Make No Mistake: To Err IS Human

Yes, humans make mistakes. In fact, our brains are hard-wired to miss information.
Yes, humans make mistakes. In fact, our brains are hard-wired to miss information.

The humble popsicle was invented - by mistake! - when some soda pop with a stick in it was accidentally allowed to freeze. We're constantly making mistakes, lucky and unlucky ones, and to think we can avoid mistakes entirely is only compounding the error. Our Cover Story is reported now by Susan Spencer of 48 Hours:

Erasers … delete buttons … spot removers … that annoying woman on the GPS device ("Recalculating…") … all depressing evidence of the obvious:

We're destined to make mistakes.

Documentary filmmaker Ric Burns says it may be history's greatest lesson: Mistakes happen … again and again … from missteps to miscues, to misadventures with happy outcomes.

"The great example being Henry Hudson looking for the Northwest Passage to China and discovering, whether it wasn't the biggest mistake in the world or not, New York City," said Burns. "So, you know, I love thinking of America as being really one of the grandest mistakes of navigation in the history of navigation."

Luckily, our more frequent mistakes are on a much smaller scale.

"You know, a hand reaches across the table and hits the glass. We thought we were moving in the right direction, or the pencil point breaks," said Burns. "All the trivial mistakes that kind of litter every day of all of our lives.

But "trivial mistakes" are no trivial matter for Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Joseph T. Hallinan. His new book's call to action: banish blunders.

All right, what do we do to get better?

"Checklists: write things down," Hallinan told Spencer. "Just last month the New England Journal of Medicine came out with a study, they looked at doctors at eight hospitals around the world and said, 'Before you operate on a patient, just try a checklist. Write down the things you need to do.' Really basic things, like ask the patient his name, so you know it's the right person.

"They found that when doctors used these checklists, surgical death rates were cut by nearly in half."

Hallinan (left) has his own checklist, tips to cut down on mistakes, things like: Get more sleep, and do one thing at a time.

"If your goal is not to make mistakes, I would avoid multitasking," he said. "A group at Harvard just looked at talking on the cell phone while driving. They found that when people do that, they cause 636,000 accidents a year, six percent of the total of all accidents, and they cause 2,600 deaths a year.

"People think, 'Oh, I've got a hands-free device, I don't have to worry.' Your hands aren't the problem; it's your brain. Your brain is clogged up trying to figure out all these messages. And it's got limits. It can't do it all."

Even more disheartening, our limited brains seem to be hard-wired to make mistakes because of the way we process information.

"It's a very highly efficient system which is not to say it's always accurate," Hallinan said. "And the trade-off we make is usually we'll trade accuracy for speed."

You may think your brain is the exception! OK, answer quickly: Is Reno, Nevada east or west of San Diego?

East? Not so fast … Reno's west of San Diego.

Spencer was convinced that the map was wrong.

"That gets back, in part, to the way our brain deals with all this vast information that it's got to deal with," Hallinan said. "It basically trims down, straightens out and then it sort of misaligns certain things. And they've done studies that say when people remember maps they tend to get rid of all the odd angles and quirky things and make it a little bit more symmetrical."

And it's not just how our brains remember things, it's also how our eyes see things.

"There's been an astonishing amount of research in the last 10 years or so that shows that we're all afflicted with various forms of blindness," Hallinan said. "One of the most common, and startling, is change blindness."

Change blindness works like this. Something happens right in front of your eyes, a scene changes, but you don't register it because your focus is somewhere else.

It happens in the movies all the time, sometimes revealing mistakes, as Hallinan points out:

"If you watch 'The Godfather,' the famous scene where Sonny Corleone gets gunned down at the toll booth, in the early scene you see the bullets riddle the windshield. Second scene, the windshield's perfectly clean glass."

"It's clear that most of what you see, most of what lands on your retina, you don't fully process. You just can't do it," said Dr. Jeremy Wolfe.

In some jobs, that has serious implications. Harvard ophthalmology professor Jeremy Wolfe is working with the Department of Homeland Security to cut down on mistakes by baggage screeners under intense pressure to quickly interpret X-ray images, as in this demonstration:

"Okay, I see nothing particularly threatening in this," said Spencer.

"Well, that's why you're not an airport screener!" Dr. Wolfe laughed. He pointed out what she'd missed on the X-ray screen: "That's a knife."

"Where?" asked Spencer.

"The thing that I've now conveniently outlined. That's a knife of some sort.

"You get a feeling from that immediately of why this might be a hard job," Dr. Wolfe said.

It must be hard. According to a classified report obtained by USA Today, in a 2006 test, screeners at O'Hare missed fake bomb materials 60 percent of the time … and their colleagues in Los Angeles missed them 75 percent of the time.

It's not that the screeners are lazy or poorly trained, Jeremy Wolfe says, it's just how our brains work.

"One of the sources of problems may be that you're looking for something that's very rare. So if you go out and look for something that's very rare in the world, just normally you will be less inclined to say that, 'Yes, it's there,' than to say, 'No, it's not there.'"

"So, if you're not expecting it, or you know that it almost never happens, you're not likely to see it?" Spencer asked.

"Yes. The one liner is, if you don't see it often, you often don't see it."

Wolfe ran into the same problem when he studied mistakes by radiologists who, studies have found, miss up to 30 percent of the tumors they're looking for.

"We think we want our doctors to be absolutely perfect," Dr. Wolfe said. "And in many cases, they're running up against the stops of what you were built to do."

"To me, mistakes are the essence of being human," said professor Paul Schoemaker of the Wharton Business School. But, he said, on the bright side, some mistakes can mean progress, innovation … even greatness.

"An example in science is Alexander Fleming who discovered penicillin," Schoemaker said. "But it was an accidental discovery. Viagra was an accidental discovery. It was initially meant to improve the blood flow around a heart. And then the side effects were observed, et cetera. Thomas Edison, of course, a great inventor, I think he tried many hundreds of materials for filaments in the light bulb. But he never viewed any of them as failures, even though they didn't work."

Which brings us back to Henry Hudson's breakthrough mistake: The discovery of Manhattan. Hudson - and other great historical figures - share a common trait, says Ric Burns … something we all can learn from.

"When the mistakes and accidents occur, they bring them in, make them part of the plan," Burns said. "We see that in doctors, we see that in scientists, and we see that in great business people."

"So the highest achievers are, in your mind, going to be people who learn to incorporate their mistakes? Accept their mistakes?"

"No question, no question," said Burns.

Good news because, clearly, we're going to keep making mistakes … no mistake about it!

For more info:

  • "Why We Make Mistakes" by Joseph Hallinan (Broadway Books)
  • Brigham and Women's Hospital's Visual Attention Lab