Why do we make stupid mistakes? A new book says people have design faults that inevitably lead to slip-ups - but we can train ourselves to avoid them. By Sophie Morris
We all make mistakes. That truism is usually meant kindly, but being on the receiving end of it can be downright frustrating. Try as we might, we repeat the same simple, preventable errors every day.
Joseph T Hallinan, an American Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, thinks he knows why humans are pre-programmed to make blunders. His book, Why We Make Mistakes, attracted winning reviews on its publication last month, with one critic predicting that it would change the face of mainstream behavioural science. Subtitled How We Look Without Seeing, Forget Things in Seconds, and Are All Pretty Sure We Are Way Above Average, Hallinans book is, according to its author, a field guide to human error. People can look at it and see the mistakes they make, and find some of the reasons behind those mistakes.
The examples he uses are mostly of the forehead-slapping, Homer Simpson variety: why do names and facts escape us at crucial moments, such as in interviews? Why do we forget computer passwords, fall for optical illusions, and stash jewellery in a safe place when we go on holiday, only to forget which spice jar holds our rocks?
Its down to human design, not personality or intelligence, Hallinan argues. The very way we think, see and remember sets us up for mistakes. We are subconsciously biased, quick to judge by appearances and overconfident of our own abilities. Most of us believe we are above average at everything a statistical impossibility that leads to slip-ups.
The former Wall Street Journal reporter began to shape his theory while researching a story on anaesthetists, who, it turns out, have a terrible safety record. Hallinan describes how their statistics were vastly improved by simple change to their equipment that cancelled out human error; the introduction of a valve that could only turn one way to deliver anaesthetic to a patient.
Taking examples from aviation, consumer behaviour, geography and football, Hallinan fuses economics, neuroscience and psychology, an approach that owes an obvious debt to Malcolm Gladwell (The Tipping Point, Blink and Outliers), and Steven Levitt and Stephen …