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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
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Book Description

Feb. 9 2010
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.

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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 + Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts
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"What an eye-opener! If you're someone who has trouble remembering the names of people (or common objects), if you seem to forget things almost immediately after you learn them, if your memory of past events frequently turns out to be drastically at odds with the facts, relax: you're not alone. It's a truism that we all make mistakes, but Hallinan is more interested in why we make them, in what quirks of our mental makeup allow—and even frequently encourage—us to misremember important events, forget passwords, mistake strangers for friends, buy more groceries than we actually need, fall for optical illusions, and so on. Turns out these aren't sign of illness. Just the opposite: our minds behave this way because our brains are wired this way. Hallinan cites numerous studies and experts (there is a lengthy bibliography), but he keeps the book from becoming a stodgy recitations of facts and statistics through the frequent use of illustrative examples and snappy prose. He also throws in a few big surprises, such as the revelation that multitasking is a myth (we don't do several things at once—we switch between various tasks without really focusing on any of them). A vastly informative, and for some readers vastly reassuring, exploration of the way our minds work."
—Booklist


“Entertains while it informs. Hallinan brings the science of human behavior to life, showing how it applies to us every day.”
—Don Norman, author of The Design of Everyday Things


From the Hardcover edition.

About the Author

Joseph T. Hallinan, a former writer for the Wall Street Journal, is a winner of the Pulitzer Prize and a former Nieman Fellow at Harvard University. He lives with his wife and children in Chicago.

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31 of 31 people found the following review helpful
By Robert Morris HALL OF FAME TOP 10 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover
Frankly, until reading this book, I assumed that I understood why people make mistakes. True, several of the causes are obvious: emotional, impulsive decisions made in haste, action without sufficient knowledge, trust in unreliable sources, false assumptions or premises, and so forth. However, most people are vulnerable to basic illusions and/or delusions. (Check out the tabletops illustration devised by Roger Shepard on Page 20.) As John Hallinan explains so brilliantly in this book, most of the most significant causes are not so obvious and one of them really caught my attention: even when we know we have made a mistake, we reject that fact and often make the same mistake again. Why? Because "we are all afflicted with certain systemic biases in the way we see, remember, and perceive the world around us, and these biases make us prone to commit certain kinds of errors...we just don't know we're biased. Some of these tendencies are so strong that even when we do know about them, we find it hard [if not impossible] to correct for them." Here is a representative selection of phenomena, observations, and insights:

"Understanding the role of context is also extremely important, especially when it comes to remembering things. Memory, it turns out, is often more a reconstruction than a reproduction." (Page 9)

"In one study, radiologists missed up to 90 percent of cancerous tumors that, in retrospect, had been visible `for months or even years.'" (Page 24)

"If we are going to err at something, we would rather err by [begin italics] failing [end italics] to do something." (Page 53)

"It doesn't take much to distract a driver. A two-second glance doubles the risk of an accident." (Page 83)

Note: My first reaction to this item was "So what?
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Amazon.com: 4.2 out of 5 stars  81 reviews
209 of 214 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars To Err is Really, Really Human Feb. 22 2009
By William Holmes - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
"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.
28 of 29 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Quirks in decision making March 29 2009
By Steven A. Peterson - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
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.
58 of 69 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting and Scattered March 29 2009
By Reading to Escape - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
The book has many interesting stories and research citations. Too many, in fact. Unlike other recent books that expound on these ideas (such as Tipping Point, Freakonomics, Outliers), this text simply does not have a consistent strand that draws the reader along the journey. I struggled to maintain my desire to read the book, and at times I simply had to concede that I needed to read it in small parts, like articles, in order to make it through. It's a bit of a shame, really, and I actually enjoyed looking up some of the cited articles to get a bigger picture of the research than was provided in the book.
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great Sequel To Gladwell's Best Selling "Blink" May 21 2009
By Thomas M. Loarie - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Joseph T. Hallinan has written the perfect complement to Malcolm Gladwell's "Blink." with his "Why We Make Mistakes: How We Look Without Seeing, Forget Things in Seconds, and Are All Pretty Sure We Are Way Above Average." Gladwell's "Blink" is a book about rapid cognition, about the kind of thinking that happens in a blink of an eye, and reaching instant conclusions that are really powerful and really important and, occasionally, really good. But, as Hallinan writes, we must use caution as "we are all afflicted with systemic biases in the way we see, remember, and perceive the world around us, and these biases make us prone to commit certain kinds of errors." In addition, one's expectations can shape the way we see the world and our actions.

"Why We Make Mistakes" provides an inventory of biases and expectations that contribute to errors we make day-to-day. These include our personal life experience, hindsight bias, analytical bias, expert bias, systemic bias; sleep deprivation bias, context bias, age bias, a bias towards "meaning," habit, hubris and a poor understanding of our own limitations.

Hallinan provides multiple examples of how these biases and expectations play out in life - the diagnosis "miss" rate for radiologists' is in the 30% range (we see a fraction of what we see), people's names are recalled only 30% of the time (meaning matters, details don't, traits are more memorable), people preferred wine when it was in the more expensive bottles regardless of its quality (connecting the dots superficially), many are getting rich off fat people (it is a business built on hope and plays on overestimating self-control), men shoot first (overconfidence), and the recalling of stories incorrectly (our need to fit the story into our own existing ways of understanding the world).

Hallinan points out that our biggest obstacle is we just don't know (or accept) we are biased. "And some of these tendencies are so strong that even when we do know about them, we find it hard to correct for them." To help us, he provides an action plan at the end of the book which includes: think small as the tiniest change in circumstance can have big impacts on our behavior; incorporate the use of probability into our thinking, as weather forecasters do (90% chance of rain); keep tabs on our dry holes and write down decisions we made and the reasons we made them the way we did; track our success noting what was done right and what was done wrong; think negatively and ask `what could go wrong?'; let your spouse proofread; beware of the anecdote, get the facts; get adequate sleep as clears our thinking and positively affects our mood; and...work on being happy as happy people tend to be more creative and less prone to the errors induced by habit.

Hallinan's "Why We Make Mistakes" is a great read with something for everyone. It will serve as a guide when we make mistakes and will help us to understand others when they make a mistake. Purchasing this book will not be a mistake.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Why you're not as smart as you think. Feb. 24 2010
By David M. Giltinan - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
This book covers some of the same behavioral economics territory considered in such recent books as Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions, Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness, and the Bronfman brothers' Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior. There is also significant overlap with Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson's excellent Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts.

Joseph T. Hallinan's background is in journalism, not science, so this book is primarily a synthesis of the work of others. Hallinan won a Pulitzer during his time as a writer for the Wall Street Journal, and "Why We Make Mistakes" provides ample confirmation that he has the necessary writing chops. I think he does a spectacular job of synthesizing results of the relevant research. He's an unobtrusive but authoritative guide, steering the reader through the material with admirable clarity and focus. He has a journalist's talent for providing just the information needed to get the point across, often within the framework of a funny or thought-provoking example.

Basically, Hallinan does what we hope any good nonfiction writer will do - he provides a comprehensive, coherent summary of a relatively extensive body of research, drawn from a wide variety of sources. He not only makes it accessible to the general reader; the wit and verve with which he pulls it off make the book a delight to read.

To me, the most striking part of the book was the discussion of the phenomenon of overconfidence and its consequences. Think of it as the Lake Wobegon effect - as Hallinan puts it, "we all walk around with the private conceit that we are above average, and in that conceit lies the seed of many mistakes". Some of these mistakes can be catastrophic - as for instance when the overweening confidence of a handful of self-anointed financial "masters of the universe" proceeds unchecked to the point of triggering a complete meltdown of the financial sector. (A fascinating recent New Yorker article by Malcolm Gladwell makes a strong case that those executives whose errors of judgement were most instrumental in bringing about the meltdown still refuse to acknowledge that they did, in fact, make mistakes).

The potential for catastrophe is greatest in situations involving systems with a high degree of technological complexity where the price of failure is high - flying a commercial airliner, for example, or performing emergency trauma surgery. Possibly one of the most chilling results reported in the book is the percentage of survey respondents who agreed with the statement:

"Even when fatigued, I perform effectively during critical times"

Only 26% of pilots agreed. Among surgeons, the agreement rate was 70%.

Joseph T. Hallinan has written a fine book. I recommend it highly.
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