- Psychologists propose two basic pathways in the way people respond to failure, but only one involves trying harder the next time.
- New research shows how the personality trait of introversion could provide the magic ingredient to overcoming a disappointment.
- Even if you're not an introvert, you can gain valuable lessons in resilience from those who are.
An experience that challenges your sense of your own self-worth can easily lead you to feel so discouraged you want to give up entirely. Perhaps you really, really, really hoped to be selected for a leadership role in a local volunteer group or as chair of a committee at work. Maybe in your romantic life, you had your sights set on a potential partner you communicated with online. The minutes turn to hours and then days, and the call never comes. Was it something you said? Is it the way you look? Are you just plain unpopular?
According to Aix-Marseille University’s Jean-Baptiste Pavani and colleagues (2021), there are two approaches to understanding the ways that people respond to such disappointing outcomes, a process known as “self-regulation.” The social-cognitive perspective emphasizes self-efficacy, or your belief in your ability to obtain a specific goal. When you’ve experienced failure, this theory proposes, your self-efficacy takes a big hit and you’ll feel so bad that you’ll feel like giving up. Alternatively, in what's called the cybernetic/control theory, failure will actually inspire you to persist even harder to achieve your desired goals.
When the chips are down, then, you’ve got two alternative ways to react based on which process is more likely to become set in motion. Which one will win out? The French researchers propose that it’s your personality that will determine whether your efforts take a tailspin or, alternatively, ramp up into high gear. In other words, neither the social-cognitive nor cybernetic/control theories correctly apply to everyone regardless of personality.
How Does Personality Influence Reaction to Failure?
Pavani and his colleagues suggest that the two personality traits most relevant to understanding failure are neuroticism/stability and extraversion/introversion. Indeed, neuroticism vs. emotional stability might pop up in your mind first when you think about who might dust themselves off and move on from a disappointing outcome. A person high in neuroticism, or the tendency to worry and focus on worst-case scenarios, would undoubtedly be inclined toward the giving-up end of the response to failure continuum. Someone high in emotional stability will find a way to move on. There are no surprises here.
What about extraversion/introversion? How would this trait influence the process of overcoming a setback? The highly extraverted individual might theoretically be more likely to keep plugging away after things don’t go well, figuring that surely their favorable personal traits should carry them through the next time. In the words of the French research team, “the higher individuals’ levels of extraversion, the more inclined they are to perceive rewards in their environment, intensely pursue those rewards, and experience emotional wellbeing when they achieve them” (p. 4). They may also enjoy the social aspects of putting themselves out there to try for social recognition. However, because they become dependent on receiving these rewards, the highly extraverted may feel more dejected and hopeless when the rewards just aren’t there to be had.
Testing Personality’s Role in Response to Failure
Using a situation in which people keenly perceive the need to succeed and can easily become frustrated when they don’t, Pavani et al. studied the behavior of job seekers as they went through the interview process. Their sample of 80 French adults (ages 18-61 years old; 78 percent female) ranged considerably in education level (33 percent some college), and length of unemployment (24 percent unemployed for longer than a year). The participants agreed to complete a set of short questionnaires about their job search experiences over a 4-week period. Most (89 percent) completed their participation, and none found jobs during the course of the study.
To tap into the emotional self-regulation component of reactions to failure, the research team asked participants to rate their emotional well-being on a weekly basis. Following what’s called a “circumplex model,” these ratings included intensity (activation level) and valence (positive-negative). An activated positive emotion, in this model, would be “full of energy,” and, at the opposite end, a deactivated negative emotion would be “discouraged.”
Participants rated themselves in the form of self-efficacy relevant to job search with items such as, “In my job search, I can solve most problems if I invest the necessary effort.” A single item asked participants to rate how close they were to obtaining their job search goal on a scale of 0-100. To assess how hard participants were trying to get a job, the research team asked them to rate, again on a 0-100 scale, how much effort they were putting into the process. Finally, a standard personality trait measure provided scores on neuroticism/stability and extraversion/introversion.
The overall model, then, used the two personality traits as predictors of job-search effort intensity, which, in turn, would influence emotional well-being and job-search efficacy on perceptions of progress toward the goal of employment. The longitudinal nature of the study, i.e., the fact that it covered a period of four weeks, made it possible for the research team to track perceptions of progress at week one on perceptions of effort at week two, and so on. If you fail to feel you're making progress in one week, in other words, are you more or less likely to put more effort in during the subsequent week?
Which Personality Trait Provides the Most Resistance to Failure?
Turning to the findings, the highly neurotic, as expected, were more likely to respond to lack of progress with less effort on subsequent weeks. However, self-efficacy played no role in this process. It’s as if the concept of self-efficacy may not even be relevant for people high in neuroticism. They expect the worst, and when it happens, this simply confirms what they already thought about themselves.
The situation was more interesting for extraversion. If they felt they had made progress in week 1, the extraverted exerted themselves more in the next week, and also experienced more highly activated, positive emotions. However, if they felt they were failing, the process went in the opposite direction. For the highly introverted (low in extraversion), a positive outcome didn’t spur them onto greater efforts in the subsequent weeks. Conversely, when they didn't perceive that they were making progress, they still felt just as motivated to continue their pursuit as they entered the next week's search.
Looking now at the two theories of self-regulation, the findings support one theory for extraverts and another for introverts. A positive experience reinforces the already high levels of self-efficacy in the highly extraverted but has less impact on the introvert. Assuming low levels of neuroticism, highly introverted individuals are more likely to behave according to the cybernetic/control theory. When failure occurs, they will continue in the pursuit of their goals, spurred on by the desire to overcome obstacles.
What You Can Learn About Failure From the Introverted
If it is, indeed, the case that introverts find a way to plug on even when things are going wrong, perhaps there is something you can learn from them if this is not exactly your personality strength. Thinking about the qualities of introversion, with its focus on inner states, you can use a failure experience as a learning opportunity. Indeed, you might even wonder whether—if you’re high in extraversion—it might be worth tempering your extreme sociability the next time you try for something. Do you come across as superficial? Do people misinterpret your extraverted attitude as lacking an appreciation for boundaries?
You can also gain an appreciation for the findings from previous studies that personality isn’t hardwired into you at birth, or even early adulthood. Over time, learning some of the wisdom of the introvert might help provide some of that personality tempering on its own as people learn from their experiences.
To sum up, failure doesn’t have to stop you in your tracks. Learning what makes the introvert more resilient might help inspire you to find greater fulfillment from your disappointments as well as your successes.
LinkedIn/Facebook image: ReeldealHD/Shutterstock
Pavani, J.-B., Fort, I., Moncel, C., Ritz, H., & Dauvier, B. (2021). Influence of extraversion and neuroticism on the weekly dynamics of jobseekers’ self-regulation. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 130. doi: 10.1016/j.jvb.2021.103618