Why We Make Mistakes - Joseph Hallinan

Simply put, most of us aren't wired the way we think we're wired. But much of the world around us is designed as if we were.

Why We Make Mistakes just immediately jumped out at me as a topic of interest when I saw it at the library (rotating collection). Hallinan runs through a slew of reasons for different types of mistakes, from paying too much for gym memberships to biases that we don't realize we have. He talks about both the scientific research and offers anecdotes, and his writing is very easy to read and digest. (Whether or not it's all easy to remember is something I won't know until later, I suppose.)

While it wasn't generally as surprising as NurtureShock was to me, it was still quite informative and I felt like I learned quite a bit. The chapter titles summarize the reasons why we make mistakes, so I'll at least list them here. We make mistakes because:

we look but don't always see
we all search for meaning
we connect the dots
we wear rose-colored glasses
we can walk and chew gum—but not much else
we're in the wrong frame of mind
we skim
we like things tidy
men shoot first
we all think we're above average
we'd rather wing it
we don't constrain ourselves
the grass does look greener

In the end, though, some of the reasons we make mistakes are just out of our control. We have biases that we can't get around, even when we know they're there (but we have a tendency not to believe it anyway). Hallinan gives a few suggestions for making fewer mistakes, starting with the most important: "Think small." It's the little things that get us.

First, keep track of your performance, and know when you make mistakes. Otherwise, you just don't learn. Think negatively—that is, think about what could go wrong, because that helps you avoid those mistakes. Get somebody outside of your field to check your work, because sometimes it's the non-experts who will catch the obvious errors. Beware of anecdotes; we're wired to give more importance to the out-of-the-norm anecdote than statistically-proven evidence to the contrary. Sleep! Be happy! Happy people make decisions faster, and are better at thinking outside the box and coming up with solutions. Financial incentives don't make you less likely to make mistakes; they just make you more likely to keep trying the same (wrong) tactics again and again.

There's one interesting point that Hallinan made that I wanted to note here, for my personal reference. There was an experiment done with patients who'd had colostomies—half were irreversible, and half were potentially reversible. They tracked the patients to see who was happier, and it turned out that those with irreversible colostomies were actually happier. The conclusion: "hope impedes adaptation." When you're still hoping for some sort of change, you don't learn to deal with your current situation. But once a decision or circumstance is permanent, then you're more likely to be happy about it.

It's a fun read, particularly if you like psychology. I did find that Hallinan's stories were sometimes not the most relevant and felt a little rambling, but I enjoyed reading about the experiments.

Fed to jonathan's brain | October 21, 2009 | Comments (0)


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