Why We Make Mistakes – A Book Review

You can’t go wrong with a story involving Burt Reynolds and Joseph Hallinan , in his book Why We Make Mistakes, includes a doozy. Anecdotes, tidbits and fun facts are very prevalent throughout this book making it a quick and insightful read. I recommend this book as an entry into the world of why decisions are made. It’s easy to turn on the news and think the people in charge of whatever the catastrophe of the moment is are dolts, but that isn’t always the case and you could just as well be in their shoes.

Let’s begin this review with aesthetics. I’m the type of person who likes to see a book shelf full of finished books. It’s a trophy case of sorts, so how a book looks among it’s peers is important to me. And Hallinan must have considered this because the cover is quite unique. First of all, he takes the theme of mistakes seriously as the sleeve purposefully doesn’t symmetrically align with the hardcover. The title and author aren’t centered on the spine either. Little images of a delete key and white out blot the blaze orange cover. The font is large, but not childish and there are call outs on the pages to highlight different passages. All in all I like the appearance of the book.

Why We Make Mistakes Cover

I know what you’re thinking, lets get to the Burt Reynolds story. Here is an excerpt taken from the book and originally orated by Mr. Reynolds to Playboy in an October 1979 interview:

A man walks into a bar. The man’s name is Burt Reynolds. Yes, that Burt Reynolds. Except this is early in his career, and nobody knows him yet—including a guy at the end of the bar with huge shoulders.Reynolds sits down two stools away and begins sipping a beer and tomato juice. Suddenly, the man starts yelling obscenities at a couple seated at a table nearby. Reynolds tells him to watch his language. That’s when the guy with the huge shoulders turns on Reynolds. And rather than spoil what happens next I’ll let you hear it from Reynolds, who recounted the story years ago in an interview with Playboy magazine:

“I remember looking down and planting my right foot on this brass rail for leverage, and then I came around and caught him with a tremendous right to the side of the head. The punch made a ghastly sound and he just flew off the stool and landed on his back in the doorway, about 15 feet away. And it was while he was in mid-air that I saw…that he had no legs.”

Only later, as Reynolds left the bar, did he notice the man’s wheelchair, which had been folded up and tucked next to the doorway.

This story is about how people see. The human eye has a wide span of range in it’s field of view, but we really only can focus on two degrees in front of us. Burt Reynolds, even with several clues in plain sight, didn’t see that the man had no legs.

Here are a few other insights I thought would exemplify the contents of this book:

We are abstract thinkers. Suppose you are on a busy city street. There is a general hum of cars coming and going, a coffee shop, some offices off the sidewalk and several people walking toward you. Their names are Jim, a six foot tall with brown hair man, Phil, a short thin guy, and Jose, a stocky Latino. The tall guy and the stocky guy are dressed in construction worker clothes and the other one has a suit and tie on. As they approach you, you will discern their height and their build, but you’ll remember that two of them are construction workers and the third is a business man. Can you remember their names without looking back? Probably not, and if you do you are decomposing their job to their physical appearance to their names. Names aren’t memorable, abstraction associations are. Jim, the construction worker.

There is a section on something called hindsight bias. When we look at the past we have the benefit of knowing how things turn out. Because of this we can quickly weed out the important facts and the irrelevant ones. The outcome will almost appear inevitable; the facts are obvious. However, as the events occur the people involved don’t have that luxury. All the facts must be considered relevant and decisions are made based on unaligned information. Something that is meaningless can appear to be valuable and vice versa. Humans have a bounded rationality – time and situations affect outcomes. We need to consider the environment. Was there too much information? Too many distractions? Temptations? Norms in behavior? or What? The person who made the decision is ultimately accountable, but hindsight bias can make them better or usually worse than they really are.

“Almost everyone is overconfident – except the people who are depressed, and they tend to be realist.”  says Stefano DellaVigna. This sense is actually a realm of business as well. Millions of people buy gym memberships expecting to shed 20 pounds and look marvelous. What really happens is a few visits and a recurring billing statement on the 15th of every month. Or take Nutrisystem, they don’t sell meal replacements for those wanting to diet. They sell hope. They sell an improved body image and many people buy thinking it’s the answer to their health and attractiveness.

Its rare when someone is well calibrated, meaning there is a small difference between their actual and perceived abilities.

There is an emerging consensus among some psychologists that human decision making operates on two levels – one more rational, one more visceral – and that these two constantly trade off… Many of our mistakes appear to happen while we are operating in one condition but think we are operating in the other.

Finally, I recommend this book to anyone interested in the behavior side of decision making and why logic and reason don’t carry the day. It’s a fun and quick read with many enlightening segments that makes you view certain situations differently.

Here’s my breakdown of notes taken while reading this book.



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