"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.