Why It’s So Hard to Learn From Our Mistakes
You’re in the shower, lying in bed, or huffing along on the treadmill, and suddenly, like someone just snapped their fingers, you’re overcome with embarrassment. For reasons beyond your understanding, your brain has decided it’s time to relive your most egregious botch-job, dumbest blunder, or most humiliating gaffe.
Our failures stick with us. In theory, that can be a good thing, unpleasant as it sometimes feels, because remembering helps us avoid repeating our past missteps. But that only works if we actually improve post-failure.
A new study from the University of Chicago found that we often don’t learn from our mistakes at all. In fact, mistakes can actually undermine learning: Over the course of five different experiments, when participants were told they got something wrong, they shut down and did worse on subsequent tasks.
According to Lauren Eskreis-Winkler, a researcher at the University of Chicago’s Center for Decision Research and the study’s co-author, that willful blindness is an act of self-preservation. “Often, people find failure ego-threatening, and they tune out,” she says. “As a result, they stop learning.”
In the paper, published in the journal Psychological Science, Eskreis-Winkler and her co-author further explained this phenomenon: “According to several motivational theories, negative feedback lowers people’s confidence in their overall ability to pursue their goals, as well as their general expectations of success.”
“When you fail, it adds anxiety and distraction,” says Sean Duffy, an associate professor of psychology at Rutgers University, Camden, who was not involved with the study. “Athletes can crack under pressure, especially if they’ve made mistakes already. Look at free throws: Often, when someone misses the first one, they clam up and miss the second one, too.”
That’s not to say you should totally put your mistakes out of mind. As the study authors say, “If people are motivated to ignore their failures, then they will not attend to them and will not learn.”
But there are tricks you can use to make sure you’re not closing yourself off to the lessons of…