Making mistakes is as human as breathing. But if that’s true, why are most of us so unwilling to admit it? Maybe that unwillingness is itself one of our many little quirks, “design” flaws leading us to make decisions that in retrospect seem ridiculous, miss plain-as-day details right before our eyes, and comfortably consider ourselves well above average.
Pulitzer Prize winning author Joe Hallinan wanted to reach the root of our error-prone natures, and to get there he delved into psychology, neuroscience, marketing, sports, geography, finance and economics. That trip led him to discover that we humans are as efficient as we are mistake-ridden; born pattern-finders that routinely stumble over the most obvious details. He recently took a few minutes to discuss his latest book and a few of his findings with Neuronarrative.
You’ve just had a book published called Why We Make Mistakes. So give us a hint, why do we make mistakes?
Short answer: we’re not wired the way we think we’re wired. We believe our memory and vision, for instance, are much better than they are, and our judgments are influenced by all sorts of contextual factors, or frames, than most of us are willing to admit.
If there’s one thing cognitive neuroscience has taught us, it’s that the brain is riddled with quirks, errors and biases. What did your research leading up to the book reveal to you about how the brain works (or doesn’t)?
Obviously, there’s a huge amount about the brain that we don’t know; and, if the past is any guide, some of what we do “know” now may turn out later not to be true. That said, it’s clear that humans have variety of predictable biases. We are prone to believe that we’ll act more virtuously in the future, for instance, than we actually end up acting once we get there.
This is why corporations clean up with such products as gift cards or frequent flier miles or rebate coupons: We don’t use these products nearly as much as we think we will when making our initial purchase. Corporations know this about us; but we seem not to know it about ourselves.
One other interesting thing is that we’re not the entirely rational beings we like to think we are. We seem to work on two levels, one cerebral and one more visceral. We toggle between them like a car’s headlights switching from high beam to low; the problem is, we’re often not sure which “beam” we’re on. We’ll think we’ve made a decision (like buying a bottle of wine) on a rational basis, only to find out that our choice was actually influenced by the music in the store.
When we make a mistake, there’s usually less than even odds that we’ll own up to it. Why do you think we’re so self conscious and defensive about something we’re all absolutely prone to do?
In a lot of circumstances, admitting a mistake can be a career death sentence. To admit you erred is to show your jugular to your enemies. So people don’t do it.
On a more personal basis, owning up to an error may require us to admit some unpleasant truths to ourselves. For instance, if we sign up for a gym membership that we end up not using, it’s easy to come up with excuses for why we didn’t exercise as often as we thought we would: we can blame the kids, or say there was some project at work that came up.
It’s much harder to admit that we really are the undisciplined, lazy person our old ex-boyfriend/girlfriend said we were – because if they were right about that, they might have been right about other things, and that would mean even more years in therapy! I’m joking a bit, but you get the point: admitting the root cause of a mistake can be painful, so most people avoid the pain.
What’s the most important thing you learned while writing the book and why?
Three words: perception is economical. Our various forms of perception give us great bang for the buck, but they’re not foolproof — not by a long shot. Take vision, for instance. We think that when we see things we see all there is to see – that our mind takes a snapshot of the event.
This is why we assign such high credibility to eyewitness testimony. But we know the eye doesn’t work this way; it sees some things but not others. Which helps explain why there is such a high error rate on some forms of eyewitness testimony. Between 1989 and 2007, for instance, 201 prisoners in the U.S. were freed through the use of DNA evidence. Of these, 77% had been mistakenly identified by eyewitnesses.
What does and doesn’t work to reduce mistakes?
Some simple things are surprisingly effective. Using checklists – like the ones you make when going to the grocery store – can dramatically reduce errors. The New England Journal of Medicine recently featured a study of surgical death rates at eight hospitals around the world. When doctors used basic checklists before operating, surgical death rates fell by nearly half!
What are you working on next?
That’s what my agent wants to know…I’ve got a couple of ideas cooking, but nothing ready to take out of the pot.
Link to Joe Hallinan’s website
Photo credit: Andrew Collings Photography