The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

Globe Life

April 3, 2009

Book review: Book explains why mistakes get made

Why We Make Mistakes

By Joseph T. Hallinan

In the spirit of books such as “Blink” by Malcolm Gladwell and “Why We Buy” by Paco Underhill, Joseph T. Hallinan has written “Why We Make Mistakes: How We Look Without Seeing, Forget Things In Seconds and Are All Pretty Sure We Are Way Above Average.”

Hallinan is a journalist formerly with the Wall Street Journal and a winner of the Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting. He has done a dandy job of investigating why we make the mistakes we all do (constantly) and has written about it in an engaging manner.

Each of thirteen chapters focuses on a different type of mistake.

Chapter one, “We Look But Don’t Always See,” centers on how we don’t actually see a large field (as we suppose we do) but rather a small area, and that we tend to see what we expect to see and not what we don’t.

We are all also, apparently, inherently lazy about looking for things. We give up. He quotes a research ophthalmologist who says, “If you don’t find it often, you often don’t find it.”

This can, unfortunately, have serious ramifications. For example, routine mammograms turn up tumors only about .3 percent of the time. So, 99.7 percent of the time, there is nothing to see. Therefore, there are a lot of instances of the viewer not seeing the tumor in the .3 percent of the time that it is present.

Studies suggest that the “miss” rate for radiologists is about 30 percent. Not very comforting, that. The same problem exists with airport screening for guns.

Apparently, our brains are wired so that if we aren’t rewarded with an “I see one!” fairly often, we just don’t really see one when it does show up.

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