No matter how smart, observant, and rational we are, we will never have perfect information for all of the choices we make in our lives. There will always be decisions that we have to make based on a limited set of information, and when that happens, there will be a risk that we won’t make the right decision. In reality, there is risk in almost any decision we make, because there are very few choices where we have perfect information and fully understand all the potential consequences of our decisions and actions. This means the chance for errors is huge, and we will make many mistakes throughout our lives. How our cultures respond to these errors is important in determining how we move forward from them.
In Risk Savvy, Gerd Gigerenzer writes the following about negative error cultures:
“On the one end of the spectrum are negative error cultures. People living in such a culture fear to make errors of any kind, good or bad, and, if an error does occur, they do everything to hide it. Such a culture has little chance to learn from errors and discover new opportunities.”
None of us want to live in a world with errors, but the reality is that we spend a lot of our time engulfed by them. We don’t want to make mistakes on the job and potentially lose a raise, promotion, or employment altogether. Many people belong to religious social communities or live in families characterized by negative error cultures where any social misstep feels like the end of the world and poses expulsion from the community/family. Additionally, our world of politics is typically a negative error culture, where one political slip-up is often enough to irrevocably damage an individual’s political career.
Gigerenzer encourages us move away from negative error cultures because they stifle learning, reduce creativity, and fail to acknowledge the reality that our world is inherently a world of risk. We cannot avoid all risk because we cannot be all-knowing, and that means we will make mistakes. We can try to minimize the mistakes we make and their consequences, but we can only do so by acknowledging mistakes, owning up to them, learning, adapting, and improving future decision making.
Negative error cultures don’t expose mistakes and do not learn from them. They prevent individuals and organizations from finding the root cause of an error, and don’t allow for changes and adaptation. What is worse, efforts to hid errors can lead to more errors. Describing hospitals with negative error cultures, Gigerenzer writes, “zero tolerance for talking about errors produces more errors and less patient safety.” Being afraid to ever make a mistake makes us less willing to innovate, to learn, and to improve the world around us. It isolates us, and keeps us from improving and reducing risk for ourselves and others in the future. In the end, negative error cultures drive more of the thing they fear, reinforcing a vicious cycle of errors, secrecy, and more errors.