Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Why Me Make Mistakes

I'm listening to Why We Make Mistakes - By Joseph T. Hallinan during my daily commute and cannot shake the feeling that I've heard it already. Perhaps the déjà vu comes from hearing the same stories in other books like Blink and Freakonomics. Perhaps not.

The author cites many reasons that people make mistakes:

1. Memory bias - we color the past to favor ourselves
- we remember successes and good grades over failures and F's. We take credit for the successes and find blame to excuse the failures.
- we forget that we've changed our mind and think we've always been in favor of our current beliefs

2. Vision bias
- we are quick to classify. If we see a "construction worker" or person of another race our brain is happy and we look no further for additional details. When we see someone "like us" we look deeper for more identifying details.
- we see less than we think. When remembering a person it may be their hair or facial expression or mannerism that we recall. Rarely details of eyes, nose, mouth, ears, etc.
- we quickly tire when looking for rare events - when looking for something that is infrequent, like cancer in a mammogram, after hundreds of images of nothing, we miss the one case it does occur because we've become trained NOT to see it.

3. Hindsight bias
- After an accident, the correct action to have taken is "obvious". How could the person have missed the obvious?  It's only obvious after the fact.

4. Multi-tasking
- we multi-task poorly, despite what we think. Modern cars with too many displays and sensors become overwhelming.

5. The Danger of Snap judgements
- Our first answer to a test question is not always right. If you have a nagging feeling to change it, do so. The subconscious is more likely to be right than the gut instinct.
- People find the "perfect hiding place" with a snap judgement and then forget where it was.
- People quickly create a password and then forget it

Bottom Line

The author's main point is that we cannot avoid being "human". Rather than blaming mistakes on "human error" find the reason why humans are prone to this error and do something about it.

For example, anesthesiologists used to use machines from two manufacturers. In one the dosage was increased by turning a dial clockwise, in the other, counter-clockwise. Naturally mistakes were made when an anesthesiologist forget which machine type they were using. Patients died until a standard was set so all machines worked the same way.

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