Blind to Our Own Blindness: Wisdom from Danny Kahneman

I recently had the chance to read an advance copy of an outstanding book by Daniel Kahneman entitled Thinking, Fast and Slow. The book will be published this fall.


Among the hundreds of interesting ideas in the book, there is one that I simply can’t get out of my head. Referring to how our minds work, Kahneman writes that not only are we sometimes “blind to the obvious,” but also we are “blind to our blindness.” For me, that one sentence summarizes a fundamental insight of his life’s work.

It’s one of those simple insights which is obvious when you think about it, but somehow incredibly easy to forget when mesmerized by the happenings of everyday life, leading to poor decision making.

Coming up with a good name for a problem is often an important part of coming up with a solution. So I’m thankful to Kahneman for planting the phrase “blind to my own blindness” in my brain. The next time I’m about to mindlessly make a terrible choice, I’m hoping that phrase will forcefully interject itself into my internal dialogue, causing me to think more clearly about my decision.

More likely, it will only be after the fact that I become aware that I was blind to my own blindness in a particular setting.  At least I’ll have a succinct way of beating myself up.

Tim Gilbert

See the Dunning-Kruger effect related article" Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self Assessments" in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 77, No. 6, p.1121-1134


What helps me a lot with this issue is to have a personal board of directors who have differing life experiences than I and who have orthogonal cognitive skills than I. I call them "Team WTF are you doing?".


A variation of the Dunning–Kruger effect, broadly speaking?


This sounds similar to Rumsfeld's unknown unknowns.

james jones

Seems alot like the "Invisible Gorilla" situation.....


I'd say that Dunning-Kruger is a specific case of this. I understand this to be a lot more like what Zizek calls "Unknown Knowns" referring to Rumsfeld's famous taxonomy of military intelligence: "There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don't know we don't know." Zizek points out that what Rumsfeld excluded in his taxonomy are the "Unknown Knowns": the things we know but do not acknowledge as such because other assumptions prevent us from doing so.

For example, as the US made the case for the Iraq war, our intelligence already "knew" that the WMD evidence was spurious yet decided to use it to justify the invasion.

we already knew that WMDs did not exist

Eric M. Jones

I always ask myself: "What would a SANE person do...?"

Diana Hincapie

Take a look at this article by Dan Ariely, which also reminds us how blind we are to our blindness!


Try living constantly second guessing yourself. There's something to be said for being "blind to your own Blindness" Every decision becomes monumental decision when you can't stop worrying that you'll make the wrong decision...constantly worrying...


I always ask when interviewing someone, "what questions should I have asked?"

Jason kernan

"Blind to my own blindness" is the new "known unknowns" or is it the new "unknown unknowns", or is it even the new "unknown knowns". Mmmh!

Mike MacDonald

Coming up with a good name is indeed important. When Don Rumsfeld had this same insight ten years ago and referred to it as "Unknown unknowns" he was ridiculed for his mangled language.


Didn't the first time you said something embarrassingly inappropriate because you didn't stop to consider your ignorance about a subject teach you to be cautious about your blind spots?

Isn't this something we should have learned as youths?

"Look before you leap", and all that?


I once had to ask myself, as a self-professed cheapskate, why is it that I found myself shopping at Target after it opened near my local Wal-Mart. I knew the prices were lower at Wal-Mart.

I identified about 10 reasons. Even if I were aware of all these reasons while I was taking a survey (even though I wouldn't be), 2 or 3 I would not admit to on a survey. For example, I probably wouldn't tell a market researcher that I appreciate the attractive women that shop at Target. Home Depot use to have that advantage in its category, but lost it to Lowe's.

That got me thinking about my behavior for other things, I uncovered a complex fabric of reasons why I do and don't do things that humbled me so much that I have a great appreciation for real world market tests over just about any other form of product tests, something successful comedians discovered long ago. And that fabric continues to evolve and get more complex with more experience.

So often folks like to simplify things into price, quantity, experience -- but there's usually much more to it than that.



One of my engineering teachers hammered into our heads on a daily basis "You don't know what you don't know" meaning that you can never be exactly sure of all the extent and the depth of the things you don't know.


This sounds similar to the quote attributed to Socrates "I know that I know nothing" .
From the Jowett translation of Plato's "Apology",
"I am better off than he is,--for he knows nothing,
and thinks that he knows; I neither know nor think that I know."

Paul Merrill

One great way to get past that blindness is to have outside perspective... talk about important decisions with others you trust.

dave gershner

Kahneman's work that you quote applies so much to the politics that bores you, but remember if good and intelligent people are not interested in politics, support the best, then we will be governed by the bad and unintelligent.
We see that now in the GOP controlled House. They have a set of beliefs and are blind to facts.
Republicans don't believe that Clinton gave bush a surplus in 2001 and bush gave Obama a trillion dollar deficit in 2009---or that bush exploded the national debt by 86% in his 8 year reign of error.
If your blindness on this subject is aroused, google it. These are fact.
Not only Bernanke, a bush appointee (which also many pubs don't believe) thinks the pub idiots in the House, the leadership down to the tea party, brought on the big drop in the stock market, injuring the economy, but also many top investors know that wealth has been lost since the debt ceiling fight.
Reagan, bush, Clinton, bush never had a debt ceiling fight.
Most stock market crashes occurred with pubs in WH: 29,87,2001, 2008, yet most in the GOP refuse to consider those facts.
Job growth better under Clinton than both bushes. Why?
Democrats govern more intelligently.
Why did Clinton take a huge deficit from reagan/bush and give bush 2 a surplus?
Not only smarter government, but also more active government, less lazy, especially in the case of bush 2.
Politics may bore you, but it will affect your children's lives so adversely if pubs win the White House and Congress in 2012.
In fact, it may kill them, if pubs get rid of all the environmental regulations they want to be rid of.
Think again about your children before you're quite so bored to death about politics, their lives and their possible early deaths.


rafael vivas

The notion of being blind to one's own blindness is actually a long known concept in the world of project management , where contractors have to deal with 'known unknowns' and ' unknown unknowns' the latter being a close approximation to Dr Kahnemans finely coined idea . In fact you may remember that former vice president Cheney was richly ridiculed by the US press some years ago for once referring to the 'unkown unknowns' in the process of government policy making .