Why We Make Mistakes by Joseph T. Hallinan (audio)

In my ongoing quest to “read” ever more books by better using my time in the car, walking from the parking lot to work, etc. I picked up Why We Make Mistakes by Jospeph T. Hallinan in the audio version at a library sale.

We forget our passwords. We pay too much to go to the gym. We think we’d be happier if we lived in California (we wouldn’t), and we think we should stick with our first answer on tests (we shouldn’t). 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 we’re way above average. In Why We Make Mistakes, journalist Joseph T. Hallinan sets out to explore the captivating science of human error—how 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 patterns—but overlooking details. Which is why thirteen-year-old boys discover errors that NASA scientists miss—and why you can’t find the beer in your refrigerator.

Having listened to a few books by the Heath brothers (which I still need to review) and I found this to be an interesting and educational experience but a little less focused. It was full of fascinating research, tidbits/factoids and vignettes. All with the overarching theme that we are not quite as smart as we think we are and that much of our decision making process goes on without our even knowing it.

The problem with listening to a book like this is that you can miss the forest for the trees; you can catch the tidbits and vignettes but miss the larger argument.  When listening to an audio book in the car it is easy to space out and miss chunks of the book.  You can do this while reading,  of course, but it is easier somehow to go back and re-read a page or two than it is to rewind and listen again.

That said, the overarching takeaway from this book for me was that we tend to be overconfident and assume that all of our decision making is rational and conscious when much of it can be visceral and unconscious; and we have a hard time understanding which is which.  What Hallinan offers as a partial solution is “calibration” which is described as a proper sense of your abilities and an awareness of your blind spots. You can fight overconfidence and be more conscious of how you react and what information you are exposed to.  You can think small and build in constraints; seek advice and information outside your perspective and recognize the problematic nature of the emotionally powered anecdote, etc.

If you are interested in how the latest research (although the book is a little dated by now) in psychology, neuroscience and economics can help you understand decision making and life choices, you will enjoy this book. It is a nice blend of research, analysis and examples and stories.  And who among us couldn’t use some help making better decisions?

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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