Why We Make Mistakes

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  • Edition: Reprint
  • Format: Trade Paper
  • Copyright: 2/9/2010
  • Publisher: Broadway Books

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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.

Why We Make Mistakes is enlivened by real-life stories--of weathermen whose predictions are uncannily accurate and a witness who sent an innocent man to jail--and offers valuable advice, such as how to remember where you’ve hidden something important. You’ll learn why multitasking is a bad idea, why men make errors women don’t, and why most people think San Diego is west of Reno (it’s not).

Why We Make Mistakes will open your eyes to the reasons behind your mistakes--and have you vowing to do better the next time.

Author Biography

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.


Chapter 1

We Look but Don't Always See
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. Out of nowhere, the guy starts harassing a man and a woman 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 Burt Reynolds himself, 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.

As mistakes go, punching out a guy with no legs is a lulu. But for our purposes the important part of the anatomy in this story is not the legs but the eyes. Even though Reynolds was looking right at the man he hit, he didn't see all that he needed to see. In the field of human error, this kind of mistake is so common that researchers have given it its own nickname: a "looked but didn't see" error. When we look at something--or at someone--we think we see all there is to see. But we don't. We often miss important details, like legs and wheelchairs, and sometimes much larger things, like doors and bridges.

We See a Fraction of What We Think We See
To understand why we do this, it helps to know something about the eye and how it works. The eye is not a camera. It does not take "pictures" of events. And it does not see everything at once. The part of the visual field that can be seen clearly at any given time is only a fraction of the total. At normal viewing distances, for instance, the area of clear vision is about the size of a quarter. The eye deals with this constraint by constantly darting about, moving and stopping roughly three times a second.

What is seen as the eyes move about depends, in part, on who is doing the seeing. Men, for instance, have been shown to notice different things from those that women do. When viewing a mock purse snatching by a male thief, for instance, women tended to notice the appearance and actions of the woman whose purse was being snatched; men, on the other hand, were more accurate regarding details about the thief. Right-handed people have also been shown to remember the orientation of certain objects they have seen more accurately than left-handers do. Years ago, after the Hale-Bopp comet made a spectacular appearance in the evening skies, investigators in England asked left- and right-handers if they could remember which way the comet had been facing when they saw it. Right-handers were significantly more likely than lefties to remember that the comet had been facing to the left. Handedness is also the best predictor of a person's directional preference. When people are forced to make a turn at an intersection, right-handers, at least in the United States, prefer turning right, and lefties prefer turning left. As a result, advised the authors of one study, "one should look to the left when searching for the shortest lines of people at stores, banks and the like."

The Expert's Quiet Eye
In fact, what we see is, in part, a function not only of who we are but of what we are. Researchers have demonstrated that different people can view the same scene in different ways. Say you're a golfer, for instance. Even bette

Excerpted from Why We Make Mistakes: How We Look Without Seeing, Forget Things in Seconds, and Are All Pretty Sure We Are Way above Average by Joseph T. Hallinan
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

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Customer Reviews

More insights for life! June 1, 2011
"Why We Make Mistakes" provides an inventory of biases and expectations that contribute to errors we make day-to-day. Hallinan's textbook is essentially a survey of research into why people act the way they do. In the final analysis, this is a very readable textbook on an important subject. If you're trying to understand people and why they make mistakes this is a must read. Well worth taking a look at.
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Why We Make Mistakes: 4 out of 5 stars based on 1 user reviews.

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