Positive Error Cultures - Joe Abittan

Positive Error Cultures

My last post was about negative error cultures and the harm they can create. Today is about the flip side, positive error cultures and how they can help encourage innovation, channel creativity, and help people learn to improve their decision-making. “On the other end of the spectrum,” writes Gerd Gigerenzer in Risk Savvy, “are positive error cultures, that make errors transparent, encourage good errors, and learn from bad errors to create a safe environment.”

 

No one likes to make errors. Whether it is a small error on our personal finances or a major error on the job, we would all rather hide our mistakes from others. In school we probably all had the experience of quickly stuffing away a test that received a bad grade so that no one could see how many questions we got wrong. Errors in life have the same feeling, but like mistakes on homework, reports, or tests, hiding our errors doesn’t help us learn for the future. In school, reviewing our mistakes and being willing to work through them helps us better understand the material and shows us where we need to study for the final exam. In life, learning from our mistakes helps us become better people, make smarter decisions, and be more prepared for future opportunities.

 

This is why positive error cultures are so important. If we are trying to do something new, innovative, and important, then we are probably going to be in a position where we will make mistakes. If we are new homeowners and don’t know exactly how to tackle a project, we will certainly err, but by learning from our mistakes, we can improve and better handle similar home improvement projects in the future. Hiding our error will likely lead to greater costs in the future, and will leave us dependent on others to do costly work around the house. Business is the same way. If we want to grow to get a promotion or want to do something innovative to solve a new problem, we are going to make mistakes. Acknowledging where we were wrong and why we made an error helps us prepare for future challenges and opportunities. It helps us learn and grow rather than remaining stuck in one place, not solving any problems and not preparing for future opportunities.

 

80,000 Hours has a great “Our Mistakes” section on their website, demonstrating a positive error culture.
Negative Error Cultures - Joe Abittan

Negative Error Cultures

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.
Denominator Neglect - Joe Abittan

Denominator Neglect

“The idea of denominator neglect helps explain why different ways of communicating risks vary so much in their effects,” writes Daniel Kahneman in Thinking Fast and Slow.

 

One thing we have seen in 2020 is how difficult it is to communicate and understand risk. Thinking about risk requires thinking statistically, and thinking statistically doesn’t come naturally for our brains. We are good at thinking in terms of anecdotes and our brains like to identify patterns and potential causal connections between specific events. When our brains have to predict chance and deal with uncertainty, they easily get confused. Our brains shift and solve easier problems rather than complex mathematical problems, substituting the answer to the easy problem without realizing it. Whether it is our risk of getting COVID or the probability we assigned to election outcomes before November 3rd, many of us have been thinking poorly about probability and chance this year.

 

Kahneman’s quote above highlights one example of how our thinking can go wrong when we have to think statistically. Our brains can be easily influenced by random numbers, and that can throw off our decision-making when it comes to dealing with uncertainty. To demonstrate denominator neglect, Kahneman presents two situations in his book. There are two large urns full of white and red marbles. If you pull a red marble from an urn, you are a winner. The first urn has 10 marbles in it, with 9 white and 1  red. The second urn has 100 marbles in it, with 92 white and 8 red marbles. Statistically, we should try our luck with the urn with 10 marbles, because 1 out of 10, or 10% of all marbles in the urn are red. In the second urn, only 8% of the marbles are red.

 

When asked which urn they would want to select from, many people select the second urn, leading to what Kahneman describes as denominator neglect. The chance of winning is lower with the second urn, but there are more winning marbles in the jar, making it seem like the better option if you don’t slow down and engage your System 2 thinking processes. If you pause and think statistically, you can see that option 1 provides better odds, but if you are moving quick your brain can be distracted by the larger number of winning marbles and lead you to make a worse choice.

 

What is important to recognize is that we can be influenced by numbers that shouldn’t mean anything to us. The number of winning marbles shouldn’t matter, only the percent chance of winning should matter, but our brains get thrown off. The same thing happens when we see sales prices, think about a the risk of a family gathering of 10 people during a global pandemic, or think about polling errors. I like to check The Nevada Independent‘s COVID-19 tracking website, and I have noticed denominator neglect in how I think about the numbers they report. For a continued stretch, Nevada’s total number of cases was decreasing, but our case positivity rate was staying the same. Statistically, nothing was really changing regarding the state of the pandemic in Nevada, but fewer tests were being completed and reported each day, so the overall number of positive cases was decreasing. If you scroll down the Nevada Independent website, you will get to a graph of the case positivity rate and see that things were staying the same. When looking at the decreasing number of positive tests reported, my brain was neglecting the denominator, the number of tests completed. The way I understood the pandemic was biased by the big headline number, and wasn’t really based on how many people out of those tested did indeed have the virus. Thinking statistically provides a more accurate view of reality, but it can be hard to think statistically and can be tempting to look just at a single headline number.
Judging Faces

Judging Faces

One of the successes of System 1, the name Daniel Kahneman uses to describe our quick, intuitive part of the brain in his book Thinking Fast and Slow, is recognizing emotions in people’s faces. We don’t need much time to study someone’s face to recognize that they are happy, scared, or angry. We don’t even need to see someone’s face for a full second to get an accurate sense of their emotional state, and to adjust our behavior to interact accordingly with them.

 

The human mind is great at intuiting emotions from people’s faces. I can’t remember where, but I came across something that suggested the reason why we have white eyes is to help us better see where each other’s eyes are looking, and to help us better read each other’s emotions. Our ability to quickly and intuitively read each others’ faces helps us build social cohesion and connections. However, it can still go wrong, even though we are so adept.

 

Kahneman explains that biases and baseless assumptions can be built into System 1’s assessment of faces. We are quick to notice faces that share similar features as our own. We are also quick to judge people as nice, competent, or strong based on features in their faces. This is demonstrated in Thinking Fast and Slow with experiments conducted by Alex Todorov. He had showed potential voters the faces of candidates, for sometimes only fractions of seconds and noted that faces influenced votes. Kahneman writes, “As expected, the effect of facial competence on voting is about three times larger for information-poor and TV-prone voters than for others who are better informed and watch less television.”

 

I’m not here to hate on information-poor and TV-prone voters, but instead to help us see that we can easily be influenced by people’s faces and traits that we have associated with facial characteristics, even if we don’t consciously know those associations exist. For all of us, there will be situations where we are information-poor and ignorant of issues or important factors for our decision (the equivalent of being TV-prone in electoral voting). We might trust what a mechanic or investment banker says if they have a square jaw and high cheekbones. We might trust the advice of a nurse simply because she has facial features that make her seem caring and sympathetic. Perhaps in both situations the person is qualified and competent to be giving us advice, but even if they were not, we might trust them based on little more than appearance. System 1, which is so good at telling us about peoples’ emotions, can jump ahead and make judgement about many characteristics of people simply based on faces, and it may be correct sometimes, but it can also be wrong. System 2 will probably construct a coherent narrative to justify the quick decision made by System 1, but it likely won’t really have to do with the experience and qualifications of the person. We may find that we end up in situations where deep down, we are making judgments of someone based on little more than what they look like, and what System 1 thought of their face.
Recognize Situations Where Mistakes Are Common

Recognize Situations Where Mistakes Are Common

“Because System 1 operates automatically and cannot be turned off at will, errors of intuitive thought are often difficult to prevent,” writes Daniel Kahneman in Thinking Fast and Slow. System 1 is how Kahneman describes the intuitive, quick reacting part of our brain that continually scans the environment and filters information going to System 2, the more thoughtful, deliberate, calculating, and rational part of our brain. Biases in human thought often originate with System 1. When System 1 misreads a situation, makes a judgment on a limited set of information, or inaccurately perceives something about the world, System 2 will be working on a poor data set and is likely reach faulty conclusions.

 

Kahneman’s book focuses on common cognitive errors and biases, not in the hope that we can radically change our brains and no longer fall victim to prejudices, optical illusions, and cognitive fallacies, but in the hopes that we can increase our awareness of how the brain and our thinking goes off the rails, to help us marginally improve our thought processes and final conclusions. Kahneman writes, “The best we can do is a compromise: learn to recognize situations in which mistakes are likely and try harder to avoid significant mistakes when the stakes are high.”

 

If we are aware that we will make snap judgments the instant we see a person, before either of us has even spoken a single word, we can learn to adjust our behavior to prevent an instantaneous bias from coloring the entire interaction. If we know that we are making a crucial decision on how we are going to invest our finances for retirement, we can pause and use examples from Kahneman’s book to remember that we have a tendency to answer simpler questions, we have a tendency to favor things that are familiar, and we have a tendency to trust other people based on factors that don’t truly align with trustworthiness. Kahneman doesn’t think his book and his discussions on cognitive fallacies will make us experts in investing, but he does think that his research can help us understand the biases we might make in an investment situation and improve the way we make some important decisions. Understanding how our biases may be impacting our decision can help us improve those decisions.

 

Self- and situational-awareness are crucial for accurately understanding the world and making good decisions based on sound predictions. It is important to know if you can trust an educated guess from yourself or others, and it is important to recognize when your confidence is unwarranted. It is important to know when your opinions carry weight, and when your direct observations might be incomplete and misleading. In most instances of our daily lives, the stakes are low and errors from cognitive biases and errors are low, but in some situations, like serving on a jury, driving on the freeway, or choosing whether to hire someone, our (and other people’s) livelihoods could be on the line. We should honestly recognize the biases and limitations of the mind so we can further recognize situations where mistakes are common, and hopefully make fewer mistakes when it matters most.

Recognizing Our Own Shortcomings

Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote about the importance of turning inward and honestly judging our own character in a way that is intimate and helped us move our lives forward in a constructive manner.  Throughout his book Meditations he wrote of the importance of being self-aware, and provided notes about being socially responsible by becoming more intentional with our actions, and more honest in our thoughts.  He encouraged himself constantly to be humble and realistic about his abilities and his own faults, careful to never raise himself above other men despite the fact that for 20 years he was one of the most powerful people on the planet. The way that he looked at himself relative to others is summed up well in a quote from Meditations,

 

“When thou art offended at any man’s fault, forthwith turn to thyself and reflect in what like manner thou dost err thyself; for example, in thinking that money is a good thing, or pleasure, or a bit of reputation, and the like. For by attending to this thou wilt quickly forget thy anger, if this consideration is also added, that the man is compelled; for what else could he do? Or, if thou art able, take away from him the compulsion.”

 

The important thing for Aurelius during the times when we see faults with other people is to recognize ways in which we share those faults or ways in which we have similar shortcomings in our own lives.  He encourages us to look inward at our selves rather than to put ourselves on a pedestal above others. When we see the faults in others and are blind to our own failures we limit our growth and build a false sense of exceptionalism in our lives.

 

Aurelius’ quote is similar to a quote I wrote about from Colin Wright in December of last year,

 

“On a personal level, outrage makes us feel superior. By becoming indignant, we’re drawing a line in the sand and declaring ourselves to be on the right side of a given issue. We’re saying, ‘How horrible this situation is, and how capable am I of declaring right and wrong, and passing judgment on those involved!’”

 

Aurelius explains the ways in which we can overcome the feeling of outrage that builds in us when we see others acting in a negative way. Their faults can be taken as personal insults or moral failures, and it is far more tempting to become outraged than to recognize that we share the same or similar shortcomings in our own lives. Failing to see our own faults and allowing ourselves to build a sense of outrage gives us the chance to tell ourselves how great we are, how correct our world views have become, and how much better we are than other people in society. It feels great to be outraged and to talk about our superiority over others, but it limits our interaction with other people and prevents our society from being able to join together to become better.

 

As emperor Aurelius had no shortage of opportunities to let himself build on outrage and feelings of superiority, but what he instead reminded himself in Meditations is that he could not place himself above others because in doing so he would become blind to the reality that he and all people make the same mistakes.  He was more focused on using self-awareness and reflection to grow and make the world better than he was on building his fame and influence by denigrating others.  Recognizing our shortcomings and where they come from can help us have conversations with others about the same failures and about ways in which our society encourages (or does not punish) those failures. Avoiding outrage and understanding our errors helps us become more human and helps us connect with others so that they may avoid the same shortcomings in their lives.

Living Without Error

In his writing Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius reflected the ideas of stoicism and the lessons the philosophy taught him throughout his life. He valued the power of the rational mind, and was constantly looking for ways to better understand his own faculties so that he could better control his mental state and his perception of the world.  Through self-awareness and an ability to focus on the present, Aurelius was able to gain power over his mind by taking the control of his thoughts away from other people, objects, and events around him.  In regards to the strength of ones mind and becoming a complete individual, Aurelius wrote, “The third thing in the rational constitution is freedom from error and from deception.  Let then the ruling principle holding fast to these things, go straight on, and it has what is its own.”

 

When I first read this quote I left myself a note that I think sums up the idea presented by Aurelius in this quote and throughout his book, Meditations, in a powerful way. “He is not saying that the mind is free from making errors, but that it is free from living with those errors. The rational mind can understand an error and then chose the reaction to that error with which it lives.”  What I was trying to capture in my synopsis of the Emperor’s quote is the idea that the mind and the power of our rational thoughts decide how we will be affected by the mistakes that occur in our life. The mind can chose what will be learned from, what will shape our decisions, and what will be carried with us for the future.  The mind is in control of interpreting events and errors and choosing how they will be folded into the mess of experiences and decisions that make us who we are.

 

What separates Aurelius from other thinkers is his beliefs of what the mind is capable of doing when sorting out the events and histories of our lives.  Unlike today when it is common for us to regard our past mistakes and histories as baggage, Aurelius saw our past as nothing more than experience one could view through evolving lenses of the past.  Our mistakes and previous decisions do not have to hang around us and be carried with us constantly weighing us down and impeding our progress.  The mind is capable of recognizing its own decisions and thoughts, and the mind is capable of freeing itself from the past by controlling what it does with the experiences (both good and bad) from our lives.

Owning Our Mistakes

Fred Kiel gives a few examples of what it means to be a great leader for a company in his book, Return on Character, where he focuses on the ties between strong moral values, success, and leadership. One of the examples he gives of what it means to be a leader who focuses on ethical and moral strengths involved owning up to our mistakes and being honest and forgiving with ourselves and others when we make mistakes.

 

In his book he tells a story to focus on a fictional character who does not receive a promotion. The character then begins to examine himself through a process of self-reflection to understand how he can change his behaviors and actions to enhance the skills that he had already developed. One area he identified for growth involved abandoning his habit of creating excuses for mistakes and failures, and working to better accept his errors. Kiel uses the simple example to show how an individual can become a stronger leader by beginning to better understand their mistakes and take responsibility rather than pushing blame onto others. Kiel’s character began to see that accepting his mistakes and forgiving himself for his errors made him a leader with stronger character, helping him connect better with those in the workplace. Kiel wrote of his fictional character’s change, “By owning up to his own mistakes, he would communicate to others in a very powerful way that he cared for them as people. He was telling them that he’s no better than they—that he shares a common humanity with them.”

 

By being honest and leading with character Kiel explains that we become more likable as people. Those around us with whom we work, spend time with, and live with will find us to be more complete when we acknowledge our mistakes. If we do not honestly address our mistakes then we put ourselves above others on a pedestal of perfection, and we fail to recognize an important part of our humanity.

 

Kiel also suggests that owning up to our mistakes helps make us better leaders and  more successful individuals. Failures and errors are things we will all experience and being able to recognize those shortcomings in a safe way will help us move forward. This part of his message reminds me of the advice that Bob Schacochis shared with James Harmon for him to publish in his book, Take My Advice. Schacochis writes of his early days working as a carpenter, “When it comes to making mistakes a bad carpenter and a good carpenter is the same. The only difference is, the good carpenter figures out how to correct his.” What he is saying is that we will all have errors along the way, but to truly be good we must recognize those errors and take the time correct them, allowing us to grow.  We can’t expect to be perfect and we can’t expect others to be perfect, but we can expect everyone to own up to their mistakes and to find ways to correct their errors.

Allowing Mistakes

In James Harmon’s book, Take My Advice, Harmon shares a letter written by Arthur Nersesian in which Nersesian writes, “Advice is important, but no amount of it will keep you from occasionally making a bad move.”  He explains that what will happen as we grow is that we will have good and bad luck, and that our ability to deal with and adapt to our good or bad luck is what will matter the most.  Relying on other’s advice won’t always help you because the advice that others have to offer comes from the luck they have experienced, and how they handled it.  Nersesian continues, “…recover after making a bad move.  Forgive yourself quickly, learn something from it, and move on. “  His two quotes combine to show that it is ok if you make a mistake, as long as you can approach your mistake in the right way.

 

We have all heard about the importance of learning from our mistakes, but what I like about Nersesian’s quotes is that he does not approach the world from a perfect point of view.  He accepts that there will be mistakes, and encourages us not to constantly worry about making mistakes.  For him, avoiding mistakes is not the important part of life, which is an idea that I resonate with.  From my own experience I know that if I strive to do great things I will reach a point where I am in new situations, and I may not always handle things the best way. There may be points where I do not know what I need to do or what is expected of me, and I may stumble from a lack of preparation.  If I adopt Nersesian’s point of view, I can be more relaxed heading into these situations, because when I make a mistake I will have a chance to understand why, and move on from it with new advice to offer others.  If I dwell on my mistake and beat myself up for not being perfect, then I will be stuck in the past, and I will be more hesitant in the future when new opportunities arise.

Correcting Mistakes Continued

Bob Schacochis continues in his letter to James Harmon published in Harmon’s book Take My Advice to explain a lesson he learned about making and correcting mistakes.  As a young college student working as a carpenter Schacochis learned a lesson in excellence when his work was corrected by a carpenter he was shadowing.  Schacochis had put something together and not taken the care and time to go back over his work to fix his errors, which led to a brief lecture that stuck with him his whole life.  The carpenter explained that the worst carpenters and the best carpenters all make mistakes, but that the best carpenters find their mistakes and know how to correct them.  Years later when Schacochis was standing on scaffolding inches away from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, the carpenter’s words came back to him. He gazed in awe at Michelangelo’s work, and was amazed by the fact that up close, you could see the spots where the artist had repainted and corrected his mistakes in an attempt to perfect his art.
What Schacochis learned is summed up in the following quote, “In fact, I don’t even think learning from mistakes is the right focus to begin with, since it infers there is such a thing as a path to infallibility, which is both a simple-minded and dangerous notion.” This quote helps me see that it is ok for me to make mistakes as long as I can correct those mistakes.  Learning from the mistakes is an important thing, but I should not approach life as though I can learn from one mistake and forever avoid making similar mistakes and lead a perfect life.  For Schacochis mistakes are to be expected if one is constantly pursuing excellence and trying to be the best that they can be.  When you try to do more, and push yourself to new levels you will make mistakes as part of the growing process. There is definitely learning involved, but mastery of anything means that you know how to correct mistakes, as apposed to knowing how to avoid all mistakes.  A world without mistakes according to Schacochis is a world of complacency and mediocrity where one settles into a routine that does not change nor challenge the individual.  The mistakes are not admitted or even noticed, so there is nothing for the individual to correct.
Schacochis’ quote shows that it is ok for one to make mistakes, and that it is even expected that one will make mistakes as they pursue excellence in everything they do.  If one sets high expectations and pushes themselves to constantly improve and be better, then they will learn how to correct mistakes, not how to live a life that is free from mistakes.  When we stop striving for excellence we stop making mistakes because we stop trying to achieve more. A life of no mistakes is one where we let mistakes slip by, even though we know how to make something better or improve what and who we are. In this way Schacochis is encouraging us to push ourselves and accept our mistakes since life will never be perfect. Along the way as we continue to grow we will learn not how to live a perfect life free from mistakes, but how to correct our mistakes as we demand excellence.