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Throughout my life, I have always had some issues with what I, my peers and my teachers referred to colloquially as "paying attention". By this I mean a very specific ability to not make mistakes. Some very good examples are:

  • A mathematically competent adult getting a calculus question wrong because of a simple arithmetic mistake, such as 5+3=15.
  • A well-prepared student getting a multiple choice question wrong because it was asking "which of the above are not true", but he mistakenly selected the ones that are true.
  • A skilled roboticist damaging an expensive circuit because he accidentally wired the components incorrectly.
  • Mixing up two terms which refer to different things, despite understanding very well the concept that either term refers to.
  • Typos and simple grammar errors.

Note that I do not mean attention in the sense of being able to concentrate on and pay attention to a topic. I am specifically talking about the ability to not make mistakes (where mistakes are simple errors, which you know are wrong but do not notice at the time - not errors you committed because you lacked understanding of a key concept or because you didn't know any better).

While this "attention" obviously influences ability to do well on tests, it also affects my day-to-day work in 2 key ways:

  1. When performing an involved experiment, things such as mixing up samples, accidentally skipping a step of the procedure, forgetting to clearly label the samples and so on may ruin the whole experiment - either because the experiment no longer works when that simple mistake is made, or because the mistake has made the results uninterpretable.
  2. When working with a tool that does not provide much automated error checking, I can end up producing data or programs that are incorrect due to some mistakes I made. It may take me a very long time to detect these bugs - and until I do, all conclusions I draw from my results are unreliable (and I am not aware of this!). Even after I discover the bug, the work done up to that point is still wasted.

So, my question: Is "attention" in this sense (ability to make few mistakes) a skill, or innate? Is there any way for me to improve this skill? Can it be trained, or is it an invariant quality of a person that they can only accept and accommodate?

Note that, for the "making mistakes when doing something complicated" problem, there exist the solutions of

  • "break it down into simpler chunks which you are less likely to make mistakes with"
  • "restructure your complicated activity such that mistakes are rendered obvious".

I'm not very interested in these sorts of solutions, because restructuring the task is not always possible, feasible and efficient. Some things simply cannot be made any less complicated than they are.

Also, while I welcome discussions of the physiology of this problem, it is very unlikely that my problem is ADD or a similar disorder. As the saying goes, to err is human - but some humans err more than others, and I am interested in understanding why (and more precisely, what strategies are available to make oneself err less).

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Are you talking about absent minded? – scaaahu Feb 4 '14 at 8:28
Everybody makes mistakes, particularly in "pressure" situations such as tests. I've made the "0 * x = x" type mistake before just because I was too worried about finishing the exam. – aeismail Feb 4 '14 at 8:28
@scaaahu Pretty close, but "absent-minded" usually implies a persistent state of unawareness. I am more interested in momentary lapses of, well, attention (for lack of a better word) which result in mistakes (that the mind should normally catch) slipping past. – Superbest Feb 4 '14 at 8:37
@aeismail Exactly. Obviously one can try to remove the pressure (or even to add more pressure), but let's say that pressure is not under your control, and it is at a level such that it is causing you to make too many mistakes. Is there anything that can be done, or is it a hopeless situation? – Superbest Feb 4 '14 at 8:39
I do not believe this question belongs here (in academia.SE). It sound more like a medical issue, or cognitive science. – Quora Feans Feb 4 '14 at 12:49

2 Answers 2

I was unfortunate enough to grow up in an academic upbringing (almost from pre-school up until university) that is a) purely competitive and b) relies solely on multiple-choice exams.

We were drilled for years to try and avoid such small mistakes, since they prove to be extremely costly when millions of people take the same test.

My only advice to you is to make a habit of checking your work, with a clear set of mind. I know it's not always possible (usually due to lack of time) but it's a very important skill to keep in mind that such mistakes do happen from time to time, and having some time at the end of a test/experiment entirely dedicated to checking your work is "money".

To my knowledge there is no fail-safe way to avoid such mistakes. Humans aren't really designed (from an evolutionary point of view) to stay focused for extended periods of time, especially when implicit calculations occur. Which brings me to a "corollary" advice; make a habit of writing out all your thoughts/calculations explicitly. The benefit with that is that it allows you to immediately spot irregularities in your work when you go back and check your work later prior to the point-of-no-return (i.e. you hand in your exam, or turn on the electricity switch or whatever).

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My experience comes from theoretical physics and I do not know how well that can apply to you but I will anyway post my experience.

When dealing with calculations, one should evolve certain intuition for what can be right. For example, if you are calculating temperature of a gas in a problem from thermodynamics and you get a value of -20 kelvin, you must have done something wrong. Most of the time, it will be more difficult to know if one did an error in the calculation but one can still check if a given calculation scales with given parameters in an expected way or not. Such an approach is usually much faster than going through the whole calculation step by step (you just need to look at the result). On the other hand, it requires a good understanding of the problem you are solving (so that you know what you should expect) and some practice. Moreover, it can be used to find incorrect trends only; if you overlook a prefactor of two or three, you won't find it in this way.

This approach also works with any numerical problems. By varying parameters of the calculation, you can check if you get the expected behaviour. The time requirements there might be worse, though; If you have a complicated calculation, running it several times with different parameters can be very time consuming.

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