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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 Hardcover – February 17, 2009

4.2 out of 5 stars 115 customer reviews

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Book Description
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.

A Q&A with Author Joseph T. Hallinan: Which Penny is Correct?

(Click on Image to Enlarge)
Can you pick out the real penny? (Answer Below)

Question: We’ve seen pennies so many times--why is it so difficult to recognize which of these drawings accurately represents a penny?

Joseph T. Hallinan: Partly, it has to do with how our memory works. Our long-term memory, even for things we’ve seen thousands of times, is limited. Most of the time, we recall meaning but not surface details. It’s the same reason we remember faces, but not the names that go with them.

Q: Are there other real-world examples of this?

JTH: Sure. We just watched as Chief Justice John Roberts and President Barack Obama muffed the words to the Inaugural Oath—even though the oath has only 35 words and even though both men no doubt rehearsed it many times. It’s actually very hard to remember things verbatim. Take the National Anthem, for instance. You’ve sung it hundreds of times. But how many of the Anthem’s 81 words can you remember without singing it?

Q: How does this limitation lead to mistakes?

JTH: Because we think our memories are much better than they are, and rely on them more than we should. Consider how many times an eyewitness has mistakenly identified a criminal and you begin to see the significance of this type of error. Basically, we look but don’t always see.

Q: Alright then, we’ve waited long enough: which of the pennies above is the real McCoy?

JTH: That would be penny A. But when researchers conducted this experiment, fewer than half of the people in the study picked the right one.

(Photo © Andrew Collings)

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.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Crown Archetype (February 17, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0767928059
  • ISBN-13: 978-0767928052
  • Product Dimensions: 5.8 x 1 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (115 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #301,180 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By William Holmes VINE VOICE on February 22, 2009
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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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