Harford then illustrates how this basic process can work across a variety of contexts, from business to war to poetry. He’s an able guide to the world of human fallibility. For example, he cites James Reason who identifies three kinds of error. First, there are slips. In 2005 a young Japanese trader meant to sell one share of stock at 600,000 yen but accidentally sold 600,000 shares at 1 yen.
Then there are violations, when someone intentionally breaks the rules. This is what Bernie Madoff did. Then there are mistakes—things you do on purpose but with unintentional consequences.
Errors can be very hard for outsiders to detect. A study by Alexander Dyck, Adair Morse and Luigi Zingales looked at 216 allegations of corporate fraud. Regulators and auditors uncovered the fraud in only one out of six of those cases. It was people inside the companies who were most likely to report fraud, because they have local knowledge. And yet 80 percent of these whistleblowers regret having reported the crimes because of the negative consequences they suffered. This is not the way to treat people who detect error.
Harford is an economic journalist, so he doesn’t get into the psychological and spiritual traits you need to live with error and look it in the face, but he offers a very useful guide for people preparing to live in the world as it really is.
Who blows the whistle on corporate fraud?