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Mental Model: Goldovsky Errors

Why We Make Mistakes by Joseph T. Hallinan

Today’s mental model comes from the book Why We Make Mistakes by Joseph T. Hallinan. The book is very inexpensive and will reveal why you make mistakes in your every day life, including in memory recall. It is definitely worth reading.

How can a dead body hang in a tree for nearly 14 hours and not be noticed by a town?  How can experts at one of the world’s top scientific institutions miss an easy-to-spot mistake for almost 30 years yet a 5th grader spots in 2008 after only a few seconds?  Why can’t you remember the name of someone from your kid’s karate class if you run into them in the bank or supermarket?

Congratulations!  You just discovered Goldovsky errors and how they play into context.

There are special types of mistakes or errors called Goldovsky errors that can only be easily spotted by inexperienced people in a field of study.  In fact, the better you get at a skill, whether it is music, accounting, cooking, or chemistry, the harder it gets for you to spot a Goldovsky error but a new student would see it in a few seconds.

In other words, the better you get at something, the harder it becomes for you to see Goldovsky errors.  Yet, someone who knew next to nothing would spot them in a second or two.

It is another “delicious paradox” as Charlie Munger has put it, that makes life interesting.

An Example of a Goldovsky Error

Here is an example of the first recognized Goldovsky error, courtesy of the book Why We Make Mistakes by Joseph T. Hallinan on pages 111-112.

“[this phenomenon] … was documented decades ago by the distinguished piano teacher and sight reader Boris Goldovsky.  (Goldovsky, who was best known for his commentary during the Saturday afternoon radio broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera from 1943 to 1990, died in 2001 at the age of ninety-two.)  One day, he discovered a misprint in a much-used edition of a Brahms capriccio – but only after a relatively poor pupil played the printed note at a lesson.

Goldovsky stopped the pupil and told her to fix her mistake.  The student looked confused; she said she had played what was written.  To Goldovsky’s surprise, the girl had indeed played the printed notes correctly – but there was an apparent misprint in the music.  At first, the student and the teacher though this misprint was confined to their edition alone; but further checking revealed that all other editions contained the same incorrect note.

Why, wondered Goldovsky, had no one – not one composer, or the publisher, or the proofreader, or scores of pianists – noticed the error?  They had all misread the music – and misread it in the same way: they had inferred a sharp sign in front of the note because in the musical context it had to be a G-sharp, not a G-natural.

How could so many experts miss something that was so obvious to a novice?  This intrigued Goldovsky.  So he conducted and experiment of his own.  He told skilled sight readers there was a misprint somewhere in the piece and asked them to find it.  He allowed them to play the piece as many times as they liked and in any way they liked.  Not one musician ever found the error.  Only when he told his subjects which bar, or measure, the mistake was in did most of them spot it.  (For music fans, the piece is Brahms’s opus 76, no. 2, and the mistake occurs in bar 78.)

The news is full of Goldovsky errors.  Take the case of the 5th grader that pointed out an error at the Smithsonian Institute that had gone unnoticed for almost 30 years.

  • In 2008, fifth-grader Kenton Stufflebeam, who is 11 years old, went to the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.  This exhibit opened in 1981, and millions of people have gone through it.  Yet, Kenton noticed that a bold-lettered notation on an exhibit identified the Precambrian as an era (it’s not because it “is a dimensionless unit of time, which embraces all the time between the origin of Earth and the beginning of the Cambrian Period of geologic time”).  The child spotted this, told the information desk, and the Smithsonian looked into it, realizing he was correct.  You see, the experts, college professors, and professional scientists that had gone through there for nearly 30 years just presumed the plaque was correct because they skimmed.  Here, though, you had someone who had just begun to study and actually looked at the plaque.

Why Goldovsky Errors Exist

Goldovsky errors exist because the more experienced someone becomes in a field, the more likely he or she is to skim and assume that things are how they expect rather than analyzing them as they are.

The Relationship Between Goldovsky Errors and Context

Hallinan goes on to explain that we rely on context all the time.  That is, if you run into someone from your kid’s karate class, until you can remember where you know them from, you will have a hard time recalling their name or who they are.

He explains that if something happens around Halloween, we assume it is Halloween related because we are familiar with Halloween.  Here is a tragic story that illustrates that point:

… “in the small town of Frederica, Delaware.  There, the apparent suicide of a woman found hanging from a tree went unreported for more than twelve hours – even though her body was plainly visible for much of that time to neighbors and passersby.  At about 9:00 p.m. the previous night the forty-two-year-old woman apparently climbed the tree and then used a rope to hang herself, directly across the street from homes on a moderately busy road.  At the time, of course, it was dark.  But come daylight, her body, suspended about fifteen feet above the ground, could easily be seen from passing vehicles.  Yet no one called police until nearly eleven in the morning – some fourteen hours after the woman had hanged herself.”  Why?  Everyone thought it was a Halloween decoration because they were used to seeing these things in October and no one bothered to actually look at her body – they merely skimmed the horizon because they were experienced with the tradition of Halloween decorations and expected to see them around that time of year.

Now, someone who was new to the country who had no experience with Halloween would have likely spotted the body instantly because he or she would still be examining everything, trying to understand and process how the celebration works.  Had the body been hanging there at Christmas, it would have been recognized immediately by everyone.

If you want to overcome Goldovsky errors, you need to train yourself to be aware at all times.  Likewise, you can implement procedures at your company that requires things to be reviewed by both experts and novices to catch mistakes.  Either way, in critical fields, they must be guarded against with vigilance.