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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 Averageby Joseph T Hallinan
Synopses & Reviews
We forget our passwords. We pay too much to go to the gym. We think wed be happier if we lived in California (we wouldnt), and we think we should stick with our first answer on tests (we shouldnt). Why do we make mistakes? And could we do a little better?
We human beings have design flaws. Our eyes play tricks on us, our stories change in the retelling, and most of us are fairly sure were way above average. In Why We Make Mistakes, journalist Joseph T. Hallinan sets out to explore the captivating science of human errorhow we think, see, remember, and forget, and how this sets us up for wholly irresistible mistakes.
In his quest to understand our imperfections, Hallinan delves into psychology, neuroscience, and economics, with forays into aviation, consumer behavior, geography, football, stock picking, and more. He discovers that some of the same qualities that make us efficient also make us error prone. We learn to move rapidly through the world, quickly recognizing patternsbut overlooking details. Which is why thirteen-year-old boys discover errors that NASA scientists missand why you cant find the beer in your refrigerator.
Why We Make Mistakes is enlivened by real-life storiesof weathermen whose predictions are uncannily accurate and a witness who sent an innocent man to jailand offers valuable advice, such as how to remember where youve hidden something important. Youll learn why multitasking is a bad idea, why men make errors women dont, and why most people think San Diego is west of Reno (its not).
Why We Make Mistakes will open your eyes to the reasons behind your mistakesand have you vowing to do better the next time.
"A Pulitzer winner for his stories on Indiana's medical malpractice system, Hallinan has made himself an expert on the snafus of human psychology and perception used regularly (by politicians, marketers, and our own subconscious) to confuse, misinform, manipulate and equivocate. In breezy chapters, Hallinan examines 13 pitfalls that make us vulnerable to mistakes: 'we look but don't always see,' 'we like things tidy' and 'we don't constrain ourselves' among them. Each chapter takes on a different drawback, packing in an impressive range of intriguing and practical real-world examples; the chapter on overconfidence looks at horse-racing handicappers, Warren Buffet's worst deal and the secret weapon of credit card companies. He also looks at the serious consequences of multitasking and data overload on what is at best a two- or three-track mind, from deciding the best course of cancer treatment to ignoring the real factors of our unhappiness (often by focusing on minor but more easily understood details). Quizzes and puzzles give readers a sense of their own capacity for self-deception and/or delusion. A lesson in humility as much as human behavior, Hallinan's study should help readers understand their limitations and how to work with them." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
Imagine yourself in the place of Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger III, the pilot of US Airways flight 1549. A "double bird strike" has disabled your engines. You've asked an air controller to let you return to LaGuardia. You can head to Teterboro Airport in New Jersey, or you can try to glide over the George Washington Bridge and ditch your Airbus A320 in the Hudson River. How do you choose?... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) In "How We Decide," Jonah Lehrer, a journalist with research experience, asks neuroscience to explain the deliberative process. Looking at a similar incident in which quick thinking averted an airline disaster, he writes that the pilot "used his prefrontal cortex to manage his emotions." The cortex overrides maladaptive responses, such as panic; people who reason well under stress have "high prefrontal function." Lehrer elaborates: "Studies show that neurons in the prefrontal areas will fire in response to a stimulus — such as the sight of some cockpit instrumentation — and then keep on firing for several seconds." That extra firing allows for fresh thought: "Once this overlapping of ideas occurs, cortical cells start to form connections that have never existed before, wiring themselves into entirely new networks." The prefrontal cortex then evaluates the insight and recognizes it as a solution to the problem. The process results in the transformation of old learning into a creative response to the crisis at hand. You head for the Hudson, and lives are saved. This explanation might be satisfying were it not for everything else we know about thought and feeling. For instance, Lehrer describes studies that show how "choking" at sports results from too much reasoning. Likewise, the "framing effect," in which our expectations cause us, for example, to overvalue cheap wine when it's served from expensive-looking bottles, results in errors in judgment attributable to a prefrontal cortex that's working overtime. Whole branches of psychology and economics arise from research revealing glitches in our rationality, tendencies to remain loyal to bad choices and to see patterns where none exists. And then there is extensive evidence that some judgments are best made on an emotional basis; indeed, many successful decisions — in the face of this defense, toss the football there — are made instantaneously, too fast for the newer, rational part of the brain to run through every step of the analytic process. Lehrer's method is to introduce research findings through dramatic illustrations, such as a crucial Tom Brady pass in a Super Bowl. Lehrer is prone to hyperbole — fans of Joe Namath's 1969 New York Jets might not agree that the New England Patriot's 2002 victory over the St. Louis Rams was "the greatest upset in NFL history" — but he's expert at both storytelling and hard science. "How We Decide" is always fascinating, which is not to say that the book is without problems. Lehrer does little to integrate science's contradictory findings. As he himself demonstrates, sometimes, like a quarterback, we should rely on gut feelings; sometimes, like a pilot, we should favor reason. And both capacities, arising from millennia of animal evolution, are fallible in the face of recent innovations, like marketing and advertising. Nor does Lehrer succeed in showing that linking mind functions to brain regions will allow us to make better assessments. About a pilot's genius, we might convey as much if we said that he remained calm and relied on his training and ingenuity. It never becomes clear that neuroscience can inform our decisions better than Socrates' division of the mind into appetite, reason and spirit. Joseph T. Hallinan, in "Why We Make Mistakes," takes the alternate route, reviewing comparable material — often the same studies Lehrer cites — and attending only to psychology. Explaining why we prefer plonk with a Chateau Lafite label, Hallinan refers to pattern recognition, fixed associations and skewed judgment. Lehrer goes further and reports that "only one brain region seemed to respond to the (apparent) price of the wine rather than the wine itself: the prefrontal cortex." Hallinan can be informative. For example, he is convincing when he writes that, contrary to what you've been told, you'll do better, on average, if you rely on second impressions and change your answers on multiple-choice tests. But for me, these books called up a hoary anecdote about a Harvard "final club," a fraternity that stored essays as well as exams. An undergrad gets an A on a biology paper enhanced by a colorful image of a fish. Next year, another kid hands in the same paper: A. Finally, a student, thinking to avoid detection, discards the drawing, resubmits the paper and gets it back marked: "B+ — where's the fish?" I know that it's mostly an example of the fallacious thinking that these two books warn against — a case of misleading "framing" in which elegant neuroscience, like a cut-glass decanter, exerts influence over a judgment about the worth of the content — but, however unfairly, after I read Hallinan, my mind went: "B+ — where's the prefrontal cortex?" Peter D. Kramer's most recent book is "Freud: Inventor of the Modern Mind." Reviewed by Peter D. Kramer, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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A fascinating investigation of the science behind human imperfections, enlivened by real-life stories of anesthesiologists' fatal mistakes, weathermen whose predictions are uncannily accurate, and witnesses who have sent innocent men to jail.
Did you know that the number of syllables in an item’s price determines how likely you are to remember that price? And that there’s a reason you can never manage to choose a cell phone plan with the right number of minutes? The human mind is a strange and imperfect thing. We stick with hunches when we shouldn't, our stories change when we retell them, we forget things within seconds, and we have an astonishing ability to overlook important details in our daily lives.
Why We Make Mistakes is a fascinating investigation of the science behind our imperfections, enlivened by real-life stories of anesthesiologists’ fatal mistakes, weathermen whose predictions are uncannily accurate, and witnesses who have sent innocent men to jail. Full of visual puzzles, interesting sidebars, fun facts, and simple solutions for our most maddening foibles (like how to pick a password and a hiding place you won’t forget), here is a book that will have you laughing in recognition—and vowing to get it right the next time.
About the Author
Joseph T. Hallinan, a former writer for the Wall Street Journal, is a winner of the Pulitzer Prize and a former Nieman Fellow at Harvard University. He lives with his wife and children in Chicago.
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