49 of 50 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars To Err is Really, Really Human
"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...
Published on 22 Feb 2009 by William Holmes
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars read Dan Ariely rather
I feel a bit sorry for this writer. He has some interesting stuff to say, but a) it's mostly pretty obvious and b) he just doesn't have a captivating way of expressing it. I also found the layout a bit annoyingly 'dumbed down', with paragraphs repeated in bold in little boxes for people who don't feel like reading the whole text. Rather read Dan Ariely's "Predictably...
Published 17 months ago by littlelisaZA
Most Helpful First | Newest First
49 of 50 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars To Err is Really, Really Human,
This review is from: Why We Make Mistakes: How We Look Without Seeing, Forget Things in Seconds, and Are All Pretty Sure We Are Way Above Average (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. 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.
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars read Dan Ariely rather,
This review is from: Why We Make Mistakes: How We Look Without Seeing, Forget Things in Seconds, and Are All Pretty Sure We Are Way Above Average (Paperback)I feel a bit sorry for this writer. He has some interesting stuff to say, but a) it's mostly pretty obvious and b) he just doesn't have a captivating way of expressing it. I also found the layout a bit annoyingly 'dumbed down', with paragraphs repeated in bold in little boxes for people who don't feel like reading the whole text. Rather read Dan Ariely's "Predictably Irrational", which is unputdownable.
13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Understanding guide to becoming goof-proof,
This review is from: Why We Make Mistakes: How We Look Without Seeing, Forget Things in Seconds, and Are All Pretty Sure We Are Way Above Average (Hardcover)A woman hanged herself in a tree on a busy street. Yet, no one reported the suicide for more than 14 hours even though her body was clearly visible. Why? Because the incident occurred on October 31st and passersby mistook the body for a Halloween decoration. This horrifying example demonstrates the way context - as well as traits that are innately human - plays a role in how people make errors. As Joseph T. Hallinan explains, human beings are biased, overconfident, judgmental, downright irrational creatures of habit who are blissfully unaware of their limitations. All these traits will cause people to make errors - some are silly, such as saying "unicorn" when you mean "unicycle," and some horrendous, such as administering the wrong dose of medicine or flying a plane into the ground. This intriguing book focuses more on why people err than on preventing errors, though it does suggest solid, useful measures. getAbstract recommends it to those who are interested in why they blunder and in how to become more goof-proof. Taking the steps Hallinan outlines could keep you out of a lot of trouble.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Good content, spoiled by bad design,
22 of 25 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars And why we often make mistakes when trying to understand mistakes,
This review is from: Why We Make Mistakes: How We Look Without Seeing, Forget Things in Seconds, and Are All Pretty Sure We Are Way Above Average (Hardcover)Frankly, until reading this book, I assumed that I understood why people make mistakes. True, several of the causes are obvious: emotional, impulsive decisions made in haste, action without sufficient knowledge, trust in unreliable sources, false assumptions or premises, and so forth. However, most people are vulnerable to basic illusions and/or delusions. (Check out the tabletops illustration devised by Roger Shepard on Page 20.)
As John Hallinan explains so brilliantly in this book, most of the most significant causes are not so obvious and one of them really caught my attention: even when we know we have made a mistake, we reject that fact and often make the same mistake again. Why? Because "we are all afflicted with certain systemic biases in the way we see, remember, and perceive the world around us, and these biases make us prone to commit certain kinds of errors...we just don't know we're biased. Some of these tendencies are so strong that even when we do know about them, we find it hard [if not impossible] to correct for them." Here is a representative selection of phenomena, observations, and insights:
"Understanding the role of context is also extremely important, especially when it comes to remembering things. Memory, it turns out, is often more a reconstruction than a reproduction." (Page 9)
"In one study, radiologists missed up to 90 percent of cancerous tumors that, in retrospect, had been visible `for months or even years.'" (Page 24)
"If we are going to err at something, we would rather err by [begin italics] failing [end italics] to do something." (Page 53)
"It doesn't take much to distract a driver. A two-second glance doubles the risk of an accident." (Page 83)
Note: My first reaction to this item was "So what? What's the big deal?" Then I did a simple calculation and realized that if a car were moving at 60 mph, it would travel 176 feet in only two seconds. Hmmmm....
"As something becomes more familiar, we tend to notice less, not more. We come to see things not as they are but as (we assume) they ought to be." (Page 113)
"Events learned in one emotional state are best remembered when we are back in that happy state. Happy times, for instance, are best remembered when we're happy." (Page 117)
"We often think we're being rational when we're being visceral, and vice versa. When a mistake does happen, we often end up blaming the wrong cause." (Page 211)
"Happy people tend to be more creative problem solvers. They also make decisions more quickly, with less back-and-forth." (Page 218)
Many readers may not neurological infrastructure of the decision-making process, notably the importance of what is generally referred to as the "unconscious mind." That is what Hallinan means when noting that many decisions are made or at least significantly influenced "outside of our consciousness." This fact helps to explain why most of us make mistakes when trying to understand why we make mistakes. Ironically, we demonstrate what we are trying to eliminate.
As indicated by hundreds of citations throughout the book supplemented by extensive References and Bibliography section (Pages 225-237 and Pages 239-273), Hallinan has obviously absorbed and digested an abundance of research data from a wide range of resources. He fully achieves his objective to explain why people make mistakes of all kinds and suggests, especially in the concluding chapter, what can be done to prevent or correct them. He urges his readers to "Think small [because] little things, as the song says, mean a lot." Also, be alert to the fact that "we don't see all that we observe, and yet we sometimes `see' things we don't know we've seen." Therefore, beware of seeing only what you expect to see, not what is. Certain biases such as overconfidence (i.e. hubris) are amenable to correction. On occasion, it also helps to think negatively when making a decision. "What could go wrong?" Hallinan also suggests we can become less error prone by letting our spouse "proofread" our reasoning and by slowing down and sharpening the focus of our attention. "Multitasking is, fir most of us, a mirage. There are strict limits to the number of things we can do at one time, and the more we do [or attempt to do], the greater the chance for error."
Many who read this last paragraph may respond, "Well, duh, that's just common sense." As Joseph Hallinan convincingly establishes in this thoroughly entertaining as well as highly informative book, it would be a serious mistake to assume that common sense is common.
* * * * *
Even publishers do not always recognize a mistake made. The dust jacket of the copy I have is a case in point. It was not trimmed to proper size nor is the photo of it displayed online by Amazon. You'd think that someone would have corrected it by now.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars same as 'why we make mistakes',Why We Make Mistakes: How We Look Without Seeing, Forget Things in Seconds, and Are All Pretty Sure We Are Way Above Average.
It's a good book, the other reviewers have said it all, it's easy to read, it has a long bibliography if you want to know more, but you don't need it twice.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A book ending in 'nomics' that isn't insufferably smug,Freakonomics, it doesn't have that slightly snide, we're-so-clever-and-don't-we-know-it tone that makes that book just a little bit insufferable. Instead of trying to demonstrate how all our received wisdom is wrong in as controversial a way as can be mustered, Hallinan's approach seems much calmer. It's still based on statistical evidence, but without the smarminess.
Maybe that's why he's a Pulitzer winner.
Hallinan divides the book into chapters based around different mistakes that we make; being over-optimistic about our abilities, simplifying things in order to understand them, avoiding paying close attention to situations in favour of winging them, and so on. Each chapter has some interesting examples, whether it's psychologists figuring out how to test whether you think you look more attractive than you really do, or concentrating on 'Controlled Flight Into Terrain' aviation disasters. Along the way there's some interesting examples of how these techniques are applied commercially, whether it's printing pictures of attractive female employees on offer letters in order to increase the take-up rate of loans, or how playing appropriate music drives people to purchase either French or German wine.1
There's some very valuable insights about concentration, the benefits (or not) of multi-tasking, and how best to structure your work. It turns out (as we all should have known all along) that paying attention to your email isn't going to make you more productive - you need to be able to work uninterrupted in order to produce quality.
One thing I didn't like so much was that the salient fact for every three pages or so is called out in a little grey sidebar, as if the text was just a magazine bound into book form. Occasionally I'd be glad that they called out a particular finding ("Hope impedes adaptation" is an interesting insight, as is the study that shows that you need about ten years of doing something to get good at it) but mostly it was distracting, as if we're not trusted to understand the book without things being highlighted for us.
Then again, part of Hallinan's thesis is we do skim too much. So perhaps that should be there.
Finally, he finishes with more helpful advice. If you've been paying attention throughout, you should learn a lot from this book (even if some of the anecdotes are ones that have been stated again and again), but as a bonus Hallinan gives a summation of what you should do to avoid error:
Track your errors - write down what you think will happen so you don't just remember when you made a good prediction
Let your spouse proofread - sometimes, it's easier for a lay person to spot an error than a professional. Just the same as it can be hard to debug your own code.
Get some sleep
By that last point, Hallinan means that if you're unhappy somewhere, you may very well be concentrating on the wrong things - if you're at the top of Scafell Pike moaning that there's no decent coffee, either hike down, drive to Manchester and get an espresso, or else learn to admire the view. It's important to concentrate on the opportunities that present themselves that you can't get elsewhere, rather than obsessing with the things that you can't do.
5.0 out of 5 stars Humane, sensible and tolerant,
This review is from: Why We Make Mistakes: How We Look Without Seeing, Forget Things in Seconds, and Are All Pretty Sure We Are Way Above Average (Paperback)This is a well written book on a theme that is becoming increasingly focused on these days. Basically as humans we cannot think too much, for too long or too accurately. We do some things well, but we struggle to maintain accuracy and precision for long.
This book is a gentle account of how and why we get things wrong, and it's written in a conversational style that shows the author is just as vulnerable to our cognitive flaws as anyone else. He's writing with us and for us, not about us.
If you want to understand why you and I keep making mistakes of one sort and another this book is a good guide to the field.
The field of behavioural economics and decision analysis is opening new understandings about how we come to behave as we do, and it's opening up a more tolerant and tolerable view of human functioning and performance.
3.0 out of 5 stars Well written and easy to read, but don't expect any revelations,
This review is from: Why We Make Mistakes: How We Look Without Seeing, Forget Things in Seconds, and Are All Pretty Sure We Are Way Above Average (Paperback)If you want a very readable introduction to this topic area, then this is probably a good choice, ideal reading for a holiday or long journey. If however you are looking for new, in depth, incisive scholarly insights into this topic area then this book isn't the one for you. This sit squarely in the "popular psychology" section of the bookstore and has no pretense to be anything more.
3.0 out of 5 stars How to make idiots of ourselves.,
Most Helpful First | Newest First
Why We Make Mistakes: How We Look Without Seeing, Forget Things in Seconds, and Are All Pretty Sure We Are Way Above Average by Joseph T. Hallinan (Paperback - 9 Feb 2010)