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Failure Is Hard. Learning From It May Be Harder

We tend to deny or ignore our failures rather than learn from them.

Key points

  • Failure tends to injure our ego and violate our beliefs and expectations. Thus, it is often denied, dismissed or ignored.
  • An inability to learn from failure reduces the odds of future success.
  • Learning from failure does not happen on its own. Rather, it is a skill that needs to be learned and practiced.

You often hear that failure provides an opportunity for learning. Indeed, it is intuitively appealing to assume that people will use their failure experiences as means toward finding success. Understanding why I failed may help me avoid the same mistakes down the road, thus increasing my odds of future success. Yet when it comes to human psychology, things are often not as they seem. Human behavior often defies simple intuition. And such is the case with learning from failure.

Geralt / Pixabay
Source: Geralt / Pixabay

In a recent (2022) paper, the researchers Lauren Eskreis-Winkler (Northwestern University) and Ayelet Fishbach (University of Chicago) argue that most people are highly resistant to learning from their failures, and that when they do, they often learn the wrong things. The authors argue that our difficulty in learning well from failure has two main reasons.

The first is emotional. We are invested in feeling good about ourselves. Failure is incompatible with that goal and is therefore often dismissed or ignored. The authors note: “contemplating failure is hard because failure is a threatening experience. Indeed, when a failure threatens people’s sense of self-worth, they can react in ways that undermine not just their learning but also their mental and physical health in an effort to preserve their sense of self ... Thus, although people may want to learn from failure, they often hold a competing goal that wins out: to feel good about themselves … The desire to see oneself as a good, competent person is a strong motivational force … When this goal triumphs, people disengage from failure.”

The second reason is cognitive. We tend to seek information that agrees with our beliefs and expectations and are loath to hear information that contradicts our expectations and beliefs. (This is known as the confirmation bias, a central feature of our cognitive architecture, and one reason conservatives flock to Fox while progressives concentrate at MSNBC). Most people believe they will succeed when they take on a project—why take it on otherwise? Failure violates this cherished belief and is thus likely to be ignored or dismissed. “No one aims for failure. People almost never expect to fail. This makes learning from failure cognitively difficult because people tend to overlook contradictory or unexpected information.” Moreover, we often take failure to mean that we lack capacity or control. Such a conclusion leads to reduced motivation and commitment, and with that, reduced odds of future success.

In addition, learning from failure is often a more demanding cognitive task than learning from success. It thus taxes our cognitive system, which has evolved to conserve energy. “For failure to be informative, people need to deduce what an incorrect response teaches about the correct response. Learning by elimination requires more mental effort. Because people are cognitive misers, they struggle to see the information in failure more than the information in success.”

Our reluctance to learn from failure, the authors note, exacts a heavy price in terms of lost information and opportunity. This is because failure information, if attuned to correctly and shared, can provide crucial guidance for our attempts at success. For one, failure information is qualitatively different from success information. To (recklessly) paraphrase Tolstoy, all successes are alike, but each failure is unique. All successful sharpshooters hit the bullseye. But one failed sharpshooter may have hit way left, while the other may have hit way over the target. There’s something unique to learn from each. Moreover, failure is particularly informative when it is rare. When our goal is to minimize mistakes, a mistake is highly informative. A doctor who performs the same surgery successfully 99 out of 100 times may benefit more from studying the one failed surgery than studying the 99 successful ones.

Finally, failure violates expectations. As such, it has the potential to facilitate new insight. “When schemas are violated, people are surprised …, and surprising experiences (if they are noted) prompt cognitive elaboration.” Information about unexpected failure, because it is more highly elaborated and detailed, should therefore be more helpful in predicting success. And indeed, evidence from the authors’ research suggests that it is. They conclude: “People ought to attend to negative (vs. positive) communications—that is, the information on failure over the information on success—when deciding which employee to hire, which book to read, which school to attend, or which restaurant to dine in.”

So, it is worthwhile for us to tend to—and learn properly from—failure. But how do we do that, given the inherent emotional and cognitive barriers? The authors propose several strategies. Emotional ego barriers may be overcome if we remove the ego from the failure. This can be done by looking to learn from others’ failures (in which we are not emotionally involved), or by practicing the technique of distanced self-talk (which I discussed in detail in a previous post). Alternatively, we may work to shore up our ego, so it can withstand the emotional impact of acknowledging and tending to failure. One way to do so is by improving our competence and expertise. Experts are better at learning from failure because they are less threatened by it. Focusing on our competence is also a useful way to shore up our courage—as I discussed in a previous post.

To overcome our cognitive barriers, the authors propose several strategies. One is reducing cognitive load. It is easier for us to consider failure if someone does some of the heavy cognitive lifting for us, by highlighting the value of failure related information or providing corrective information. Reframing the problem may also help eliminate our aversion to learning from failure. If the goal of the experience is learning, rather than success, then failure is an opportunity for learning, and hence aligned with the goal. “A failed experience is a success when the goal is learning.” Additionally, research has shown that loss frames (you will lose money if you make a mistake) reduce the fear of learning from failure, as compared to gain frames (you’ll win money for the right answer).

Another strategy involves eliminating concurrent tasks that may overload our attentional focus. It’s easier to pay attention to failure when we don’t have five other things to do at the same time. Putting more time and practice toward the task of learning from failure is also useful in overcoming barriers. You are more likely to learn when you have time for—and training in—learning. This is true for failure as it is for most anything else.

In sum, learning from failure is important, yet it does not happen on its own. Rather, it is a skill that needs to be learned and practiced, which takes effort. However, training ourselves to overcome the emotional and cognitive barriers that prevent us from reflecting honestly on our failures is bound to improve our odds of success.

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