How editing can prevent costly mistakes

Hugh Farmar

Hugh Farmar

A young Swedish student ran to catch a lift in a hospital in Kerala, India. As the door closed she put her leg into the doorway to stop it. The door continued to close around her leg causing her to scream with fear and pain as her leg was getting crushed.

A quick-thinking Indian doctor rushed to hit the red emergency button. Between him and another doctor they were able to prise open the door and save the woman’s bleeding limb.

The Indian doctor was scathing about the young woman, asking, in effect, how could she be so stupid.

The reply came that in Sweden lifts have sensors which mean the doors stop automatically if something is put in front of them. Far from being stupid, the young student had unwisely generalised from her own experience to lifts in all countries.

This story is told in statistician Hans Rosling’s book Factfulness. His story illustrates how easy it is to make a mistake in thinking about the world around us. We see the world from our point of view and in System 1 situations – where we have a mental shortcut – expect our personal experience to be the same everywhere we go.

This can cause us to make mistakes that cost us. We may think people share the same attitudes to business, politics or people (they are PLU – people like us) or have the same cultural references. Getting this wrong can be costly; if we’re not getting our leg caught in a lift, our efforts to communicate may fall flat, or worse, offend.

In writing, the best way to ensure we don’t make mistakes of this nature is to use an editor. They will have a different perspective on the world and will be able to point out pitfalls that simply may not have occurred to us.

* Factfulness: Ten reasons we’re wrong about the world and why things are better than you think by Hans Rosling with Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Ronnlund.