By Yvonne Milosevic
Have you bought into the whole “failure is life’s best teacher” theory? Well, we’re here to tell you that you can put that idea on ice. Research led by Chicago Booth professor Ayelet Fishbach reveals that, contrary to popular wisdom, people learn less from failure than from success.
“Our society celebrates failure as a teachable moment. Yet in five experiments, failure did the opposite: It undermined learning,” write Fishbach and postdoctoral fellow Lauren Eskreis-Winkler in the study, Not Learning from Failure—The Greatest Failure of All.
The researchers conducted multiple experiments in which each of the 1,600-plus participants answered a series of binary-choice questions. When they guessed accurately, they received success feedback (“You are correct!”). When they guessed wrong, they got negative feedback (“You are incorrect!”). With only two options, participants could learn the correct answer whether they got the question right or wrong.
Later, they retested the participants on the content of the initial questions to see whether they had learned from the feedback. Consistently, the researchers found that participants learned less from failure than from success. Those who received negative feedback also remembered fewer of their answer choices.
“To avoid feeling bad about ourselves, we stop paying attention,” Eskreis-Winkler writes in Character Lab. “As a result, we don’t learn from the experience.”
The Silver Lining of Failure
In another experiment, the researchers had participants observe someone else’s successes and failures. With that change in dynamic, the participants learned just as much from others’ failures as from others’ successes.
When you fail, you often get stuck and can’t move forward. “With more experiments, what we were able to see is that it’s really a matter of self-esteem,” Fishbach says. “It just doesn’t feel good to fail, so people tune out.”
Don’t magnify mistakes. Do spotlight success. – Lauren Eskreis-Winkler
“Part of what makes it hard to learn from failure is this emotional response that this is not for me,” Fishbach explains in From the Grapevine. “One way to induce learning from failure is to distance yourself from the failure and think about it as somebody else. Build a barrier to try to think about it as another person’s failure.”
Once you remove your ego from the equation, you’ll be able to evaluate the situation and turn those lessons learned into success the next time around.