Benefits of failure are overrated

June 16, 2024

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Benefits of failure are overrated

The platitude that failure leads to success may be both inaccurate and damaging to society, according to research published by the American Psychological Association (of which Alicia and I are members).

Researchers conducted 11 experiments with more than 1,800 participants across many domains and compared national statistics to the participants’ responses. In one experiment, participants vastly overestimated the percentage of prospective nurses, lawyers and teachers who pass licensing exams after previously failing them.

What the researchers say: “People expect success to follow failure much more often than it actually does,” said the lead researcher. “People usually assume that past behavior predicts future behavior, so it’s surprising that we often believe the opposite when it comes to succeeding after failure.”

In some experiments, participants wrongly assumed that people pay attention to their mistakes and learn from them. In one field test, nurses overestimated how much their colleagues would learn from a past error. The research was published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.

“People often confuse what is with what ought to be,” the researchers said. “People ought to pay attention and learn from failure, but often they don’t because failure is demotivating and ego-threatening.”

While telling people they will succeed after failure may make them feel better, that mindset can have damaging real-world consequences, they found. In one experiment, participants assumed that heart patients would embrace healthier lifestyles when many of them don’t.

“People who believe that problems will self-correct after failure are less motivated to help those in need,” they explained. “Why would we invest time or money to help struggling populations if we erroneously believe that they will right themselves?”

However, people may recalibrate their expectations when given information about the negligible benefits of failure. In two experiments, participants were more supportive of taxpayer funding for rehabilitation programs for former inmates and drug treatment programs when they learned about the low rates of success for people using those programs.

“Correcting our misguided beliefs about failure could help shift taxpayer dollars away from punishment toward rehabilitation and reform,” the researchers concluded.

So, what? This research ties in with studies done a few years ago at MIT and elsewhere which showed that we don’t generally learn from our mistakes. Rather we learn from being rewarded for success or for endeavor. The most powerful rewards are relational—firmer bonding, praise and acknowledgement.

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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