top of page

Why We Make Mistakes

Quick: What was the last mistake you made that you wondered why in the heck you made it to begin with?

Quick: What was the last mistake you made that if you could reverse it, you would pay whatever asked?

Quick: What was the last mistake you made thinking you were doing the correct thing?

Quick: What was the last mistake you made that you didn't even know you made until someone pointed it out?

Quick: When was the last time you admitted to making a mistake?

Plane crashes are 70% human error. Car crashes are 90% human error. Human's make mistakes. But why?

Why do some people make more mistakes than others? Why do some people see things others don't?

In the book, Why We Make Misteaks by Joe Hallinan, the author offers up many reasons.

One of his more infamous examples in his book goes like this:

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. 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. 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 than 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.

The author points out that most mistakes are avoidable. A little more thinking, a little more common sense, and a little more insight will help reduce mistakes.

Mistakes are the curse of customer service. It's always the item the customer needs most that is shipped incorrectly or backordered. It's always the phone agent having a bad day that gets the best customer on the phone. And it's always the customer in a hurry to check out that gets the store employee chatting on the phone.

Another point the author makes is that humans cannot multi-task as can't computers. We opt to try to do many things at once but the brain slows down with each task and invariably, mistakes are made.

This book explains much and offers a lot of "oh, that makes sense" explanations. But in the end, we need to be more cognizant of our actions to reduce mistakes. Spell check was one of the best inventions of all times, but it doesn't mean words are  spelled correctly or the grammar is right.

Try and make it a mistake-free day and if so, figure out how you can make it that way each day. If you can't, perhaps read the book.

Happy Thursday!


Adam Harris was born in coal country, right in the heart of the Appalachian Mountains. His father, Gregory, worked the mines every day and came home to his best friend, Jim Beam. Gregory had many frie


bottom of page