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How Mistakes Can Make You Smarter

There are typical responses to mistakes: paying attention and shutting down.

OK, nobody wants to make mistakes -- but how you react to them makes a big difference in whether you learn from them.

Two new studies looked at what happens in people's brains as they make mistakes. One used college students performing a computer task; the other used doctors making decisions about which medications to prescribe. In both studies, participants received immediate feedback about whether they had made the right decision, and they were given opportunities to try again, using what they had learned.

It turns out that there are two typical brain responses to mistakes. One looks like a "wake up call." The brain hones in on the negative outcome, and treats it like a problem that needs solving. What happened, and why? The brain also increases its attention during the next decision, as if it is trying to prevent a repeat of the mistake. When this happens, people are much more likely to improve their performance and learn from the mistake.

The second brain response looks more like a shutting down. The brain reacts to the negative feedback itself as a threat. To escape feeling bad, or doubting one's abilities, the brain chooses to not think about the mistake. Interesting, people whose brains show this shutting down response pay much more attention to positive feedback.

The researchers think this is evidence of a confirmation bias - we want to feel good about ourselves, so we pay more attention to feedback that is consistent with our self-image. When this happens, people's performance does not improve, and they fail to learn from the mistake.

Each study found an interesting predictor of whose brains paid more attention, and whose brains shut down, in the face of a mistake:

1. People who think that intelligence is malleable -- that we get really good at something by dedicated practicing, not innate brilliance -- pay more attention to mistakes. People who think that intelligence is fixed -- you're either good at something or you're not - pay less attention to, and are less likely to learn from, mistakes.

2. The doctors who were most experienced were least likely to pay attention to and learn from mistakes, and more likely to show a confirmation bias. They trusted their judgment. Had the simulation been real, this would have had disastrous consequence for their patients. Because they didn't learn from errors, the most experienced doctors ended up using the wrong criteria to make prescription choices.

The lesson of these studies? When you make a mistake or receive critical feedback, don't panic. Think of it as an opportunity for learning, and remember that the process of "failing" -- when you're willing to pay attention -- is often what leads to the greatest successes.

Kelly McGonigal is a psychologist at Stanford University. Her latest book, which provides a tour of the biggest willpower mistakes we all make (and how to learn from them), is The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It.

Studies referenced:
1. Moser JS, Schroder HS, Heeter C, Moran TP, Lee YH (2011). Mind your errors: Evidence for a neural mechanism linking growth mindset to adaptive post-error adjustments. Psychological Science, 2011, [Epub ahead of print]. DOI: 10.1002/mnfr.201100262
2. Downar J, Bhatt M, Montague PR (2011). Neural correlates of effective learning in experienced medical decision-makers. PLoS ONE, 6 (11): e27768. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0027768.