Joseph Hallinan Explains Why We Make Mistakes

Geek Culture

Why We Make Mistakes by Joseph HallinanWhy We Make Mistakes by Joseph Hallinan

I’ve always been fascinated with how our brains function—or, in some cases, fail to function. In college I took a course called “Vision and the Brain” which talked a lot about how our brain processes visual input. The best part of the class was that the professor had a tremendous collection of optical illusions and ways to trick our eyes and our minds: even when we knew what was happening, we often still couldn’t shift our perception to match reality.

That sort of visual mistake—the ease of tricking our eyes into seeing something that isn’t there—is only one of the many, many reasons explained in Why We Make Mistakes by Joseph T. Hallinan. Hallinan runs through a slew of reasons for different types of mistakes, from paying too much for gym memberships to biases that we don’t realize we have. He talks about both the scientific research and offers anecdotes, and his writing is very easy to read and digest. (Whether or not it’s all easy to remember is something I won’t know until later, I suppose.)

While it wasn’t generally as surprising to me as NurtureShock was, it was still quite informative and I felt like I learned quite a bit—plus it’s a broader topic, not limited to parenting. The book manages to cover a lot of ground in a short time so it’s hard to summarize, but a few of the chapter titles will give you some idea of what topics are covered: “We All Search for Meaning,” “We Connect the Dots,” “We’re in the Wrong Frame of Mind,” “We All Think We’re Above Average.” Hallinan says that perhaps the most important concept he learned was that “perception is economical.” That is, we think what we perceive is what’s actually there; but for various reasons that usually isn’t the case—our brains fill in what we don’t actually see, and that can lead to a host of errors.

Hallinan gives a few suggestions for making fewer mistakes, starting with the most important: “Think small.” It’s the little things that get us.

First, keep track of your performance, and know when you make mistakes. Otherwise, you just don’t learn. Think negatively—that is, think about what could go wrong, because that helps you avoid those mistakes. Get somebody outside of your field to check your work, because sometimes it’s the non-experts who will catch the obvious errors. Beware of anecdotes; we’re wired to give more importance to the out-of-the-norm anecdote than statistically-proven evidence to the contrary. Sleep! Be happy! Happy people make decisions faster, and are better at thinking outside the box and coming up with solutions. Financial incentives don’t make you less likely to make mistakes; they just make you more likely to keep trying the same (wrong) tactics again and again. Hallinan even explains why multi-tasking is a bad idea, something I’ve touched on before on GeekDad.

In the end, though, some of the reasons we make mistakes are just out of our control. We have biases that we can’t get around, even when we know they’re there (but we have a tendency not to believe it anyway). It’s certainly a fun read, particularly if you like psychology. I did find that Hallinan’s stories were sometimes not the most relevant and felt a little rambling, but I enjoyed reading about the experiments.

You can visit Hallinan’s Why We Make Mistakes website for more information. The book was originally published in 2009 but was recently released in paperback.

Why We Make Mistakes retails for $14.00 (paperback).

Wired: Insightful information about how our minds can be tricked, and some ways to get around it.

Tired: A few rambling anecdotes that don’t necessarily belong.

Note: Broadway Books provided a copy of the book for review.

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