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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

By Joseph T. Hallinan
18-minute read
Audio available
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

Why We Make Mistakes is about the kinds of mistakes we commonly make, and the reasons behind them. With a broad focus encompassing neuroscience, psychology and economics, the book provides convincing explanations for our often fallible perception, our inability to recall simple data and the many biases that direct our decision making without us being aware.

  • Anyone eager to understand the mechanisms behind human error
  • Anyone who always wonders why they never find mistakes in their own work
  • Anyone who wants to know why they can’t seem to remember names, PINs or their own password

Joseph Hallinan is a journalist and writer who wrote for the Wall Street Journal and won a Pulitzer Prize for his investigative reporting. Besides Why We Make Mistakes, Hallinan has also written the award-winning Going Up the River: Travels in Prison Nation and, most recently, Kidding Ourselves: The Hidden Powers of Self-Deception.

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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

By Joseph T. Hallinan
  • Read in 18 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 11 key ideas
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
Synopsis

Why We Make Mistakes is about the kinds of mistakes we commonly make, and the reasons behind them. With a broad focus encompassing neuroscience, psychology and economics, the book provides convincing explanations for our often fallible perception, our inability to recall simple data and the many biases that direct our decision making without us being aware.

Key idea 1 of 11

Our view of the world is limited by our eyes and our minds.

Before he became famous, Burt Reynolds entered a bar and noticed a broad-shouldered man harassing the patrons. Reynolds told the man to stop, but to no avail. Eventually Reynolds punched him, sending him flying through the air.

That’s when Reynolds noticed that the man had no legs. How could he have not seen that?

The world is incredibly complex: we’re constantly confronted with much more information than our brains can handle; plus, there are many different ways to look at every situation. 

Part of the problem is that our field of vision is literally limited to 180 degrees, so at any given moment we see only half of what there is to see.

But there’s also a psychological aspect to the problem: a scene will appear differently to one person than it will to another.

For instance, when we observe an event, sometimes what we notice is determined by the person we identify with. When watching a male thief steal a woman’s purse, for example, men tend to focus on the thief while, in general, women focus on the female victim.

Another way our view of the world is limited is our tendency to see only what we expect to see where we expect to see it. Which means we often fail to notice many, sometimes key, details.

Even seasoned professionals are susceptible to this phenomenon. The “miss” rates are extremely high in professions that require people to look out for certain unusual objects – like tumors or bombs.

For example, the number of flight passengers who attempt to smuggle firearms through security is only one in a million. As a result, baggage screeners simply don’t expect to find guns in passengers’ luggage and their screening process becomes lax, causing them to miss a quarter of all firearms.

And that’s how it was possible for Burt Reynolds to miss the fact that the broad-shouldered bully had no legs: he simply couldn’t see what was right in front of his eyes.

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