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Why We Make Mistakes

By: Joseph T. Hallinan; Broadway Books, 2009

Aside from having the cleverest (and most frustrating) cover in the history of publishing, Hallinan’s new book on the neuroscience of decision-making tells us a lot about why innovation is so hard to accomplish.

For the last couple of centuries, we’ve created a dichotomy between rational and emotional decisions, and most major decisions in business are supposedly made on purely rational terms. According to Hallinan’s research, however, there’s no such thing.  Patients with brain damage that didn’t let them tap their emotions, who should have been making decisions better than Spock on Star Trek, couldn’t make even the smallest choices.

Our brains are designed to select between three and five items, and when we get more variables, we automatically revert to habit or emotion. He says you can choose a potato peeler on rational terms, but a car—not so much. Imagine then, what happens in business when you have an infinite number of variables and plenty of unknowns.  Bingo. You revert to habit or emotion, and since we automatically distrust things we haven’t seen before, truly breakthrough ideas are killed.  Then, of course, we rationalize those decisions because, after all, it’s business and it should be rational.

I’d give it a 9.5 on the LL innovation meter, good for anyone who has to make any kind of decision about anything.  And let me know what you think about that cover.

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About Lynda Lawrence

Lynda Lawrence is an innovation consultant with Ideaworks Consulting. She teaches Strategic Innovation and Design Management at the Merage School at UCI, and is an advisor to the Beall Center.