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4 mins

Epic Fail: Why We Make Mistakes (And Why They’re Not Always Bad)

Mistakes may be the portals of discovery, but it still hurts to make them. Why on earth do we do that anyway? Is there any cure?
by Sinead O'Reilly | Aug 21 2017

We don’t always admit to them. We are often told to learn from them. And we sometimes repeat them more than once. Whichever way you deal with them, one thing is certain — we all make mistakes. If you’re curious about why and how we seem to make the same ones over and over, Why We Make Mistakes by Joseph T. Hallinan is an essential read for you.

Why We Make Mistakes

The good news is that mistakes aren’t the result of a personal character flaw. We’ve simply evolved that way! Being error-prone is genetic, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t tackle the mechanisms behind every “whoops” and “sorry.” Here are some of the key ideas from this fascinating bestseller.

1. Our vision is limited

While we may boast having 20/20 vision or “eyes in the back of our heads,” the truth of the matter is that our field of vision only stretches to about 120 degrees. So we can only see less than half of any given scene.

This limit to our sight connects with our psychological sense of what we see before us. As Hallinan explains, a single moment will appear differently to everyone who is there, depending on how and where someone is looking. This lack of clarity causes us to rely on other mechanisms. For example, rather than seeing the full picture, we create one in our mind. This image we make depends on who we most identify with or what we expect to happen. Sound problematic? It absolutely is!

2. Connections matter

Connections are important in all walks of life, but, according to Hallinan, particularly when trying to identify the reasoning behind human error. If we want our brains to retain something, the author describes how “we’re more adept at remembering meaningful information than abstract data.” Therefore, if we were to look at a random array of numbers or list of names, our chances of recalling them accurately later are slim. Hallinan explains that because learning involves making connections in the brain, data that has greater meaning placed on it will be processed across more areas of the brain. This process then makes it easier to remember data later.

3. Snap judgements

It’s a cliché that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but it turns out we all do this to a degree. In fact, it’s a survival strategy. In many situations, people have to make snap judgments with very little information at hand. Developing a shorthand based on whom and what you know is a way to make decisions in a limited amount of time. While this is a great thing in terms of survival, it results in many errors in judgement. Often “we’re completely unaware of how our behavior is determined by our perceptions,” according to Hallinan. Evolution has shaped us to take these courses of action without any real conscious thought. Colors, shapes, smells, and facial features all play into these judgments.

4. We are but simple beings

In general, people like to keep things simple. In his bestseller, Hallinan argues that when we encounter a piece of information, “we tend to simplify it to make it more coherent.” This leads us to scan for what we believe is important. No doubt this is quicker and provides what we think is a clearer picture, however, this supposed clarity is just another factor that can lead to mistakes. We might consider a seemingly minor detail we omitted irrelevant, only later to find it was quite important.

5. Putting ourselves on a pedestal

When it comes to telling stories about our own words and actions, we tend to elevate our results or motivations. In Hallinan’s words, “the tendency of people to embellish and distort the past to show themselves in a more positive light is manifested in many erroneous ways.” One reason behind this is “because we judge our past in line with social conventions and expectations.” We claim to have done what was expected of us, simply because it was expected of us, even if we haven’t. This can lead, once again, to repeating mistakes or interfering with self-awareness.

The “M” word is thrown around a lot throughout Joseph T. Hallinan’s bestseller, but it’s no reason to fret. In the book and in our compact summary of key insights, we’re taught that every mistake has an explanation. By gaining insight into how and why errors occur, we can work to limit them and offer compassion to ourselves and others when they do happen, rather than pain and frustration.

After all, we all make mistakes.

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