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We make certain mistakes because of the way we are wired. That’s the thesis of Joseph T. Hallinan, who gives a readable summary of research on brains and behavior, along with entertaining anecdotes, to make his point. Studies show human beings have any number of systemic biases that make us prone to certain kinds of errors, in part because we aren’t aware of our biases. Here are a few of them:
• We are powerfully influenced by our first impressions. Consequently, we are reluctant to change answers on tests, even though we would usually get higher scores if we did.
• A related bias is a reluctance to change our minds, even about bad information, and even when we know it is wrong. When people do change their minds, however, they often reconstruct their past opinion to make it consistent with the present one.
• We miss much of what we see because we skim, so we often miss significant things. When we recognize patterns, we tend not to pay close attention to the details. We pay more attention to the beginning of a word than to the end. The more expertise or familiarity we have with something, the more skimming we do. This tendency can have dire consequences when the skimmer is a radiologist looking at an x-ray or a baggage screener looking for a gun.
• We are influenced by the first number we see. Grocery stores know this when they advertise a product 4 for $2 instead of 1 for 50 cents. The number 4 acts as an anchor, resulting in an average 32 percent increase in sales compared to single-unit pricing. A quantity limit also boosts sales -- the higher the limit, the higher the sales. Being listed first on the ballot results in up to 3 percent more votes. Studies show that making the first offer in a negotiation tends to result in a better outcome for the party who makes it.
• People usually feel more responsible for their actions rather than inactions, so we would rather err by failing to act. Doing nothing is less regrettable. Ergo, students have greater regret about making a mistake by changing a right answer to a wrong one than they do about failing to change a wrong answer. By the same token, a consistent pattern in decision making is to take risks in situations where we expect a loss, but to get conservative when it comes to gains, where we want to hold on to a sure thing. A study of NFL teams facing fourth downs concluded that 40 percent of the time, teams would do better by taking the risk of going for it; coaches actually go for it only 13 percent of the time, preferring the safe thing and kicking.
• We think we can multitask better than we actually can. Our brains slow down when it has several tasks, and we are more likely to forget. One example of the risk of multitasking is the traffic hazard caused by talking on the cell phone while driving. “Inattention blindness” is when multitasking drivers look directly at something but do not see it. Cars rigged with cameras show that nearly eight of ten crashes are due to driver distraction, though only one in four drivers admits to those distractions. BTW, older drivers 60 and up can take twice as long to recover from distractions as younger ones.
• We like to believe we are impartial, when the reality is we have strong tendencies shaping our judgments. When people are asked about judgmental biases, they claim they are less biased than average. Most doctors, for example, believe they are not influenced by gifts from drug companies, though they don’t think the same about their colleagues. When recalling our own actions, we tend to put them in a more favorable light than a neutral observer would. This self-serving tendency is so ingrained, writes Hallinan, that we aren’t aware of it. College students recall getting higher grades in high school than they actually did, and showed a far better memory for good grades than bad. Almost none underestimated their grades.
* Overconfidence is a leading cause of error, and most of us – men in particular -- tend to be overconfident. Men overestimate their IQ and attractiveness, while women underestimate theirs. Men also forget their mistakes more readily than women. The conceit that we are above average leads to many mistakes. Overconfidence is high when there is little corrective feedback. Weather forecasters have gotten more accurate over the decades since they started giving the probabilities of various weather events. Their predictions are highly accurate in part because they get quick feedback.
Ironically, overconfidence rises along with the difficulty of the task. As we gain more information about a topic, we gain confidence, albeit more information does not necessarily make people better informed. One study found that students learned more from summaries than from reading whole chapters. Another study found that professional horse handicappers were no more accurate with forty pieces of information than with five, though they were 50 percent more confident in their predictions using forty. A PGA study found that golf pros sank only 54.8 percent of their six-foot putts, though the pros thought their success was 80 percent. Experts in various fields believe their predictions are right, though studies show they have less reason for confidence than they think.
Another example of overconfidence is that when putting something together we generally fail to read the directions. People prefer to follow their intuition than reading a manual. That leads to mistakes, even injuries in the case of do-it-yourselfers using nail guns. A further problem is that if we learn to do something a certain way, we are resistant to change, ignoring simpler solutions the next time.
How can we reduce mistakes? If we were aware of our biases, then we would have a better chance of avoiding the mistakes they lead to, which is why this book is useful. Hallinan suggests we can moderate overconfidence by asking “what could go wrong?” There is a power to negative thinking so that pitfalls can be discovered instead of ignored. He also advises we do less multitasking, be less resistant to new ways of doing something, and get more sleep, since sleep-deprived people take more risks. He also recommends we give less credence to vivid anecdotes like diet testimonials; averages are more useful than testimonials. Finally, be happy. “Happy people tend to be more creative and less prone to the errors induced by habit.” ###