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Thursday, October 8, 2009

Why We Make Mistakes

I recently read this fascinating book by Joe Hallinan. I highly recommend it to everyone who makes mistakes. If that doesn't include you, you can stop reading now.

Uh-huh. I thought so.

Ever since I started blogging about my funny hearing mistakes, I've been intrigued by how my mind works to fill in the missing parts of conversation and tries its best to make sense of the garbled speech I hear.

Here's some examples:

When someone was describing a museum exhibit featuring parts of the body, I thought she said the finger instead of The Thinker. I think my misperception actually fits better with the context.

When a coworker was describing a bird that got out of its cage and flew around an apartment, I thought she said it landed in the cat dish rather than the cactus. It seems as though my mind was thinking about pet mishaps and naturally thought of cat. I have a dog who has large bowls for his food and water. I pictured in my mind the bird landing in a cat's dish of water. Splash! That would be funny. If I were the bird, I'd prefer my version over a prickly cactus landing. Ouch!

Recently I attended a library event where a photographer explained how you can use a point and shoot camera to maximum effect. He said he got on to doing art shows in order to make money. Silly me thought he said archery. In defense of my poor brain, I would like to point out his talk was all about "shooting things". Heh.

When I picked up Mr. Hallinan's book, I was hoping to read some research on hearing mistakes. But the subject wasn't covered. Undeterred, I emailed the author and received the following replies which I have received permission from him to post. The following is excerpted from the emails:

From Me:
I really enjoyed reading your book Why We Make Mistakes. I was hoping you would include research about the mistakes that are most common in my life which are hearing mistakes. Do you have any information on that subject?

From the Author:
You raise a very good issue and one I've given a lot of thought to lately. I had thought about this some while I was writing the book, but decided against focusing on hearing mistakes in part because they are very hard to illustrate -- at least in a print medium. So my short answer is no. But hearing mistakes of the kind you describe are perfectly consistent with the other kinds of mistakes we describe in the book. For instance, I talk about how we all tend to "skim," -- noticing just enough to get by, drawing inferences where we can, etc. And it seems to me very likely that we do the same thing when we listen to someone speak at a lecture or give us directions: we "skim" hear, taking in some but not all of what is said.

From the Author's second email reply:
You can make mention, if you want, of the example we use of F.C. Bartlett and the native American story he has people read and then recount. I suspect something similar happens when we hear things and try to recount what we are told -- we only retain a fraction. In fact, one study found that the average judo fighter can recall only 29.3% of pre-match coaching instructions after the match is over.

This wasn't the kind of response I was hoping to receive. I really wanted some insight into the kind of hearing mistakes I make. The ones he refers to are ones I think people with good hearing make. Or am I in denial about my own level of attention to a speaker?

I received the following comment from Jonathan to my last blog post which seems particularly relevant to this discussion too:

Honestly, I always find it odd that people without hearing loss can mishear what other people said. I've associated this experience with being hard of hearing so much that it just seems bizarre that it's not exclusively an HOH issue. But, then it somewhat parallels to what someone, a hearing person, once said to me: hearing people don't listen, hard of hearing people do.

Do you agree that the examples I gave above of my own mistakes are different from the hearing mistakes the author cites as due to lack of attention. I would argue I was putting a lot of effort into following the conversation based on the context I was able to decipher. Or do these examples prove my brain uses inference to understand speech the same way as someone with regular hearing does?


Anonymous said...

I agree, they're different.

Aside from the issues of attention and memory, I think the reason is that we (everybody, hearing or deaf) do not hear with our ears but with our brains. Same as we don't see like a camera but we see shapes-in-context. So that when we don't hear the shape/word exactly, we rely on the context, the situation that we presume we're in.

One example is if you've ever tried to produce an exact 1:1 speech transcript. It is REALLY hard to write down what people actually say as opposed to what we hear them saying.
Another example I just posted on my blog: Since we rely that much on context, my guess would be that we would NEVER understand if our lover in bed whispered someone else's name. Saying the name of someone who isn't even present is SO out of context, I'd just assume she was talking about me, that it was my name ;-)

SpeakUp Librarian said...

Thanks for your comment, nqlb. I visited your blog. Since I don't read German, I used Google's translator tool. The result was not nearly as eloquent as what you actually wrote I am sure.
In regards to your example, I think you have a lot of healthy self confidence. Perhaps if one were of a jealous or insecure mindset, one might hear another's name??? I agree that ignorance is bliss.

Glenice said...

I think it is different. I used to get so upset when I made a hearing mistake and it was because I was trying so hard to get the communication it upset me when my efforts weren't enough. Physically I couldn't do it.

A person that is physically capable making a hearing mistake is making it due to lack of attention or skimming as the author mentioned.

We have to work harder than people with normal hearing to have auditory presence in our lives. It irritates me to see others take it for granted and space out in listening situations where I'm doing everything I can just to catch and understand the sound.

Anonymous said...

Glenice, I guess the saying is true that people usually have to lose something before they value it.

PS: Thanks, the google translator is horrible! If you translate something English to, say, German and then back, now that's fun ;-)

Jonathan said...

I also think there is the expectation that we hard of hearing people have to keep up with the quick pace of the conversations that we have with hearing people has a role in ourselves stressing to keep up. Doing this is a bit going against nature though. See, apparently, we hard of hearing people process sounds more slowly than hearing people do. So the time lag is something that we have to work with.

I am guilty of this crime. There are times I find myself asking the hearing person to repeat because I at that second didn't feel that I caught everything that s/he said, but about by the time I finish asking what s/he said or when s/he starts to repeat what s/he said, my brain has figured out what s/he originally said.

The worst thing is that sometimes I would unconsciously say something like "But, did you originally say (blah blah)?", which almost me look hypocritical for asking for a repetition the first time round.

I know that I automatically speak more slowly whenever I am with people who are hard of hearing regardless of their age. Some of them are a bit annoyed by this habit of mine. However, I do not see them often enough to remember who wishes me to speak at a more natural pace (which is faster) or a slower pace.

And another thing that I would like to share comes from one of my hard of hearing friends. She said something like this: listening is an on-going game of Wheel of Fortune. While you're listening, you're playing a game in your head in which you're filling in the blanks based on what consonants, sound blends (i.e. /str/ in strawberries, /bl/ in blue, etc.), and vowels you heard and then using the clue (the context of the conversation) to fill out the missing parts of the sentences that you have just heard to the best of your abilities and in the quickest time that you can. The prize is figuring out what the speaker just said and not having to say "say again" or to resort to bluffing. Ever since I heard her describe this, I can definitely allude to what she is talking about.

Now, I don't know if the prize is not to have to ask another person to repeat. I don't know if that should be the motivation, but it's sure a much easier and enjoyable conversation if asking for repetitions and reiterations isn't needed. However, I don't think we should feel responsible or guilty for asking for repetitions and reiterations.

Besides, hearing people make hearing mistakes! I'm sure that some hearing people make more hearing mistakes than others. So, it should be okay for hard of hearing people to make hearing mistakes whether or not they make few or a lot of them.

SpeakUp Librarian said...

Hi Jonathan,
You are so right about the delay. That happens to me all the time. If I don't respond quick enough one friend assumes I didn't hear her and will repeat it in a louder voice. That never fails to annoy me. Just give a minute, I think. Usually what happens is I've heard a gibberish statement and then I think some more and the puzzle pieces fall into place. Or my inner Vanna White magically reveals the letters for me. Smile.
Thanks for your comment, Jonathan!