The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

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.

Chapter five, “We Can Walk and Chew Gum — But Not Much Else,” explores the myth of “multitasking.”

Humans, unlike some computers, can’t really multitask. What we do is divide up our time onto each task we’re trying to perform.

Mostly, that’s just inefficient. However, when you’re driving or flying a plane, it can be deadly.

Forty percent of aircraft accidents are attributed to CFIT — Controlled Flight into Terrain. That means there was nothing wrong with the plane (no spiraling out of control, engine failure, explosion, etc.) but that the pilot was distracted. The Air Force refers to “task saturation” for these events, meaning the pilot was trying to do too many things at once.

Most of us don’t fly planes, but we do drive. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that in 78 percent of all crashes and 65 percent of near crashes, the driver was either looking away or engaging in a “secondary task” such as using a cell phone or tapping on a Blackberry.

A single two-second glance doubles the risk of an accident. Keep those statistics in mind next time you think that you simply must make/take a call or text while you’re sharing the road with the rest of us.

In chapter six, “The Wrong Frame of Mind,” Hallinan explains the concept of “framing” — the perception of how something is consciously or unconsciously perceived determines, to a great extent, how we respond to it.

As an example, professional football coaches perceive that going for a fourth down is riskier than kicking.

According to statistics, 40 percent of the time it is better to go for the down. Yet highly-paid, professional football coaches only go for the down 13 percent of the time. Perception rules over logic.

I could go on for a long time about the fascinating information in this book. There are ten chapters I haven’t even mentioned, but I don’t have the space, so I suggest you read it yourself. Then you can find out for yourself why men don’t ask for directions.

If you have a library card, you can go online and place a request for this book or call and have staff place a hold for you.

Linda Cannon is the circulation supervisor/collection development librarian for the Joplin Public Library.