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Reducing Human Error

We all make mistakes. But what we call "human error" is often just a matter of thinking errors that can be corrected or at least diminished in frequency. These include equating correlation with causation, over-generalization, and even under-generalization. To avoid making errors in your thinking, it can help to get in the habit of asking a few important questions. Start with the following.

Am I over-generalizing?

Perhaps it is true that avoiding debt is a good general rule. Avoid debt when going into business, though, and your business may fail before it can grow large enough to provide a livable income for you.

Am I under-generalizing?

We have to generalize. If I didn't have the general rule that "most email offers are junk," I would have to spend hours daily analyzing the merits of the various offers.

Do I have enough information?

Over-estimating knowledge is a common human error. After a few weeks study, a man thinks he is ready to pick stocks to invest his money in, for example, when even those who have studied this area for years typically under-perform the market.

How are my emotions involved?

Emotions need to be involved, if for nothing more than motivation. To think clearly, though, you need to identify when emotions are pushing you - and in what direction. Anger might lead an article writer to waste time on a petty violation of a copyright, for example, when his time would be better spent writing something new.

How are labels affecting my thinking?

You need to use words, but they come with their own problems too. Thinking of someone as a "liberal" or "conservative" might cause you to miss the value in their arguments, due to the preconceived notions you have about people with these labels.

Am I applying the same rules to all?

Double-standards are often subtle in their development. A man thinks of those who are using illegal drugs as different, so it never occurs to him that his wine is a drug as well. He excuses this attitude by pointing out the legality, while never asking himself whether he would really give up cigarettes, alcohol or caffeine if they were made illegal.

Am I confusing causation and correlation?

Even scientists often make this mistake. For example, Americans with higher salt intake are more likely to have high blood pressure - this is correlation. Does it mean that salt causes high blood pressure? If that were the case, the problem would be epidemic in Japan, where they eat much more salt than in America - and they also have a low incidence of high blood pressure.

This last one can even lead us towards racist feelings and ideas when we note a higher incidence of some behavior in a given population. Confusing correlation with causation is one of the toughest errors to overcome, but all thinking errors can damage our ability to analyze things and make rational decisions. To prevent this we first need to identify our own mistaken ways of thinking.


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