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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 – February 9, 2010
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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.
A Q&A with Author Joseph T. Hallinan: Which Penny is Correct?
(Click on Image to Enlarge)
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)--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
From Publishers Weekly
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.
Top Customer Reviews
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.Read more ›
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.Read more ›
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.Read more ›
Most Recent Customer Reviews
Very enlightening. I really enjoyed this book and will use what I've learned!Published 2 months ago by Dennis
I bought this book because I was promoted to a position that required a lot of detailed paper work that I was continually making mistakes on. Read morePublished 3 months ago by jay
I'll be using this book as the basis for a class in "making mistakes" and learning from them.Published 5 months ago by Mary McClintock
I found these ideas very interesting. I learned many things that I had not ever thought about before. Good book to read just parts at a time.Published 7 months ago by Mimni
This is one of the most enlightening volumes I have ever read. However, one must open your mind and let the information flow in without editorializing to maximize its effect.Published 15 months ago by John Sheehan
If you took a psychology class in college, you probably took part in experiments where grad students were testing aspects of human behavior. Read morePublished 15 months ago by iRead
A marvelous and informative book I wish it had been published 60 years ago so that my father could have given it to me when I was in my twenties. Read morePublished 17 months ago by David A. Kushner