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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 – 17 Feb 2009

4.3 out of 5 stars 28 customer reviews

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 283 pages
  • Publisher: Broadway Books (17 Feb. 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0767928059
  • ISBN-13: 978-0767928052
  • Product Dimensions: 14.7 x 2.7 x 21.7 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (28 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 840,775 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description

Review

"Entertains while it informs. Hallinan brings the science of human behavior to life, showing how it applies to us every day" (Don Norman, author of THE DESIGN OF EVERYDAY THINGS)

"In breezy chapters, Hallinan examines 13 pitfalls that make us vulnerable to mistakes...packing in an impressive range of intriguing and practical real-world examples. A lesson in humility as much as human behavior, Hallinan's study should help readers understand their limitations and how to work with them" (Publishers Weekly)

"Starred Review* What an eye-opener! If you're someone who has trouble remembering the names of people (or common objects), if you seem to forget things almost immediately after you learn them, if your memory of past events frequently turns out to be drastically at odds with the facts, relax: you're not alone. A vastly informative, and for some readers vastly reassuring, exploration of the way our minds work" (David Pitt Booklist US) --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Book Description

A smart, engaging and eye-opening explanation of why we make mistakes and what we can do to avoid them --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

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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Format: 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?
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Format: 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.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
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.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
While the author brings little that is new to the decision making research, the book does summarize some of the most salient points rather well - you will learn which mechanisms make us error prone when making decisions and how to partially avoid them through better 'calibration', or at least how to be aware of the mistakes one is likely to make and thereby adjusting one's confidence in the decisions appropriately.

Given that the author's background primarily focuses on journalism, it is not surprising that the book turns out to be quite readable. The cases are made through easy to understand examples and a good portion of decision making biases and errors is covered. The writing tens to meander a bit and quite why the sequence selected was used remains a bit of a mystery - it reads more like a selection of articles on discrete issues than a well structured book. This is not an issue if you are simply curious about the subject but makes life more difficult if you want to really structure your thinking in the area.

The author is also not a researcher himself, so there is little new for people who have already read on the basics of decision making research - if you have studied your Kahnemann and Tversky books (such as Thinking, Fast and Slow, Judgment under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases), or read something more popular on the subject, such as the work of Dan Ariely (
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