By Ray Williams
February 7, 2021
Failure has long been regarded in conventional wisdom as a teachable moment. Whether you lose a client, get sacked from your job, or file for bankruptcy, conventional wisdom holds that the experience will give you the insight needed to avoid repeating your mistakes. Several studies show we may not learn from our mistakes. We learn from our successes.
Study 1:Failure may not be the great teacher that we assume it is, according to research from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. In a study reported in Psychological Science, researchers Ayelet Fishbach and Lauren Eskreis-Winkler found that people appear to learn less from their flops than from their triumphs.
“We are taught to learn from failure, to celebrate failure, to fail forward,” said Fishbach, who studies motivation and decision making. “Graduation speeches often talk about how much you should dare to fail and learn from your failures. And managers talk about the lessons that they personally had from failures. If you just listen to public speaking, you would think that we are pretty tuned in to failures. However, this is not the case.”Fishbach and Eskreis-Winkler conducted five experiments in which each of the 1,600-plus participants responded to a series of questions. In one experiment, researchers invited telemarketers to complete a 10-question survey about customer experiences and attitudes. In one question, for example, the researchers asked the telemarketers how much money US companies lose annually due to lousy customer service. They were presented with two possible answers — “approximately $90 billion” or “approximately $60 billion.”
Some participants were assigned to a success condition — they were told about the first four questions they answered correctly and given no feedback on the remaining questions. Others were assigned to a failure condition in which they received feedback on the first four questions they answered incorrectly, and also received no feedback about their remaining answers.
Once participants received feedback on their answer, they presumably would know the correct answer — whether they guessed correctly or not.
Next, participants were retested on the content of the initial questions to see whether they had learned from the feedback. Consistently, participants learned less from failure than from success — even when they retook the survey with the questions rephrased to make learning from failure less cognitively difficult (e.g., Which of the amounts is NOT what US companies lose annually due to poor customer service?). This result even held in a second experiment in which participants were incentivized with a small monetary reward for correct answers. Those who received failure feedback also remembered fewer of their answer choices. “With more experiments, what we were able to see is that it’s really a matter of self-esteem,” Fishbach said. “It just doesn’t feel good to fail, so people tune out.”
In another experiment, the researchers had participants observe someone else’s successes and failures. Although people learned less from personal failure than from personal success, they learned just as much from others’ failures as from others’ successes. In other words, when our own ego isn’t threatened by a failure, we tune in and learn.
“To the extent that failures are being ignored, to the extent that we actually tune out rather than tune in, then there is no learning whatsoever from failures,” Fishbach said. “And when there is no learning from failures, that’s quite in contrast with the general impression that failures were teachable moments in our life. Most of the times when we failed, we just didn’t pay attention.”
The scientists say that future research should explore whether failure to learn from mistakes is consistent across other cultures, citing a study showing Japanese individuals persisting longer after a failure than after a success. Additionally, they say, researchers could explore how personalized feedback, such as the type you’d receive from a caring mentor, affects what we take away from a failure. The fact remains, however, that the Booth School researchers’ findings suggest that, contrary to Oprah’s advice, failure is not always a step toward achievement.
Not learning from our mistakes has a connection with brain functioning, a second study concludes.
Study 2: Researchers from MIT have shown for the first time that the brain learns more after a success than a failure. This study indicates, contrary to previous research, that neurons in the brain are able to keep a memory of recent success and failures during learning and performed better after doing it right than after doing it wrong. The researchers found that after monkeys did something correctly, there were prolonged neural signals, which continued to fire until the next action, therefore affecting subsequent neural response. But after a wrong action there was less neural activity and no improvement in further attempts.
“The findings suggest that learning may not require the changing of connections of neurons on each trial, as several other studies have suggested, and instead suggest that information about outcomes on each trial are held in a sort of buffer for guidance in the next attempt,” says Professor Howard Eichenbaum from the Centre for Memory and Brain at Boston University.
So, it turns out our history, piano and tennis teachers had it right all along, practice does indeed makes perfect. If you can get something right repeatedly, you’re likely to keep getting it more right. In other words, “perfect practice makes perfect,” says Mark Histed, one of the co-authors on the paper published in Neuron.
Although scientists have long identified that the prefrontal cortex in the brain is associated with learning, researchers have had very little idea about what are the exact neural mechanisms that convert environmental feedback, our successes and failures, into the brains ability to learn and respond to experience.
Even though this study was done in monkeys, Earl Miller, the lead investigator on the paper and professor of neuroscience at MIT, points out that “the brains of humans and animals are essentially identical in these fundamental functions, so it is very likely that the exact same thing is going on in human brains.”
In their study, monkeys were rewarded after shifting their gaze to the right or left after being shown specific pictures on a computer screen. The monkeys were able to use trial and error to work out which images were correctly associated with which movements. The investigators found that when the monkeys made the correct movement in accordance with the correct picture some neurons started to fire for several seconds until the next action was made. “We found a set of neurons that maintains a memory of whether what the animals did in the past was correct or not,” Histed. These prolonged signals carried information into the next action influencing subsequent neural responses.
“Normally rewards following a ‘successful’ action indicating it was correct occur a short time after it, but a long time before the next,” said Professor John Stein at Oxford University. “These results show, contrary to previous ideas, that single nerve cells in the caudate nucleus and prefrontal cortex, with which the caudate is intimately connected, remain active for several seconds after the reward, probably contributing to medium-term learning from experience. These longer lasting responses could also increase synaptic strengths and thus underlie even longer term learning.”
“Our study found that it is reward, rather than its absence, that is driving learning,” said Miller, and it is also clear that there are different types of learning. Stein indicates that these findings helps us understand why repetitive learning is so successful in humans, and honing in on which parameters favour this type of learning could be beneficial in terms of teaching, training, and education.
The prefrontal cortex and basal ganglia are the areas of the brain that are typically impaired in diseases such as schizophrenia, Parkinson’s disease, and autism. “Understanding how the brain operates normally is a key step to finding therapies for these disorders,” Miller says. The authors hope that this study will further better understanding the role of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with reward and pleasure, in learning, and incidentally is also associated with gambling and drug addiction.
“Gradual trial-and-error learning is common across all species, and is fundamental to many types of learning that confront animals and humans, including skill learning and perceptual classification,” Stein said. Miller thinks that this mechanism may have evolved because success is more informative than a failure, “so the brain has taken advantage of that.”
Study 3: Karin Humphreys, assistant professor in McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, and Amy Beth Warriner, in the Department of Psychology, Neuroscience & Behavior, suggest that most errors are repeated because the very act of making a mistake, despite receiving correction, constitutes the learning of that mistake. The research appears in The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology.
Humphreys says the research came about as a result of her own experiences of repeatedly getting into a tip-of-the-tongue (or TOT) state on particular words.
“This can be incredibly frustrating — you know you know the word, but you just can’t quite get it,” she said. “And once you have it, it is such a relief that you can’t imagine ever forgetting it again. But then you do. So we began thinking about the mechanisms that might underlie this phenomenon. We realized that it might not be a case of everyone having certain words that are difficult for them to remember, but that by getting into a tip-of-the-tongue state on a particular word once, they actually learn to go into that incorrect state when they try to retrieve the same word again.”
Humphreys and Warriner tested 30 students to see if their subjects could retrieve words after being given a definition. e.g. “What do you call an instrument for performing calculations by sliding beads along rods or grooves” (Answer: abacus). They then had to say whether they knew the answer, didn’t know it, or were in a TOT. If they were in a TOT, they were randomly assigned to spend either 10 or 30 seconds trying to retrieve the answer before finally being shown it. Two days later, subjects were tested on those same words again. One would assume that having been shown the correct word on Day 1 the subject would still remember it on Day 2. Not so. The subjects tended to TOT on the same words as before, and were especially more likely to do so if they had spent a longer time trying to retrieve them The longer time in the error state appears to reinforce that incorrect pattern of brain activation that caused the error.
“It’s akin to spinning one’s tires in the snow: despite your perseverance you’re only digging yourself a deeper rut,” the researchers explained.
There might be a strategy to solve the recurrence of tip-of-the-tongue situations, which is what Warriner is currently working. “If you can find out what the word is as soon as possible–by looking it up, or asking someone–you should actually say it to yourself,” says Humphreys. “It doesn’t need to be out loud, but you should at least say it to yourself. By laying down another procedural memory you can help ameliorate the effects of the error. However, what the research shows is that if you just can’t figure it out, stop trying: you’re just digging yourself in deeper.”
Study 4: We seem to learn little from our past choices, good or bad according to a series of experiments published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology.To err is human, surely. But why do so many people make the same errors over and over again? Several recent studies reveal how our brains don’t learn from our past mistakes to the extent we might hope. In fact, thinking about past flubs might only doom us to repeat them.
For one thing, Kelly Haws, an associate professor of marketing at Vanderbilt University, asked some participants to recall times that they were successfully able to control their temptation to impulse-buy, and others to recall times they weren’t. Within each group, some subjects were asked to remember two instances and others 10, the idea being that it’s more difficult to remember many events than just a couple. She then asked them how much credit-card debt they’d be willing to incur in order to buy a coveted item.
Oddly, among the participants asked to recall past successes, those who remembered more examples were willing to take on about 21 percent more credit-card debt than those who remembered fewer. Perhaps, Haws speculated, they struggled to remember all 10 and then questioned their self-control. “They think, ‘If I were that successful, it would be easier for me to recall these successes,’” she said.
But the participants who remembered times when they had failed to rein in their expenditures—regardless of how many instances they recalled—racked up just as much debt as those who reflected on 10 successes. The fact that they had wasted money in the past had little effect on their willingness to do it again.
Seeing yourself as a failure, Haws explained, can get you down. “And when we’re feeling down, we tend to splurge,” she said.
Study 5: Our brains rely on poorer-quality evidence from the surrounding environment the second time, according to Roozbeh Kiani, Braden Purcell at New York University’s Center for Neural Science. The common proverb intended to counteract mistake making—“just slow down!”—might not help much, either. After making a mistake, our brains typically do slow down the decision-making process the next time a similar issue comes up, through a phenomenon known as “post-error slowing.” However, that doesn’t always make the next decision more accurate.
The study participants watched a collection of moving dots on a screen, and then used their eyes to indicate the direction in which they thought the majority of the dots were traveling. Both humans and monkeys took longer to make their next decisions after a wrong answer, with the effect more pronounced for difficult choices than for easier ones. The slowness didn’t make them likelier to be right, though, suggesting that the subjects were consistently using weaker information to decide.
The reason for the reliance on worse information might be that “the brain gets involved in a quest to understand why the error took place,” Kiani said. It tries to figure out, why did this error happen? Did something about the world change? Is there something wrong with me? “The negative feedback triggers a cascade of computations,” Kiani said, which distract from the decision at hand.
In the study, this didn’t happen when researchers had subjects wait a short while before attempting the task again. That pause gave subjects’ brains a chance to recover from the negative feedback. In other words, if you’re playing basketball, and you keep missing baskets, it might be best to try again another day.
Study 6: There’s also evidence that our brains are wired to pay attention to things that were rewarding once, even if they aren’t anymore. For a small study recently published in the journal Current Biology, Johns Hopkins University neuroscientists had 20 people find red and green objects among shapes on a computer screen. They were paid $1.50 for each red object and 25 cents for each green one. The next day, the researchers had them do the same thing, but this time they were told they would not be rewarded for finding either color. Still, participants zeroed in on the red objects over the green ones.
The results showed “we’re not aware of what we’re paying attention to and why,” said Susan Courtney, a cognitive neuroscientist at Johns Hopkins University and a co-author of the study. “There’s nothing inherently rewarding about these colors, it’s just their experience the day before for an hour.”
To Courtney, the study helped explain why it’s so hard to kick bad habits or stick to diets. “When my gaze drifts toward the donuts in the mailroom, that triggers a thought process of what it would be like to taste that donut. That makes it harder to resist,” she said.
People were especially distracted by the red shapes when they had high levels of the pleasure chemical dopamine surging through their brains. The best strategy, in that case, is to remind yourself about the long-term consequences of eating the donut, the negativity of which might tamp down the dopamine.
So the evidence seems to suggest that we learn from our successes, rather than learning from our mistakes, despite the age-old adage.
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