Why It’s So Hard to Learn From Our Mistakes

Here’s how to stop your ego from getting in the way

Photo: Lisa5201/Getty Images

YYou’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 failure. Chief among them: Pretend it’s happening to someone else.

“Maybe you start compartmentalizing, because you don’t want the loss to affect you,” Duffy says. Compartmentalization isn’t typically the healthiest of psychological concepts, but in this case, it can keep you moving forward.

In their experiments, Eskreis-Winkler and her co-author found that people did learn from the mistakes of others. “Other people’s failures are not our own,” Eskreis-Winkler says. “As a result, they are not ego-threatening. One way to get people to learn from failure is to dissociate failure from the self.”

Another way to maintain a more open mindset about your failure is to intentionally cushion potential screwups with things you know you’ll ace. For example, if you have a complex project to tackle, but there’s a part of it you’re not super confident about, “give yourself tasks you know you’ll succeed at first,” Duffy says. Those easy wins will put you in the right mindset to learn from a later failure, should you need to.

If you’re doing a postmortem on a professional failing, Duffy continues, “Chop it up into parts. You can say, ‘Aha! I was great at collecting data but not great at the writing.’ List parts of complex tasks you are good at. Often, when people criticize you, you think you failed entirely.”

But if you can keep your ego in check, you’ll ensure that you can think about your failure constructively, whether that criticism is coming from others or from your own mind.

Kate is a freelance journalist who’s been published by Popular Science, The New York Times, USA Today, and many more. Read more at bykatemorgan.com.

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