Like it or not, Chicago-based former Wall Street Journal writer Joseph T. Hallinan owes a lot to Malcolm Gladwell. The frizzy-haired author of Blink, The Tipping Point, and most recently Outliers brought contemporary social psychological principles to the mainstream—specifically, the understanding that much of human behavior is driven by surroundings and environment rather than personality. Failing to recognize this is what academics call the “fundamental attribution error,” and while Blink posited that these situation-specific snap judgments can be beneficial, Hallinan’s Why We Make Mistakes: How We Look Without Seeing, Forget Things In Seconds, And Are All Pretty Sure We Are Way Above Average focuses on the “error” part of this handle—how little things account for huge, subconscious biases, and sometimes fatal mistakes. It’s riveting subject matter, and coupled with Hallinan’s breezy tone, the book is an engrossing read.
Specifically, Hallinan addresses each topic in such a logical, conversational way, it’s easy to forget that it’s meant as a survey of basic social psychology principles. In the first chapter, for example, Hallinan posits that people take information in on a purely need-to-know basis, without even thinking about it. He then mentions an experiment conducted at Cornell University, where participants were instructed to ask strangers for directions; the twist was that the conversation would be blocked, literally, by two men carrying a door. In that split second, a door-carrier switches with the stranger, and the directions-giving continues as if nothing went wrong. Hardly any of the experimentees noticed the change, and Hallinan follows with evidence that you, the reader, wouldn’t have either.
Hallinan’s knack for contextualizing complex, prevalent group phenomena continues in later chapters, which cover things like framing events in the wrong light, the fact that the majority of people think they’re above average at everything (which is mathematically impossible), and the underlying scientific explanation as to why men hate asking for directions. He even debunks certain widely accepted truths—going with the second instinct when taking tests actually results in more correct answers. Hell, he breaks from traditional social-psychology literature and offers up solutions for the errors he notes. Those Gladwell devotees, already inundated with the power of the situation, might leave this book wanting more—but they’ll certainly be wondering whether the mainstream face of behavioral science is about to change.