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We all know the expression “To err is human.” And this is true enough. When something goes wrong, the cause is overwhelmingly attributable to human error: airplane crashes (70 percent), car wrecks (90 percent), workplace accidents (90 percent). Once a human is blamed, the inquiry usually stops there. But it shouldn’t—not if we want to eliminate the mistake.
We’re all affected by certain biases in the way we see, remember, and perceive the world, and these biases make us prone to commit certain types of errors. As a journalist who’s spent years studying the science of human error, I’ve identified common mistakes that afflict us all. Here are seven, along with ways to avoid making them in the first place.
1. We make slips of the tongue.
There is a mistake committed by people of all ages and cultures: We fail to come up with the name of a person we know or, even more embarrassing, we call the person by the wrong name. Researchers call these gaffes slip-of-the-tongue or tip-of-the-tongue errors, or TOTs, for short. For most people, they occur about once a week.
One of the more infamous slips occurred just before the 1992 Super Bowl. Joe Theismann, a former quarterback for the Washington Redskins, was interviewed by two reporters about Redskins coach Joe Gibbs. Gibbs was, and still is, considered one of the finest offensive strategists. The reporters wanted to know whether Theismann thought Gibbs was a genius.
Theismann didn’t think so. In the first place, he said, the word genius isn’t applicable to a sport like football. Added Theismann, “A genius is a guy like Norman Einstein.”
Norman Einstein? Clearly Theismann meant to say Albert Einstein. Too late. His slip made national news, and Theismann became the poster child for dumb jocks everywhere. But his remark really wasn’t as dumb as it first appeared to be.
Research shows that most TOTs involve the unique names of people or places. If you’re searching for a common noun—such as the name of the computer part that displays text—you can say monitor or screen. But for a proper name, only one word will do.
When a proper name is on the tip of our tongues, we can usually recall some of the information we need. For instance, people can often guess the right number of syllables in the name, even the name’s first letter. In one study, a participant tried to identify a picture of the actress Liza Minnelli. The person couldn’t produce her name but wrote out names that came tantalizingly close: Monetti, Mona, Magetti, Spaghetti, Bogette.
Another clue to the TOTs riddle is that recall of the right name is often blocked by a wrong name. But not just any wrong name. The wrong name typically has the same meaning as the right name. If you’re thinking about a smart person like Albert Einstein, for instance, the wrong name will likely be that of another person you also consider very smart. This is where the Theismann story gets interesting.
There really is a Norman Einstein. He’s an emergency room physician at Catawba Valley Medical Center in Hickory, North Carolina. He and Joe Theismann were classmates at South River High School in New Jersey.
“I was a senior when he was a sophomore,” Dr. Einstein said. As boys, they lived just blocks apart. “We played a little bit of basketball, touch football-that kind of stuff.” But they weren’t close friends: Theismann was a jock, Einstein a brain. Einstein graduated in 1965 and was the class valedictorian. He attended Rutgers University and then medical school at Tufts University. Theismann headed to the NFL. Twenty-seven years later, in a corner of the Metrodome in Minneapolis, Norman Einstein’s name popped back into Joe Theismann’s head.
In Theismann’s mind, the surface details regarding Norman Einstein and Albert Einstein may have faded, but their common meaning had not: Both were very smart guys.
2. We wear rose-colored glasses.
Without intentionally trying to distort the record, we’re all prone to recalling our own words and deeds in a more favorable light than others may recall. To demonstrate, answer this question objectively (but only if you kept all your old report cards): How did you do in high school?
The answer: probably not as well as you remember—at least not if students at Ohio Wesleyan University are any guide. In one study, they were asked to recall their high school grades. Researchers checked the students’ responses against the actual transcripts. No less than 29 percent of the recalled grades were wrong. This was not ancient history; the students were college freshmen and sophomores being asked about their grades just a few years earlier.
What’s more, the errors weren’t neutral. Far more grades were shifted upward (recalling an A rather than a B) than downward. Students also had a better memory for good grades than for bad. The recall accuracy for A’s was 89 percent; for D’s, it was 29 percent (researchers threw out the F’s). Overall, 79 percent of students inflated their grades.
Time and again, people have been shown to reconstruct their memories in positive, self-flattering ways. Parents have been shown to remember their parenting methods as being far closer to what expert opinion would prescribe than they actually were. And gamblers remember their wins more keenly than their losses.
This inclination is so powerful that, according to researchers at the University of Chicago and the University of Virginia, we also recognize our own faces as being more physically attractive than others judge them to be.
3. When we multitask, we get stupid.
The brain slows down when it has to juggle tasks.
In one experiment, researchers asked adults between the ages of 18 and 32 to identify two images: colored crosses and geometric shapes, such as triangles. Seems simple enough, right? But when the participants saw colored crosses and shapes at the same time, they needed almost a full second of reaction time to press a button. Even then, they often made mistakes. If the participants were asked to identify the images one at a time—crosses first, then shapes—the process went almost twice as quickly.
Switching from task to task creates other problems. We can forget what we were doing or planned to do. The to-do list in our brains is known as working memory, and it keeps track of all the short-term stuff we need to remember, like an e-mail address someone just gave us.
But the contents of our working memory can evaporate like water in a desert; after only about two seconds, things begin to disappear. Within 15 seconds of considering a new problem, you’ll have forgotten the old problem. In some cases, the forgetting rate can be as high as 40 percent. Workplace studies have found that it takes up to 15 minutes to regain a deep state of concentration after a distraction.
This squares with what researchers found when they looked at the work habits of Microsoft employees. A group of them took, on average, 15 minutes to get back to serious mental tasks, like writing reports or computer codes, after they responded to incoming e-mails. Why so long? Typically, the employees strayed off to reply to other messages or browse the Web.
In workplace cubicles, we’re safe (most of the time). But out in the real world, multitasking can be dangerous. In 1999, the U.S. Army studied the effect talking on a cell phone had on driving ability. Its conclusion? “All forms of cellular phone usage lead to significant decreases in abilities to respond to highway traffic situations.”
This was especially true for older drivers. The older we are, the harder it becomes to screen out distractions. The decline is noticeable after age 40.