By Angela Noel
August 6, 2018
A funny thing happened recently in my laundry room whilst teaching nine-year-old Jackson to wash and dry his clothes. It reminded me of the danger of cognitive biases and the error cascade they can create.
Because I believe every child should learn how to do laundry, and it’s best to start before it seems too much like a chore, I began what I thought would be a simple lesson.
First, we sorted the clothes. Then we selecting the wash temperature and water level before adding the correct amount of soap. We pulled out the dial to begin the water flow and spread the clothes loosely around the agitator.
So far, so good.
After the successful wash, Jackson managed to move most of his wet clothes to the dryer. (I had to grab a few from the back of the drum because he said he was too short to reach them–he’s not wrong.) When the clothes were properly loaded and the lint trap cleaned, I told him to spin the dryer dial to select the appropriate setting for his shorts and t-shirts.
His hand still on the dial I said, “Now, pull it out to start the dryer.”
He pulled and the dial came off in his hand. He looked concerned. “Was that supposed to happen?” he asked.
“Uh oh,” I replied. “Nope.”
We both tried again, refitting the dial into the spindle. When we failed we called up the stairs to my husband, “Paul! A little help here, please.”
Paul to the Rescue
Paul appeared in the doorway of the laundry room a few moments later, “What’s up?” he said.
“There’s something wrong with the dryer dial,” I told him, handing him the plastic circle and hoping he’d know how to fix it.
He fiddled with it, trying the same thing Jackson and I had–replacing the dial and pulling it again–assuming it would catch and start the dryer. But it didn’t work.
Paul sighed, “I’ll go get the pliers and see if we can pull it out that way.”
As Paul went up the stairs to find the pliers, Jackson, ever optimistic, said, “Well, we can just use a clothesline.”
“Maybe. . . I said. But it’s raining . . ..” We both shrugged. If it was fixable, Paul would fix it.
Jack and I left the laundry room and started on another project. A few minutes later we heard Paul’s disembodied voice from the top of the stairs, “We’re idiots.”
“What? What do you mean?” I replied.
“Everyone, meet me in the laundry room.”
Jack and I followed Paul and stood next to the dryer. Paul paused theatrically. A second later, he lifted his finger and depressed the button clearly labeled PUSH TO START.
The dryer roared to life.
Brain Elves at Work
For one reason or another, as I endeavored to teach my young son a life skill, I’d managed to forget how to operate the dryer I’d used for more than three years. And when Paul arrived on the scene, he went right along with my mistake.
The question is: Why? Caught up in the momentum of the moment, and at the mercy of the brain elves that take over sometimes, an error cascade was at work.
Availability, Anchoring and the Bandwagon
First, I’d fallen victim to a version of the availability heuristic. This is when the recency of information overshadows other data. Because I had shown Jack how to pull the washer dial out to start the washing cycle, my brain readily grabbed on to that information when confronted with a similar dial on the dryer.
Next, unable to see that I’d made a simple error, I brought Paul in on it. I created an “anchor” for him, causing his brain to give more weight to the first piece of information he was offered in the situation, rather than the most important.
And finally, because now we both agreed on the problem with the dryer dial, we had a bandwagon. We’d collectively entered into the same (wrong) problem giving us both more (false) confidence that we knew enough information to begin to fix the situation. And poor Jackson, a newbie to laundry, threw his thoughts into the mix as well. Now we had three people, all focused in on solving the dryer dial issue when the real issue was my brain’s initial error.
Consider these scenarios:
- a witness points the finger at the wrong suspect and an innocent person goes to jail
- a police officer trained to expect threats is startled by an unexpected action and an innocent person dies*
- a child hears people on TV say that most terrorists are muslims and now believes all muslims are terrorists
- a woman drops out of the STEM courses she loves because all the other women she knows did too
Clearly, my laundry problem was trivial. We laughed about it. But is this type of thing happening with much bigger issues? When I look closer, I see how easy it is to allow the wonderful, amazing organ between our ears run roughshod over reality. The truth is there–it might even be so obvious it’s right in front of our noses. But, we must have the courage and spend the energy to see it. And if we miss it the first time around, we have to be able to say, “we’re idiots” and try again.
Your turn: Do you see evidence of this kind of error cascade in your own life? What do you do to combat it?
* Janet Mary Cobb wrote a thoughtful comment in response to this post in general and this bullet point in particular. I invited her to share more of her thoughts in a guest post. You can read it here: That Could Have Been My Child.
27 thoughts on “Error Cascade: How I Messed Up a Lesson in Laundry”
This is awesome. Reblogging to my sister site “Timeless Wisdoms”
Thanks, Ana. 🙂
Angela, I totally appreciate how you took a simple “we’re idiots” moment (of which I’ve had plenty) and expanded it to demonstrate what can be a very big issue. I also appreciate how you called out social ills to demonstrate those big issues.
I have to say, as one whose husband and children face fear each time they walk out the door – I was a little disappointed in the caution you took in your second point: “a police officer trained to expect threats is startled by an unexpected action and an innocent person dies”. You called out the bigotry towards Muslims and women but you did not point out the racism in police brutality. To me the phrase would be more accurate if it read: “a police officer trained to expect threats from black boys and men….” Until you or I fear for our lives when we are stopped for driving a few miles under the speed limit when merging into heavy traffic or not turning on our blinker on a virtually empty highway at 2 am, or get asked to show identification and get searched for simply walking home from the train station or we need to fear that our child will be shot by the police while playing in a park or walking in the wrong neighborhood — and so many other ridiculous reasons — we need to call out that police officers are trained to expect threats from black people.
You’ve obviously hit a nerve with me hear, but I cannot not call it out.
Hi, Janet. Thank you for reading this and sharing your thoughts. You’re absolutely right that I could have, maybe should have, been more explicit on how there is a very real, very scary problem with the threat narrative we have in our society and how it disproportionately impacts black men and boys. I also think you’re right that I can’t possibly know how it feels to fear for my life in the same way you describe.
I made the choice to be more general because of something that happened here in Minnesota. A police officer was startled by a white, female resident in an alley late at night. He shot her and she died. Every death that occurs because of mistaken presumptions or out of fear is a tragedy. But, this one incident where a white woman was impacted is certainly an anomaly.
As I heard Professor Anita Hill say recently, we can’t try and address the exception before we address the issue with far greater impact to more people. The accidental shooting of this woman is a tragedy—but the greater concern is how fear of “the other” and systemic racism has made us react rather than respond.
I don’t know the right answer—or whether it’s right or wrong to be more general or to be more specific when it comes to the tragic errors (and sometimes willfull aggression) fear creates. But, I am so glad you shared your perspective and your experience.
Since I cannot speak for you, but very much value your thoughts, perhaps you’d like to write a guest post and I’ll publish it here? I’d be honored to learn more from your perspective on how you’ve learned to cope with fear for your family and what advice you’d have for others to address the root causes of that fear. If you’d be interested please let me know.
Angela – I received your comment via email but it isn’t showing up here. I’d love to follow up with you about your suggestion. Can you email me directly at ? Thanks!
Absolutely! I’m so glad you’re open to the idea.
This resonated with me, Angela. I had an ‘idiot’ moment the other day trying to adjust the water temp in the shower. My brain could not process which way to turn it for hot vs cold. It is the only faucet in the house without a separate hot and cold water control dial and somehow I couldn’t make the leap to one dial. I had a moment of wondering if I’d finally ‘lost’ it, but recovered in time to save my dignity and didn’t scald myself, so there is that blessing! It’s fortunate I wasn’t trying to teach my grandsons how to use the faucet when I had my brain cramp! But your point is so well taken about the biases that can happen when we make a false assumption and the potential leading of others down the wrong path.
And I, in turn, am glad to hear it’s not just me that has a brain cramp or two! I’m glad you see the larger point too. It’s something I’ll need to continue to think about.
You are not alone, Angela! The cascade of errors is another thing I have seen repeatedly in my world of health care. When a mistake is made by one, it is perpetuated by others until a bigger mess ensues. It is an interesting phenomenon.
So true! That’s a great example. I couldn’t find other references to an “error cascade” on the internet. But I liked the way it sounded and it does describe exactly what you see in health care and, of course, my laundry.
Oh. Thank goodness. I thought it was my aging brain that had me standing at the sink trying to figure out the faucet! Sometimes we do things so mindlessly we can’t demonstrate the process to another. Perhaps teaching something is the best way to learn it. Aging, however, is a subject all on it’s own. Duh.
Well, you’ll have to reinforce the lessons next week. 🙂
It’s hard to teach something you do automatically every day, because you’re so attuned to doing it! Interesting how you then apply these concepts to bigger issues – so often prejudice works on auto-pilot, from things we’ve been attuned to do and believe over the years.
Yes– autopilot is such a problem–and a weird gift. We need it and yet it’s tragic when it causes errors of a much more significant impact than laundry.
All very true, but you have to ask – ok, I have to ask, – what else can we learn from the washer and dryer. Why is it only now and only on the top of the line models that there are finally “push to start” buttons on both machines. Why did it take 100 years for somebody to figure out they weren’t in sync. Will it take us another 100 years of learning how to work around the “differences” before we finally wake up to the fact that we are supposed to be working together toward a common goal, why do we keep making different rules for different pieces and spend all this time just trying to get started? And I’m not just talking to the washers and dryers of the world either.
Yes, and yes . Why do we keep making different rules and pretending they aren’t different? The more we can acknowledge that we don’t have it right, the more we have opportunities to actually do it right. But, heavens its not easy.
Well, to be brutally honest about it, we can’t even get major appliances right.
So, tragically true.
Oh gosh, I’m sorry. The first thing I did was laugh out loud at the push/pull mistake. Because…. we’re all idiots at some point in our normal regular routine of life. Amazing how you go from the slap-on-the-forehead moment to wondering what lesson there is for us. I suppose I’d say that we should BE PRESENT at every moment. Don’t go on auto-pilot. And realize that we miss much of what is in front of us, by simply not focusing.
So so hard to fight autopilot! Even more so because it’s helpful in some respects. If I couldn’t ever go on autopilot I think I’d go insane. But, relying too much on it might be worse. I love the idea of being present, but even now I struggle. Luckily, I get this lifetime to keep practicing! Thank you for reading. I’m so glad it made you laugh!
Your post also reminded me of the time when my son was about 15 and dared complain about the way I washed his blue jeans. Guess what he was in charge of from then on….? Yup, that’s when he learned how to use the washer/dryer and forever after took care of his own dirty clothes. 😉
Ha! Perfect. That’s a great age to learn laundry, too!
And guess what? My “little” boy now has three little boys, and he’s the one who does all the laundry for the family. ;-0
Now, that’s a success story if I ever heard one!
This is so interesting. I read it and thought “aaah that’s why my brain sometimes functions like that”. However, as you point out, it’s fine for small, minor issues, but bigger issues that effect society? It’s quite the problem. I wonder if this brain “function” relates to how people deal with chronic pain. They take a step and their hip hurts and so their brain tells them that if they take another step in the same way, it’ll make their hip hurt again? Our brains have a lot to answer for!
I think you’re on to something there. The whole cliche of getting back up on the horse when you fall off might have evolved because of our tendency to project the problem of today into the failure of the future.
I know when my back hurts I avoid activities that have made it hurt in the past–to the point that I stop short of known pain, further limiting my range of motion. I’m like self-censoring in a way. It’s a really interesting thought, Hayley!