The National Council of Psychotherapists
An Analysis of Why People Make Mistakes
By David Howard LLB (Hons) LNCP (2001)
The purpose of this article is to analyse and illustrate how mistakes are made in practice. by looking at every possible reason why mistakes are actually made. After analysing every type of mistake I could think of (partly via examples given by my counselling clients, and subsequently analysed), 4 basic reasons arose for making mistakes.
They are as follows:
1) Lack of information (includes time to gather or assimilate information)
2) Emotions overriding Iogic
4) Lack of skill/intelligence
By far the commonest reason is the first, and sometimes reasons overlap. Various examples and details follow.
LACK OF INFORMATION: By far the main reason for mistakes. Looking back on mistakes already made, one can see, in hindsight, that if the necessary facts had been known at the time, the right decision would have been made. Following on from that, if more time had been available for a decision, more information could have been considered, again allowing the right decision. Driving gives a multitude of clear examples, such as not knowing what’s round blind corners, choice of speed, maybe not realising the road is wet or icy, whether to drive through an amber light or not etc. As in the real world we only have the time and information available at the moment of decision/action, it is rarely possible to avoid mistakes, and some correct decisions are actually made just by lucky guesses or Intuition where there is still inadequate information. This simply points out that, just because there is a lack of information, it doesn’t mean a mistake is inevitable.
Inability to see the future is the wild card of all decisions relating to the future, as no one can have the information regarding how things will turn out following a new policy, or how one will feel in a marriage or new house once we are there. The nature of these situations is unavoidably risky.
Another common mistake under this heading is the idea (based on faulty information) ‘If I do this, I’ll be happy’ This could be being rich, married, drunk, or just going on a particular trip or holiday. It might have made someone else happy, or us previously, but there’s no guarantee it will work for us, or work again. In fact, these are really literally based on a system of trial and error, and we all have to try many things to test our own needs and preferences before we actually know what makes us happy. Unlike the general attitude that learning by trial and error is a second class method, in fact it is the only way of learning if untutored, and a perfectly sufficient way of doing so.
Incidentally, those who still take drugs or drink even though they become ill are not making a mistake if they weigh up the problems and still do it as it becomes a choice based on adequate information.
EMOTIONS OVERRIDING LOGIC: The next commonest reason is simply the ability of strong emotions, particularly anger and love, to blind the doer to their logic. We literally temporarily ‘lose our mind’ when these emotions take hold.
This also overlaps with the ‘false route to happiness’ scenario if people repeat mistakes in relationships or addictions, plus lack of information. Even when someone becomes aware their emotions ‘get them into trouble’, they then need to overcome their emotions in order to change them, and have the intelligence to make that decision, as well as the same emotions rising up to delay the process. It is not, therefore, as easy to correct as a mistake that just requires enough information to remedy it.
A good example of a combination of reasons based on emotion primarily is someone who believes they can change the other in a relationship. This combines every reason in one mistake, i.e.
a) lack of information, as they erroneously believe they can change a person to become as they prefer them.
b) emotion, as they feel so strongly about the other person it blinds them to logic, ignoring and misinterpreting the information they have, (even though they’d quite probably be able to see this error in someone else’s relationship.) and was the driving force behind getting into such an inadequate relationship in the first place.
c) false route to happiness. i.e. ‘if I stay in this relationship it’ll improve and I’ll be happy’
and possibly adding
d) lack of intelligence, by staying in an abusive or inadequate relationship knowing the person’s faults.
Generally, the identical decision made before or after the rise in emotion would have been perfectly adequate, but the effect of emotions creates a semi-automatic mode of behaviour similar to the loss of self-control with the use of alcohol.
OMISSIONS: Not really a separate reason, but a combination of various factors that stop us from doing something essential or useful, as opposed to an erroneous act. As well as simple lack of information stopping us realising we need to do something, not realising how important it is, omissions can also be due to lack of skill, memory, or as discussed later, intelligence (none of which are the fault of the doer, rather their essential nature).
For example. Seeing someone in trouble and not helping could be for many of the reasons I have shown.
Belief - I couldn’t help (when I could), or someone else would do it instead (but didn’t) —lack of information
lack of time- too busy thinking what to do while a drowning or mugging is going on while you hesitate.
emotions- a situation requiring action often raises emotions in onlookers, and stops their minds from working properly. Also the emotion of fear may make a person run away rather than help, despite the lack of immediate danger.
Wrong priorities- ‘I need to do something else so I can’t help’. Not realising how important your help would have been.
Mistaken priorities, i.e., doing things in a certain order and not getting round to some which turned out to be important come under lack of information. If the importance was known at the time, the things would have been done in a different order. A choice, i.e. ‘I don’t want to do this’ is not a mistake, as the information may be known, and the doer would not change his mind given the chance to try again. This is a good test of a mistake, as anyone who makes a genuine mistake would want to do it again correctly given the chance.
LACK OF SKILL/INTELLIGENCE: Lack of skill applies more to physical accidents than decisions, but is included here to show how they are also outside the circle of blame. If we take on a job thinking we can do it properly and then break something, the lack of skill is really a lack of information if we believed a job was within our capabilities when in fact it wasn’t. I also believe a simple slip or accident can happen to everyone regardless of their skill level, and is therefore not a mistake, but is still blameless.
Obviously, like the driver who cuts up another, it would not be done (unless the doer was psychotic) if the driver knew he was going to have an accident. Many drivers carry on driving like this until they have an accident (lack of information), and then correct their driving once they realise the dangers. Leading on to the repeat mistake, which is based on lack of intelligence, as a shorthand way of describing making a mistake again even though you now have the information, i.e. Everyone makes mistakes, but only unintelligent people make the same ones again. This can also be due to forgetting, in which case the information is lost, or emotion, in which case the emotion overrides the information as previously described. This would also apply to addicts, where the emotional desire for pleasure overrides what they already know about the dangers of what they are taking. As we all accept, you can’t blame someone for getting a low score on an IQ test, as this is in someone’s nature, like their height or baldness, so this puts ‘repeat offenders’ down as maybe stupid, but still blameless. Ask them, and I’m sure they’ll say they’d rather the mistake hadn’t been made, they just ‘lost track’.
What I have tried to illustrate is however they may happen, no one makes mistakes deliberately, they are all people doing their best under inadequate conditions, and therefore they cannot be considered in any way to be blameworthy. To test this, make a list of some of your biggest mistakes, and how they were made, and then, once you’ve realised you did your best under inadequate time, information etc., and given enough time/information, you would have done something else, it wasn’t really your fault. Once you accept this, then think of others’ mistakes you remember, and then you will realise if your own mistakes weren’t your fault, then how can others’ be theirs either? Therefore, even if I may have missed a few points regarding how mistakes are made (from my own lack of information, intelligence, emotion in wanting to finish the article etc.), this does not affect the fact that my point regarding all the reasons I have given is ‘mistakes are not anyone’s fault’. After completing my exercise in testing your own past mistakes, and then extending your own humanity to all others, it should now be very difficult to blame anyone for their mistakes. However complicated any scenario first appears, it can be teased out into its elements and broken down into its parts, showing the reason/s for each mistake, which is what I did before collating the information required for this article. As I stated, I may have missed bits out, as I could have carried on endlessly analysing more and more examples before I presented my information. Maybe this is complete, but either way the main purpose of the article was to remove the blame from every mistake made, now or in the past, and hopefully to be able to forgive all of them, both our own and others’, and I hope what I have presented here has made it possible to go some or all the way in doing so.
David Howard MNCP 2001