfortable to admit, we’re all guilty of willful ignorance. It’s human nature to believe what we want to believe, then subconsciously seek evidence to support our beliefs.

As members of the enterprise identity security industry, we all need to take the blinders off and take a hard look at the problems we need to solve. As customers, when a claim seems too simple or too good to be true, you need to dig deeper and ask the hard questions.

And as vendors, we need to really listen. We need to get in the trenches with you. And we need to commit to providing the answers to the big, hairy, messy problems you face.

That’s how we’ll overcome our willful ignorance. And that’s how we’ll drive true innovation. To learn more about solving big identity challenges, visit