Seeing and Not Seeing

Many simple mistakes are obvious once you see them — and almost impossible to detect before you do.  Writing in The New York Times recently, Joseph Hallinan noted our tendency to infer what we see rather than actually look closely.

He gave some stunning examples of how errors have persisted because we “recognize” what should be there and move on.  One of his best examples is a wrong note in the score of a Brahms sonata that countless musicians never noticed because, for years, they silently “corrected” it in performance.  A naïve piano student kept getting it “wrong” until he looked and saw that she was actually playing what was on the page.

It’s the same problem all of us run up against when we try to proof-read a text, especially if we were the ones who wrote it.  We see what we know the text means, rather than what is actually printed on the page.  It is hard to make the text sufficiently different from what we assume it is, “strange” enough so that it can be really seen.

Author of a fascinating book, Why We Make Mistakes, Hallinan applies the principle to the financial crisis – but with mixed results. “Not only did hedge-fund managers, bankers and others misread the danger involved in many of their investments, but they misread them in the same way.”  He concluded that they became so familiar with what they were looking at that they no longer saw the danger.  They “knew” too well what was there.  (See, “The Young and the Perceptive.”)

His general idea is absolutely correct.  We can look at bank statements and bills again and again without being able to see what’s wrong.  The mind is just too efficient to bother with “unnecessary” checks.

But it is also true that we tend to see what we want to see.  The hedge-fund managers wanted to believe that the complex derivatives they were buying and selling so aggressively were without risk.  Moreover, the fact that they were all doing it – and all believing they were without risk – contributed to making the risk invisible.

There is no single, fool-proof solution to the problem of mistakes.  Hallinan suggest, somewhat facetiously: “It may be too much to suggest that we let adolescents run Wall Street (assuming, of course, that this isn’t already the case).”  But the real reason adolescents detect mistakes adults have missed for years is that they don’t know any better.  They are trying to learn, like the conscientious piano student who kept playing the “wrong” note in the score because she was trying to get it “right.”  Soon they will learn the “right” way, along with the rest of us, and they won’t be able to help us see the difference.

In trying to avoid mistakes, we have to struggle constantly to be alert to what is actually before our eyes as well as what we are tempted to believe.  And we have to be mindful of the pressure to join the crowd.  There is no easy way.