We’re often told not to dwell on the past – especially on our past mistakes. We are told that if we want to move forward with our lives, we should forget the past and look to the future. But a group of eminent scientists say the opposite is true – because the pain of failure encourages you to make more effort to rectify mistakes, avoid making the same mistake again, and perform better in the future. Dwelling on the past just might be a useful part of the human survival strategy…
Conventional wisdom dictates you should not dwell on your mistakes and not feel bad about them. But Selin Malkoc, professor of marketing at the Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business, Noelle Nelson of the University of Kansas and Baba Shiv of Stanford University, believe the opposite is true.
When faced with failure, it seems it’s actually better to focus on your emotions. If you concentrate on how bad you feel and how you don’t want to experience those feelings again, you are more likely to try harder next time.
Most people focus on protecting their egos, about how the failure wasn’t their fault, or how it wasn’t that big a deal anyway. If your thoughts are all about how to distance yourself from the failure, it is unlikely you will learn from your mistakes.
The researchers conducted several studies. In one, 98 college students were asked to price-search online for a blender with specific characteristics, with the possibility of winning a cash prize if they found the lowest price. Before being told whether they had won the prize, half the participants were told to focus on their emotional response to winning or losing, while the other half were instructed to focus on their thoughts about how they did.
However, the task was rigged. After the test, all the participants discovered that the lowest price was actually $3.27 less than the lowest price they found. After writing about their failure, the students were given another chance by taking on an unrelated task.
The researchers were trying to find out whether the effort made by participants in a new task would be related to whether or not they focused on their thoughts or emotions about their failure. Would a similar or unrelated task trigger participants into recalling their unsuccessful attempt?
This time, the participants were split into two groups. One group were asked to search for a gift book for a friend that best fitted their limited college-student budget – in other words, they would look for the lowest price, just as they did in the first task. The other group were asked to search for a book that would be the best choice as a gift for their friend.
The participants in the second group’s emotional responses to failure motivated them much more than cognitive ones. The emotionally motivated participants spent nearly 25% more time searching for a low-priced book than the participants who had only thought about – rather than dwelled on the pain of – their earlier failure. There was no significant difference in effort made by participants when the second task was unrelated to the first.
The researchers confirmed that the task has to be similar enough to trigger the emotional pain of the initial failure. In other words, when the participants focused on how bad they felt about failing the first time, they tried harder than the others when they were given another opportunity.
One reason why an emotional response to failure may be more effective than a cognitive one is the nature of people’s thoughts about their mistakes. When the researchers analysed what participants who thought about their failure wrote about, they found significantly more self-protective thoughts. This is what happens with most people.
In another, similar study, the researchers didn’t tell some participants how to respond to their failures. They found that these people tended to produce cognitive responses rather than emotional ones, and those cognitive responses were the kind that protected them rather than focused on self-improvement.
In most real-life situations, people probably have both cognitive and emotional responses to their failures. But, the important thing is not to avoid the emotional pain of failing, but to use that pain to fuel improvement.
Emotional responses to failure can hurt – they make you feel bad – which is why people often choose to think self-protective thoughts after they make mistakes. But if you focus on how bad you feel, you’re going to work harder to find a solution and make sure you don’t make the same mistake again.
Mistakes cause our brains to pause and take stock, but this pause leads to conflicting advice when it comes to making future decisions. During this pause, the brain gathers more information to prevent repeating the same mistake, while at the same time reducing the quality of what it obtains because of its desire to collect as much as possible. These two actions cancel each other out and decrease the likelihood of making the best choice next time.
It seems that no matter how hard we try, we still struggle to learn from our mistakes, often making the same errors and choices time and time again.
The results of the study appear in the online Journal of Behavioral Decision Making.
Copyright Andrew Newton 2017. All rights reserved.