Why We Make Mistakes

Psychology, neuroscience, and economic and the science of human error

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Why We Make Mistakes: How We Look Without Seeing, Forget Things in Seconds, and Are All Pretty Sure We Are Way Above Average [Paperback]

Joseph T. Hallinan

Joseph T. Hallinan
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We forget our passwords. We pay too much to go to the gym. We think we’d be happier if we lived in California (we wouldn’t), and we think we should stick with our first answer on tests (we shouldn’t). Why do we make mistakes? And could we do a little better?

We human beings have design flaws. Our eyes play tricks on us, our stories change in the retelling, and most of us are fairly sure we’re way above average. In Why We Make Mistakes, journalist Joseph T. Hallinan sets out to explore the captivating science of human error–how we think, see, remember, and forget, and how this sets us up for wholly irresistible mistakes.

In his quest to understand our imperfections, Hallinan delves into psychology, neuroscience, and economics, with forays into aviation, consumer behavior, geography, football, stock picking, and more. He discovers that some of the same qualities that make us efficient also make us error prone. We learn to move rapidly through the world, quickly recognizing patterns–but overlooking details. Which is why thirteen-year-old boys discover errors that NASA scientists miss—and why you can’t find the beer in your refrigerator.

Why We Make Mistakes is enlivened by real-life stories–of weathermen whose predictions are uncannily accurate and a witness who sent an innocent man to jail–and offers valuable advice, such as how to remember where you’ve hidden something important. You’ll learn why multitasking is a bad idea, why men make errors women don’t, and why most people think San Diego is west of Reno (it’s not).

Why We Make Mistakes will open your eyes to the reasons behind your mistakes–and have you vowing to do better the next time.

From Publishers Weekly

A Pulitzer winner for his stories on Indiana’s medical malpractice system, Hallinan has made himself an expert on the snafus of human psychology and perception used regularly (by politicians, marketers, and our own subconscious) to confuse, misinform, manipulate and equivocate. In breezy chapters, Hallinan examines 13 pitfalls that make us vulnerable to mistakes: “we look but don’t always see,” “we like things tidy” and “we don’t constrain ourselves” among them. Each chapter takes on a different drawback, packing in an impressive range of intriguing and practical real-world examples; the chapter on overconfidence looks at horse-racing handicappers, Warren Buffet’s worst deal and the secret weapon of credit card companies. He also looks at the serious consequences of multitasking and data overload on what is at best a two- or three-track mind, from deciding the best course of cancer treatment to ignoring the real factors of our unhappiness (often by focusing on minor but more easily understood details). Quizzes and puzzles give readers a sense of their own capacity for self-deception and/or delusion. A lesson in humility as much as human behavior, Hallinan’s study should help readers understand their limitations and how to work with them.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
–This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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To Err is Really, Really Human

“Why We Make Mistakes” is the latest entry in a bumper crop of new books about how people make decisions. The author, Joseph Hallinan, is a former writer for the Wall Street Journal and a Pulitzer-prize winner, and his brisk style makes this book a fast and enjoyable read. Think of it as a lengthy version of an intiguing article in the WSJ, and as a perfect book to read while on a long plane flight.

Hallinan’s book is essentially a survey of research into why people act the way they do. It turns out that we are biased, “poorly calibrated” (meaning, we often don’t know our own limitations), very quick to judge other people on the basis of appearance alone, prone to sticking with old strategies that work poorly in new situations, and generally a lot more irrational than we think we are. “Why We Make Mistakes” is filled with interesting little oddities, such as the fact that most people have an inordinate preference for the number 7 and the color blue and the fact that our memories are typically much poorer than we realize (explaining why eye witness testimony is so unreliable).

Hallinan makes the good point that we need to understand why we make mistakes before we can do anything to prevent them. In the 1980s, for example, one out of every 5,000 people who received anesthesia died. The key to improving this outcome was to recognize that even highly trained, brilliant anesthesiologists make mistakes. At the time, two major models of machine were used to deliver anesthesia–one had a control valve that turned clockwise, another had a valve that turned counterclockwise. The profession realized that anesthesiologists could easily confuse the two machines, with disastrous results–the fix was to standardize the machines so the valve turned only one way, thus reducing the opportunity for simple human error. Then anethesiologists also took a page from the airline industry–they started using checklists to remind themselves to do important things, and they “flattened the authority gradient” by encouraging nurses and others in the operating room to point out errors. Hallinan reports that deaths due to anesthesia have declined by a factor of 40, to one death per 200,000. Some of the improvement doubtless results from changes in technology and medical knowledge, but Hallinan makes a good case that it was also very important to simply recognize that people are inherently mistake-prone and then take steps to minimize the things that can go wrong.

All of this has important implications for businesses, governments and other group activities. Organizations that brook no dissent, on the theory that the most senior people in the room will never make mistakes, are headed for disaster. As Hallinan explains, novices are often better able to spot errors than the “experts,” who tend to skim over mistakes and ignore them because, ironically, the experts assume the mistakes out of the equation. Thus, the “newbie” in the room may spot the embarassing arithmetic error faster than the senior folks who wrongly assume from experience that such an error could never be made.

Organizations that understand that people will make mistakes and then do something to manage and minimize those mistakes are more likely to succeed. This is exactly what the airline industry, an enterprise that has very low tolerance for error, has done with great success. This is not to say that mistakes are no longer a problem, only that they are much rarer than they have been historically.

Other books in this genre include Cordelia Fine’s “A Mind of Its Own,” Zachary Shore’s “Blunder,” Burton’s “On Being Certain,” “Predictably Irrational” and “Sway.” There’s a lot of overlap between the various books on the subject, but each of them adds something new and interesting to the discussion. In any case, Hallinan’s “Why We Make Mistakes” stands out because of its readability and because its a good survey of the topic.

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Quirks in decision making
A series of books has come out recently on how humans make decisions–and how quirky that decision making can be. From Gladwell’s “Blink” to Fine’s “A Mind of Its Own” to Lehrer’s “How We Decide” to Tavris and Aronson’s “Mistakes Were Made (But not by Me).” This book adds to this developing body of work.

Hallinan begins by noting that mistake has a specific dictionary meaning (Page 8): “1. a misunderstanding of the meaning or implication of something; 2. a wrong action or statement proceeding from faulty judgment, inadequate knowledge or inattention.” The thrust of the book is to explain why people make mistakes.

Chapter 1 is scary, to be sure. Its title is “We look but don’t always see.” There is the illusion on page 20 which is almost impossible to accept. Most alarmingly, though, is the tendency to quit picking things up visually after a lot of times when one doesn’t see what one is looking for. Our eyes and brain just quit seriously looking for something. Key example *(showing that much is at stake here): For instance, .7% of routine mammograms are interpreted by radiologists as tumors; 99.3% of the time, radiologists don’t see any sign of tumor. However, evidence suggests that radiologists are missing a lot of tumors, because their eyes and brains quit because of so many non-findings.

There are psychological processes at work, too. Framing is one of these. This is a situation in which how an issue is framed affects how we decide and behave. In situations where we stand to lose, people tend to be risk-takers; when the situation is framed as a gain, those same people become risk-averse. So, how a problem is framed (loss versus gain) fundamentally affects our decision making.

Many other types of mistakes are described as well. The book ends by laying out some ways of enhancing the quality of our decisions. One is to “think small.” Identify small errors that have consequences and can be corrected. For example, about 7,000 people die each year from doctor’s sloppy handwriting that is interpreted by others inaccurately. A bit of work to enhance legibility would save lives–at very small cost. Also, we need to be more self aware. People often think they’re behaving rationally when, in fact, nonconscious decisions are being made. And vice versa. As the Greeks put it, “Know thyself.” Finally, as one more illustration, before carrying out s decisions, ask what could go wrong (what Klein refers to as a “pre-mortem”).

In the final analysis, this is a very readable book on an important subject. Well worth taking a look at.

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