Multi-tasking can be shortcut to mistakes
By Ellen Goodman
This begins with the sound of one shoe dropping.
A few weeks ago, a Supreme Court reporter noticed that Justice Ruth Ginsburg took an unusually long time getting on her feet after a hearing. Blogging away on "Legalities," ABC's Jan Crawford Greenburg breezily wrote that it "made me think I'd better start pulling those possible retirement files together."
This hint about Ginsburg's health moved across the blogosphere at, well, Internet speed. Days later, New York Times Supreme Court reporter Linda Greenhouse — tweaking her colleague — offered a "pedestrian" explanation for the justice's slowness. Ginsburg couldn't find one of the shoes she'd kicked off under the table.
The difference between the two reports on the shoeless justice was not a matter of good or bad reporting. It was, rather, a matter of blog time and checking time. The observation was right, but the diagnosis was as far afield as an errant shoe.
Within days, there was another missed diagnosis. The savvy, new political publication, Politico, posted a scoop before the John and Elizabeth Edwards' news conference telling the world that the candidate was going to suspend his campaign. Circle false on the answer sheet.
In explaining "How Politico Got It Wrong," reporter Ben Smith retraced his (racing) steps. He started making calls around 10 a.m., got a tip before 11, told his editor at 11:08, put the news out on the Web immediately and got a warning e-mail at 11:28. Less than an hour later, the Edwardses proved him wrong.
The problem here, too, was less the messenger than the medium. The instant medium. As Smith wrote, "I've done much of my reporting on blogs and have developed an instinct to let my readers know whatever I know as soon as I know it." What that doesn't always make time for is a second opinion.
You don't die from a journalistic mistake. The worst thing you can kill is a reputation. I might not have even noted these errors of speed-blogging (is that redundant?) if I hadn't been reading Jerome Groopman's disturbing and thoughtful book of essays on "How Doctors Think."
It turns out that most mistakes in medicine are not a matter of operating on the wrong leg or leaving a sponge in the stomach. "The majority of errors are due to flaws in physician thinking, not technical mistakes," writes Groopman. As many as 15 percent of all diagnoses are wrong.
These mistakes in thinking, says Groopman, are mostly due to cognitive shortcuts, what are called "heuristics." In real life, for example, doctors are likely to judge the case before them by others that come readily to their minds. They are then likely to latch onto a diagnosis, anchor it, and cherry-pick the symptoms that confirm their belief rather than revisiting or expanding the list of possibilities.
It turns out that too many doctors are like those diagnosticians in the White House who saw every aerial photo of a trailer in Iraq as a factory for weapons of mass destruction.
But Groopman returns again and again to the root problem of the "shortcut." It's the "short." The enemy of thinking is speed. "In order to think well, especially in hectic circumstances," writes Groopman, "you need to slow things down to avoid making cognitive errors."
Just the opposite is happening in medicine, in business, and in journalism where every second brings a deadline. Everyday life seems to move at the speed of an emergency room or a combat zone. We even have speed dating and Internet matchups as if we could make falling in love more efficient. Many people don't even have time to write complete words in text-messaging.
A new batch of research by scientists studying the human brain suggests that multitasking may not be the time saver we think. All that e-mailing-while-cell-phoning-while-driving just increases the chance of making mistakes.
The collective pressure of technology and the marketplace have ratcheted up the expectation that we can think at the same pace we can press the send button. We are expected to make sense of information as fast as we can communicate it.
"In the ecology of our lives," says Groopman, "time is the vanishing element." But it turns out that we can't hurry our thought process any more than we can bake a chocolate souffle in a microwave.
When the chief product of "productivity" is a bumper crop of mistakes and the primary "shortcut" has become a leap to conclusions, we finally have a strong reason to push back against the clock. It's to slow down — our doctors and ourselves — long enough to notice the shoes under the table.
Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe. Reach her at email@example.com.