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Making Mistakes

by Phyllis Pollack
December 2010

From the Blog of Phyllis G. Pollack.

Phyllis  Pollack

Why do we make mistakes? This is a really good question and one that we have probably each asked ourselves more than once. It is also the title of a book that I recently read (Why We Make Mistakes by Joseph T. Hallinan (Broadway Books, New York, 2009)) in which the author attempts to explain how our very scientific brain works in simple every day terms.

Why do we make mistakes? For any number of reasons: one is that we look but do not always see, and so miss important details. Or, we miss things that are apparent to others but not to us, no matter how hard we look. (Id. at pp. 11-17). Think about all of the typographical errors we have missed in proof reading.

Another reason is that the “mistake” is not our fault or so we tell ourselves. We attribute the “mistake” to someone or something else. Because of this misattribution, we are likely to make the same mistake over and over again since we have placed its cause outside of ourselves and as belonging to someone or something else. (Id. at p. 5).

A third reason is that as hard as we try, our brains are not hardwired to multi-task. In his book, the author gives the example of a cockpit crew that became so focused on or engrossed in why a particular indicator light did not come on, that they “forgot” to fly the plane as it was landing. As a result, the plane crashed (killing 99 people). They had become so consumed in figuring out about the light, they lost their awareness of the overall situation – that they were supposed to be landing the plane! (Id. at pp. 76-77).

Studies have shown that we simply cannot multi-task. When we do try to save time by doing several things at once, our brain actually slows down, so that we have gained nothing. Further, by switching between tasks, we tend to forget what we were doing and, as we all know, it takes time to re-remember. Further, such multi-tasking or divided attention can cause “inattentional blindness”; we look directly at something and still do not see it! (Id. at pp. 78-81).

Fourth, we may make a mistake because our perception of the event is all wrong. We have “framed” the issue or the event in the wrong way either based upon what we have heard and/or seen. Based on what we “assume” or “think” we heard or saw, we react and, as it turns out, our response is inappropriate. How many times have you overheard bits of conversation or walked into the middle of a situation and mistook what was actually happening? (Id. at pp. 91-93).

A fifth reason why we make mistakes is because we all think we are above average: we are over confident which causes us not to be as realistic or as objective about our abilities or our intentions as we should be. We are overly optimistic that we can accomplish our goal or that we will, indeed, do something (e.g. lose weight in the new year? Or, get much more exercise in 2011?). (Id. at pp. 149-151).

Finally, the book addresses the question that many women have often wondered (including me): why don’t men ask for directions? Because… they do not believe that they are lost in the first place! As the author explains, “. . .men report having more confidence about their sense of direction than women do – even though there is little evidence that they actually have a better sense of direction.” (Id. at p. 147). Because of this, men are quite happy to “take a more abstract approach, navigating through the use of metrical distances, like miles, and cardinal directions, like east and west. . . .” (Id. at p. 147). Men enjoy using this “survey” strategy. Women, though, prefer a more concrete, step-by-step approach that relies on landmarks (or so-called “route” strategy) (e.g. turn left at the drugstore, go one block and then turn right at the gas station, et cetera). (Id. ) Consequently, because men enjoy “navigating,” and using an abstract approach, they never think they are lost!

This book contains many more insights into why we do make mistakes, and often repeat them. Its theme is that we are, indeed, fallible but because of our biases, we are often not even aware that we are making mistakes. Or, if we are, we certainly won’t admit them!

As you might guess, making mistakes and why we do so does have something to do with disputes, their resolution and thus mediation. Often, in order to resolve a dispute, we must gain an insight into a person and her approach to life. This book provides that very necessary roadmap. It is worth reading.

. . .Just something to think about.


Phyllis Pollack with PGP Mediation uses a facilitative, interest-based approach. Her preferred mediation style is facilitative in the belief that the best and most durable resolutions are those achieved by the parties themselves. The parties generally know the business issues and priorities, personalities and obstacles to a successful resolution as well as their own needs better than any mediator or arbitrator. She does not impose her views or make decisions for the parties. Rather, Phyllis assists the parties in creating options that meet the needs and desires of both sides.  When appropriate, visual aids are used in preparing discussions and illustrating possible solutions. On the other hand, she is not averse to being proactive and offering a generous dose of reality, particularly when the process may have stalled due to unrealistic expectations of attorney or client, a failure to focus on needs rather than demands, or when one or more parties need to be reminded of the potential consequences of their failure to reach an agreement.

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