Why We Make Mistakes
by Joseph T. Hallinan
(NY: Broadway Books, 2009); hardcover, 283 pp.
Mistakes of judgment and mistakes of execution are the stuff of comedy, especially physical comedy. YouTube offers a rapidly expanding video archive of human stupidity in action, from the world's most incompetent criminals to every conceivable mishap awaiting those so foolhardy as to get out of bed in the morning. Likewise Chuck Shepherd's News of the Weird.
When Joel Schechter, editor of Yale's Theater magazine, asked me to do an article on physical comedy way back in 1986, I used it as an excuse to probe the connection between human error and physical comedy. [Read the whole article here.] Admittedly this was my subversive attempt to forge some new connections that would counter the notion that physical comedy was an inferior form of comedy, mindless entertainment that was good for a belly laugh but little else. Instead, I wanted the reader to see physical comedy as embodying a deeper truth about the human condition, and I had no better ally in this than Henry Miller in his clown novella, The Smile at the Foot of the Ladder:
"The beloved clown! It was his special privilege to reenact the errors, the follies, the stupidities, all the misunderstandings which plague human kind. To be ineptitude itself, that was something even the dullest oaf could grasp. Not to understand, when all is clear as daylight; not to catch on, though the trick be repeated a thousand times for you; to grope about like a blind man, when all signs point the right direction; to insist on opening the wrong door, though it is marked Danger!; to walk head on into the mirror, instead of going around it; to look through the wrong end of a rifle, a loaded rifle! -- people never tired of these absurdities because for millennia humans have traversed all the wrong roads, because for millennia all their seeking and questioning have landed them in a cul-de-sac. The master of ineptitude has all time as his domain. He surrenders only in the face of eternity."
Of course I'm not the only one to notice the disastrous results of human error, be it the sinking of the Titanic or our nation's certitude as to the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. In many fields, especially those that involve human life, the study of risk assessment and human error is serious business — and often the findings are quite frightening.
Now there comes along a new book on the subject, and one I highly recommend for its research and readability, Joseph T. Hallinan's Why We Make Mistakes. (The image you see above is a joke wraparound cover and flaps, not a result of my crooked scanning.)
Subtitled How We Look Without Seeing, Forget Things in Seconds, and Are All Pretty Sure We Are Way Above Average, the book offers both clear analysis and great entertainment. And in most cases, the connections to comedy pretty much jump out at you. A few choice tidbits:
• In an experiment designed to test our ability to recognize change, two researches from Cornell University concocted a scene that could have been right out of a Marx Brothers movie. One of their actors would stop a stranger on the street to ask directions, but in the middle of the conversation two other actors would abruptly walk right between them carrying a door. But the catch was that while passing through, the actor asking directions would use the cover of the door to quickly change places with another actor, who seamlessly continued the conversation with the stranger. In the majority of cases, the stranger did not even notice the change! However, when the experiment was described to a college class and the students were asked to predict whether or not they would have noticed such a switcheroo, 100% were quite sure they would have.
• Overconfidence is indeed one of Hallinan's main themes and, as they teach you in clown school, pride goeth before the fall. Overconfidence makes us buy gym memberships or time shares we'll never fully use, and think we can accomplish complex tasks without following instructions (what he dubs the "bushwhack" approach). It seems to be part of human nature to want to feel on top of things, what Hallinan calls the "illusion of control." In one experiment, subjects guessed the outcome of a series of coin tosses. Students who were told that their first guesses were all correct (they didn't actually see the coin close-up) became convinced that they would be able to continue to predict the outcome well above half the time, and that they would even get better with practice. And who were these overconfident and, dare I say, foolish subjects? Students from a certain ivy league college in New Haven. The same researcher did an experiment in which the subjects bet on the outcome of a simple card game in which whoever drew the high card won. Though the chances on any draw were obviously 50-50, what happened was that when playing against "a guy dressed as a schlub," the subjects bet more than they did when betting against a nattily dressed opponent. Yes, these were Yale University students.
You probably won't be surprised to read that all kinds of tests have shown that men on average are far more overconfident than women and that they (conveniently) forget their mistakes a lot quicker. In the chapter "Men Shoot First," Hallinan gives example after example of this tendency, from men being more likely to kill their fellow soldier ("friendly fire") while in combat, to men overestimating their own IQ scores. Tragically, when it comes to driving a car, men wear seat belts with less frequency than women but are three times more likely to be involved in a fatal accident.
It's not much of a leap to connect this arrogant overconfidence to today's talking heads who assure us that climate change is nothing to get so worried about, that they've got everything under control. Obviously a lot of this drivel comes from those getting rich from oil production, but there are millions of others with nothing to gain — and, like all of us, everything to lose — who are blinded by overconfidence into assuming that somehow it will all work out, but with no evidence to back that up. Somewhere Henry Miller is chuckling.
I haven't seen it yet, but you might want to check out the new movie, The Age of Stupid, in which a man living alone in 2055 in a world devastated by climate change examines old footage from 2008 and tries to figure out how we could have been so stupid. Here's the trailer:
I guess the good news is that clowns know what they're talking about. The bad news is that what we're talking about is pretty scary.
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