- We are told and tend to tell others that we must make mistakes to learn.
- But research shows that emotionally we resist failing and don’t learn the lessons it offers.
- We can overcome the resistance by observing others fail and advising others in areas where one has also struggled.
Most parents probably say it sometimes to children disheartened by getting something wrong. “You can’t learn without making mistakes.” Or “failure breeds success,” there is even a book of that name.1 Or “failure is essential for achieving a goal.”
We may even remind our miserable youngsters that they wouldn’t be walking on two legs now if they hadn’t persisted through failure when they first tried to take steps and tipped over.
It sounds encouraging and may be just the thing to enable young people (or anyone else, for that matter) to "pick themselves up" and try again.
As a therapist, however, I am aware that it doesn’t always work that way and that many people will go to lengths to protect themselves from apparent failure.
There was Lizzie, who was so convinced that she was less attractive or less witty or less interesting than her female friends that, when she was with them in mixed company, she would deliberately say something disparaging to any male they were talking to so that she could feel she had rejected him rather than the other way around.
And there was Mikhail, who remained in his student flat playing video games when his friends were at pubs and parties after being turned down by a girl he had asked out. He didn’t consider the gamut of other reasons that she might have said no besides her not fancying him (perhaps she had a partner; perhaps she was shy; perhaps she had just come out of a punishing relationship) or that is okay not to be chosen by everyone; he just concluded that he was unattractive.
Clay came to see me because he was depressed that his new small business as a house painter hadn’t taken off. When his clients asked him when he would start or how long it would take to finish, he would tell them what he thought they would want to hear rather than the truth. “Tomorrow!” he would trill, or “Just a few more days,” even though he knew perfectly well that it would likely be weeks, if not more.
He thought that it would make them happier to think the end (or beginning) was imminent, whereas, of course, it made them furious to be misled. Sometimes they terminated the arrangement before it had started. And he certainly never received precious word-of-mouth recommendations. Yet he kept on doing it.
According to U.S. researchers Lauren Eskreis-Winkler and Ayelet Fishbach,
Emotionally, failure bruises the ego. When people feel threatened, they tune out and miss the information failure offers. Cognitively, people also struggle. The information in failure is less direct than the information in success. Whereas success points to a winning strategy, from failure people need to infer what not to do.2
They developed a game called Facing Failure, which presents participants with a series of questions, each with two answer choices. First, participants receive feedback on whether they got the answer right or wrong. Then they answer more questions similar to those already answered. For instance, if the first question asked, “which of the two symbols below represents an animal?” the second series of questions might include the same symbols and ask, “which of the two symbols below represents a non-living object?” The answer to this can be inferred from the correct answer to the previous question, whether or not it was answered correctly at the time.
Alas, the study showed that participants did not learn in this way.
“Part of the reason players did not learn from failure was that, when they failed, they stopped paying attention. Not paying attention compromises recall, which makes learning impossible, " the researchers observed. Indeed, they found that when people disengaged from failure, they often developed an inflated self-view and over-confidence.
So that might perhaps be why some bosses, including Clay, will continue with unhelpful strategies, even in the face of evidence of unhelpfulness, or that those over-confident about exams will continue to underperform.
The researchers suggest some strategies to counteract failure to learn from failure. One comes from their finding that people were more likely to learn from failure if they observed others fail; because they weren’t personally invested, they remained calm enough to learn why the failure occurred. (It is similar to what human givens practitioners call the "my friend John" technique when we tell a client how something that pertains to them turned out helpfully for another person in similar circumstances.)
Also, the researchers said, a powerful corrective can come from being asked to advise others in an area where one has also struggled –how could others be helped not to yo-yo in weight, not to go off the rails, or to revise more effectively? As we know from human givens understandings about essential emotional needs, this gives us back a sense of status and control, enabling us to "win" despite failing.
1. Green, M (2013). Failure Breeds Success: a step-by-step plan on how to pick yourself up, turn any setback into a triumph and achieve your life’s ambitions. PG Press.
2. Eskreis-Winkler, L and Fishbach, A (2022). You think failure is hard? So is learning from it. Perspectives on Psychological Science, doi:10.1177/17456916211059817