Screen blindness and the $331 million typo

Japanese trader at the stock marketNo matter where you are as you read this, you spend most of your time living in the same place as I do: in your screen.

We all live in our screens now. We wake and switch off the alarm on our phone and swipe to the news. We stare at social media as we wait for the train or bus on our morning commute. We check email in the coffee queue. And when we get to the office, we put the coffee cup on our desk, open the big screen in front of us and dive in head first. We could be in there for hours.

It’s as if we’re hypnotised. Sometimes it’s the images in front of us that do this. Pictures of faces in particular can draw us in, programmed as we are to respond to expressions of emotion. (Our brain is a sucker for a smile, even if it is in a photo of a total stranger plucked from an image library of thousands of others.)

More often than not, though, it’s the words that transfix us – thanks to a miracle of the way our brains work. Those black and white symbols that appear in front of you for so much of your day trigger voices in your head. They’re like a perpetual script from a fairground mesmerist. ‘Listen to me,’ they insist. ‘Listen to my words.’

Locked in

Real life may be happening all around you, but you stay locked in a virtual world. The words you read on-screen go straight into your brain, as though whoever wrote them were whispering in your ear. And your thoughts in response appear magically on the glowing white rectangle in front of you.

You think and type at the same time. The trouble is that, too often, thoughts that should have remained as thoughts get typed and sent or posted – sometimes for all the world to see. And that’s how your brain can actually work against you.

If you’re being careful, you may read what you’ve written a couple of times before pressing send. Unfortunately, that’s often not enough to spot any mistakes you’ve made. Because of the way your brain works, what you see at this stage is often what you want to see, not what’s actually there. We’re all susceptible to this effect. Our default is set to ‘Yep, looks fine to me.’ So, more often than not, we send or post it anyway.

Glaring errors

That’s one reason why so many people write things on social media that they later regret. It’s often what prompts us to send tetchy text messages. And it’s also what leads us to overlook glaring errors.

Some of those errors could be expensive – and I mean very expensive.

Take, for example, the case of a travel agency in California that wanted to promote its trips to ‘exotic’ destinations with an ad in the local Yellow Pages directory (remember that?). Unfortunately, the person transcribing the ad mistakenly typed an ‘r’ instead of an ‘x’ (think about it). The result was a reported loss of nearly 50 per cent of the company’s clientele (while presumably attracting a whole new demographic that it had to turn away). Not surprisingly, the owner of the agency was less than impressed by an offer just to refund the $230 ad fee. She sued the Pacific Bell phone company for gross negligence for $10 million.

250 jobs lost

Then there’s an error that UK government agency Companies House made when it was announcing that a company called Taylor & Son Ltd was about to be wound up. It erroneously added an extra ‘s’ to the end of the company’s name. This tiny slip of the fingers spelled disaster for the unrelated company Taylor & Sons, a Welsh engineering firm with a 124-year-old pedigree. The agency corrected its mistake after three days, but by then the typo had already found its way onto credit-reference databases. Taylor & Sons lost most of its clients within three weeks.

Creditors cancelled their agreements and 3,000 suppliers did the same with their contracts. The firm went bust within two months and more than 250 people lost their jobs. The directors claimed damages of £8.8 million ($11.5 million) and the case eventually reached as far as the High Court. It was eventually settled out of court, but only after a six-year legal battle. (Happily the company is now trading again.)

The biggest mistake

But the prize for probably the most expensive typo of all time goes to a share trader at Mizuho Securities, an investment broker and part of one of the largest banking groups in Japan. In 2005, the trader at the Tokyo Stock Exchange typed in what they thought was an instruction to sell stock in a recruitment firm at ¥610,000 for one share. What they had actually typed was an instruction to sell 610,000 shares for ¥1 each.

The resultant crash in the company’s stock price wiped at least ¥27 billion from the company’s valuation in a single day – the equivalent at the time of more than $223 million. Even worse, the company was ordered to pay back ¥40 billion ($331 million) to cover the losses that followed. And when word got out that an IT problem had prevented the trader from cancelling the trade, it so undermined confidence in the system that it contributed to a share sell-off that wiped 300 points off the benchmark Nikkei share index. Quite an expensive cascade for what’s known in the business as a fat-finger trade. Ouch.

The reason we get into so much trouble online is that we think and type at the same time. Too often, thoughts that should have stayed in our own head get typed and sent or posted – sometimes for all the world to see. – @Robert_Ashton Click To Tweet

You might shudder at these mistakes, particularly if they evoke painful memories of embarrassing typos that you’ve made down the years. Maybe the result for you was nothing more serious than instructions that needed a bit of back and forth to clarify. But, given how connected we all are now and the fact that we often do our thinking on-screen, maybe we’re all a lot closer to a catastrophic error than we think. At the very least, we are all just a few keyboard clicks away from undermining our credibility with an avoidable error.

But such mistakes occur mainly because of the way the brain processes written information.

And the key to avoiding all of these problems is to use the brain’s neuroscience to reduce rather than increase the chances of an embarrassing typo.

What you can do

The secret is to find a way to disconnect your brain from what’s on-screen (or rather what it thinks is on-screen), so that it reads what you’ve actually written. There are three ways to do this.

The first is to make the text you’ve typed as unfamiliar as possible, to fool your brain into thinking that you didn’t write it. Sometimes all this takes is to create a PDF of your document or, in the case of an important email, to send it to yourself. But the best way is to print off a hard copy, perhaps in a different font or even an unusual colour. Then, grab a pencil or pen and point to every word. This forces the brain to abandon its usual strategy of jumping between groups of words in jerky eye movements (known technically as saccades), essentially guessing at what they say before hopping on quickly to the next group.

This may not be the greenest of tactics, and you may prefer to use a pointer to proofread a PDF on-screen instead. But for critical communications, you should at least weigh up the cost of putting a few extra sheets of paper in the recycling bin against that of correcting a disastrous mistake later.

The second technique is to use time to create the same effect of unfamiliarity. Usually this means putting what you’ve written to one side for at least a day or two, though. So it may not always be practical.

The last way is to enlist the help of a colleague, friend or family member. Do bear in mind that, whoever you choose, they may be almost as likely to miss errors as you are if they’re already familiar with the content. That’s particularly true of text that you use again and again (such as biographies or descriptions of what you do). It’s also – counterintuitively – true of titles, as we think the large font will make the mistake obvious. But that can make us miss the most glaring errors of all.

Embarrassing headline

Years ago, when I was working as a magazine editor, a computer magazine from the same publisher found its way into print and onto newsagent shelves nationwide with the temporary headline ‘Type some bollocks in here’ splashed across the centre pages. Remarkably, no-one on the magazine spotted it or thought to call it out before it was too late. (Note: if you are going to use temporary titles, better to make them gibberish so that at least your spell-checker will catch them, even if no human does.)

You may be busy. You may be on a tight deadline. But neither of those facts will mean much once what you’ve written lands on the screen of your reader. All they’ll see is the end result. So, whatever you do, remember that writing and reading are something of an illusion. The fact that we hear a voice in our head when we see words on a screen is a miracle of the brain’s ability to adapt. The fact is, we evolved to speak and listen, not to read and write. So our brains aren’t set up for reading. It’s amazing that we can do it at all.

But it’s essential to remember that the words you hear in your head are the ones your brain is creating. Those are not necessarily the ones that are actually there. And failing to spot the difference could cost you a lot more than a day or two’s delay in ticking a task off your to-do list.

Image credit: SARINYAPINNGAM / iStock