Joseph Hallinan’s “Why We Make Mistakes”: Book Review

Poor Ash’s Almanack > Book Reviews > Category

Overall Rating: ★★★ (3/7) (mediocre for its category)

Per-Hour Learning Potential / Utility: ★★★ (3/7)

Readability: ★★★★★★ (6/7)

Challenge Level: 1/5 (None) | 220 pages ex-notes (304 official)

Blurb/Description: Pulitzer-prize-winning journalist/author Joseph Hallinan surveys and summarizes some of the major cognitive biases at a blistering, whirlwind pace.

Summary: Frequent PAA readers know that, like most readers, my chief complaint about most books, is that they are too long and they repeat themselves too much (in other words, they’re repetitive, and they keep saying the same thing over and over again, repeating points even once the reader gets it.)

So when I encountered Hallinan’s trim ~220-page book, which appeared to touch on many of the important cognitive biases, I was of course excited to read it and see if it was a go-to in the cognitive biases space.

Unfortunately, it proved disappointing: my friend Josh likes to defend longer books by invoking the metaphor of a trailer vs. a movie.  Usually I disagree with him, but in the case of Why We Make Mistakes, the book ends up in the unhappy medium between “bullet point summary” and “thoughtful, book level analysis.”  The coverage of the topics feels shallow, and most has been done better by others.

Highlights: The second half of the book is stronger than the first half, and some of the material (such as that about the “home ranges” of boys vs. girls, and overconfidence in men vs. women) was actually a unique twist and presented some new research I hadn’t seen covered elsewhere.  As a really brief, fast read, this would be good for your 12-year-old, or a non-reader adult friend, who you want to introduce to cognitive biases in a low-effort way.

Lowlights: The vast majority of Hallinan’s explanations lack the elegance and nuance of authors who go into the topics in more depth (see the “you should read instead” section).  I didn’t bother taking my usual notes because there were only a few pages where I really learned something new and the vast majority of Hallinan’s points are made much better by other authors (for example, Hallinan paraphrases Don Norman in several places, and in doing so renders unrecognizable the vast majority of Norman’s brilliance – the penny example, “affordances,” and human error fall flat, not holding nearly the same punch.)

Mental Model / ART Thinking Points: memory, hindsight bias, confirmation bias, endowment effect, overconfidence, hyperbolic discounting,

Instead of Why We Make Mistakes, you should read:

Mistakes were Made (but not by me)” (review + notes) by Tavris/Aronson – covers hindsight bias and the topic of the criminal justice system in far more nuance and thoughtful detail.

The Design of Everyday Things (review + notes) by Don Norman – does a much better job than Hallinan with working memory, “human error,” etc.

Misbehaving (review + notes) by Richard Thaler – does a much better job on the endowment effect, hyperbolic discounting, etc.

The Happiness Advantage” (review + notes) and “Before Happiness” (review + notes) by Shawn Achor – much better reads on the hedonic treadmill, schema, etc.

Reading Tips: none

Reread Value: 1/5 (None)


First Read: spring 2018

Last Read: spring 2018

Number of Times Read: 1

Planning to Read Again?: no


Review Date: spring 2018