Is learning from your mistakes a myth?
October 09, 2019
Failure may not be the great teacher that conventional wisdom says it is.
Contrary to common belief, new research from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business finds, 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 Chicago Booth Professor Ayelet Fishbach and Post-Doctoral Fellow Lauren Eskreis-Winkler in the study, Not Learning from Failure—The Greatest Failure of All.
The study is forthcoming in the journal Psychological Science.
The researchers conducted five experiments, with over 1,600 participants. Each respondent answered a series of binary-choice questions. Each question had two possible answers. For example, one experiment asked telemarketers how much money U.S. companies lose annually due to poor customer service. The choices were: a) approximately $90 billion; b) approximately $60 billion. Because there were only two possible answers, once participants received feedback on their answer, they should have known the correct answer—whether they guessed correctly or not. Next, participants were retested on the content of the initial questions to see whether they had learned from the feedback.
Consistently, participants learned less from failure than from success—even when the task was redesigned to make learning from failure less cognitively taxing, and even when learning was incentivized. Those who received failure feedback also remembered fewer of their answer choices.
What people learn from failure depends on their motivation. As the authors write, “If people are motivated to ignore their failures, then they will not attend to them. . .[i]f researchers are motivated to ignore failed experiments, for example, they will learn nothing from them.”
In one experiment, the researchers removed ego from failure by having participants observe someone else’s successes and failures. Although people learned less from personal failure than from personal success, they learned just as much from others’ failures as from others’ successes. In other words, when failure is removed from the self, people tune in and learn from failure.
The research results have implications for how to optimize learning. As the researchers put it, “Reducing the degree to which failure involves the ego will promote learning.”
Additional resources: Ayelet Fishbach discusses her new research with Chicago Booth Review.
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