Monday, July 20, 2009

Why We Make Mistakes – Book 61

Why We Make Mistakes
By Joseph Hallinan

Another book that reviews psychological studies in an anecdotal style. So it cites studies and results, but illustrates these with a lot of examples so you get the point. On the plus side you will have a lot of stories to tell friends when chit chatting.
Why do we screw up? We get distracted like the pilots of the airplane who flew into the ground because they all become preoccupied why a light bulb had gone out (the light bulb had failed, not the device it was measuring). We become set in our societal structure like the copilot who didn’t feel it was his place to tell the pilot they were going to run out of gas. Instead they crash landed.
We try to do to much at once, like drive, text, tune the radio, and talk on a cell phone all at the same time. We don’t practice. As Malcolm Gladwell described in Outliers, it takes about 10,000 hours of solid practice to get really good at something. That alone will outweigh any natural ability we may or may not have. Most of us are not willing to put in the effort for those results.
We are overconfident. We believe we are much better at tasks than we really are. We lie constantly. We mistakenly believe language (read conversation) is for the transferring of information. It really is a behavior used to influence others. Consequently we diminish the bad or just omit facts, and then we emphasize the good and will fabricate evidence in order to get our desired point or outcome across. Typically those changes are orchestrated to make us look good, to make us the heroes of our stories. Remember sometimes though a person’s goal is not to be the hero so they push another agenda (like a depressed person or a martyr).
For example, when we become good at any behavior we skim. Are skills are such that we can overlook the details and just play the big picture. It is this behavior that can lead us to overlook potential mistakes. A famous story involves a very well known classical musician was teaching a piano lesson to a young girl when she played a wrong note. When he pointed it out she stated that she had played the note as written. Upon inspection he found that she was indeed right and his sheet music had a mistake. But after looking around he discovered that all copies of this piece were wrong and had been for decades.
He brought in skilled musicians and told them there was a mistake and had them play the music, but none of them played the wrong note, in fact none of them could find the mistake. It wasn’t until he specifically gave them the location could they find it. This is because the better you get the more you skim. The musicians never saw the bad note because they knew what the note should be and played it that way. The young student hadn’t developed that ability so she played the wrong note. This example demonstrates why fresh eyes are usually a good thing when wanting to avoid obvious mistakes AND ritualize checklists can also help insure you don’t skim over the details in a routine task you have become competent at.
Should you read this? It is a short book and written in an easy flowing manner, so I would recommend it to anyone who wants a brief overview of why we screw up. If any of it interest you than you can read a more detailed book about that part – like the section on traffic accidents you could read the book Traffic.
Interesting note worth mentioning: The cover of the book is intentionally done wrong (off centered) to make his point on mistakes. Very clever.
Mormon Mentions: None.

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