5 Science-Based Techniques to Learn From Failure
Emotional and cognitive barriers to learning from setbacks.
Posted February 5, 2023 | Reviewed by Abigail Fagan
- To stay motivated, we tend to avoid thinking about past mistakes and focus instead on past successes.
- However, ignoring our mistakes increases the likelihood of repeating them in the future.
- There are emotional, cognitive, personality, and cultural barriers to learning from failure.
Whether pursuing financial success, career advancement, academic achievement, health improvement, or other goals, we all experience setbacks in our lives. But how often do we learn from setbacks?
Published in Perspectives on Psychological Science, a study by Eskreis-Winkler and Fishbach of the University of Chicago suggests learning from failure is harder than commonly assumed. Why? Because of emotional, cognitive, personality, and cultural reasons.
What do people learn from failures?
Think of a scientist whose experiment has failed. How probable is it that the scientist is able to make improvements without setting aside the time to review potential reasons for the failure? Not very likely.
But if ignoring or avoiding unfavorable information is costly, why do so many of us do it?
Perhaps because what we usually “learn” from failure is that we are stupid, incompetent, worthless, helpless, or powerless. Not surprisingly, these threats to the ego prevent feedback receptivity.
Taking failures personally impacts goal commitment and may even result in the what the hell effect, which refers to completely disengaging from the goal after a setback.
An example of what the hell effect is feeling so upset about gaining a pound while on a diet that you respond to this minor setback by eating an entire cake.
To compare, not taking note of failures at all may lead to overconfidence. Interestingly, this relationship is bidirectional:
- Overconfident and narcissistic people respond more negatively to failure and, as a result, are less motivated to note their mistakes.
- Ignoring mistakes can puff up the ego and lead to arrogance and overconfidence.
Emotional barriers to learning from failure: taking the ego out
As suggested, failure often bruises (or at least threatens) the ego and one's sense of self-worth.
In other words, learning from mistakes seemingly clashes with the goal of feeling good about oneself—of seeing oneself as good, intelligent, competent, and worthy.
Therefore, as a way to maintain their self-esteem, people may devalue the goal or disengage from it after a major setback.
Given these barriers, the question is how can we reduce threats to self-worth and encourage learning from mistakes.
Two solutions are:
- Take the ego out of the equation.
- Strengthen the ego.
We begin with the first technique.
One way of removing the ego involves learning from somebody else’s failures, or seeking “negative role models.” Unlike with positive role models, where the goal is imitation, the goal here is to avoid doing what negative role models have done.
Another strategy for ego removal involves using cognitive distancing—thinking about a personal situation from the perspective of a third, neutral party.
You replace the “I” in “Why did I fail?” with your name. For instance, “Why did John/Jane fail?” Although not quite as effective as the first, this technique is useful when learning from one’s own mistakes is essential.
Emotional barriers to learning from failure: strengthening the ego
Having discussed ego removal, let us talk about shoring up the ego.
The first approach is seeing one’s failures not as a source of guilt and shame but as useful information for advising others what not to do—be it to help prevent mistakes in dieting, job search, parenting, etc.
The second approach is recalling one’s abilities, expertise, or goal commitment, because when we are more confident and committed, failures are less likely to motivate disengagement.
A third strategy involves cognitive reappraisal—reframing and reinterpreting the negative outcome as a challenge or opportunity to grow. It is difficult to see failure positively when our only goal is achieving a particular end, but not so if we have other goals too, including learning from experience and growing.
Indeed, if we believe in our ability to improve and master new skills, even if we did not achieve exactly what we aimed for, it becomes easier to persevere in the face of adversity and overcome setbacks.
Cognitive, personal, and cultural barriers to learning from failure
A major cognitive explanation for the difficulty of learning from defeat is that we do not expect it, since we aim for success, not failure. And making use of information that violates expectations (of success) can be challenging.
Another cognitive barrier to learning from setbacks is that success requires noticing what works and simply repeating it, whereas failure requires analyzing what a wrong response tells us about the potentially correct response.
Personality and culture can also present barriers, depending on their effects on goal orientation—which means whether achieving gains or preventing loss is emphasized. For instance, extroverted individuals are more motivated by achievement, whereas neurotic people are motivated by fear of failure. Similarly, different communities and organizations may focus more on one outcome than the other.
Overcoming these personality, cultural, and cognitive barriers may require the following techniques:
- Highlighting the informational value of setbacks to reduce mental effort.
- Framing failures from a social angle, a domain in which people tend to reason more logically.
- Increasing cognitive resources, meaning dedicating more time to learning from setbacks.
- Building a local culture (e.g., organizational culture) that focuses not only on learning from success but also failure.
See Table 1 for a summary.
A variety of self-motivation strategies exist that can motivate us to persist in the face of setbacks. A commonly used one is to ignore failure. However, ignoring mistakes can be costly because, compared to positive outcomes, adverse outcomes are often more distinct and informative.
As discussed, we ignore failure due to the following obstacles:
- Emotional barriers: Failure threatens the ego and the sense of self as good and competent.
- Cognitive barriers: Failure is less directly informative than success. Simply put, it does not tell us what to do but only what not to do.
- Personality and cultural barriers: Failure and mistakes are de-emphasized due to personal temperament or sociocultural factors.
Nevertheless, there are a number of effective motivational strategies, as summarized in Table 1, which can help overcome barriers to noticing and learning from setbacks and increasing future success.