Future of Work

Learning from failure might not be as good as learning from success

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“It just doesn’t feel good to fail, so people tune out.” Image: Tim Gouw/Unsplash

University of Chicago
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Future of Work

  • Society teaches us to celebrate failure and learn from it.
  • But in experiments, participants learned less from failure than from success, even when learning was incentivized.
  • When failure is removed from the self, people tune in and learn from failure.

Contrary to common beliefs about learning from failure, you learn more from success, according to new research.

“Our society celebrates failure as a teachable moment,” write the study’s authors, who found in a series of experiments that “failure did the opposite: It undermined learning.”

“We are taught to learn from failure, to celebrate failure, to fail forward,” says Ayelet Fishbach, an expert on motivation and decision making at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business.

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“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.”

The researchers conducted five experiments in which each of the 1,600-plus participants answered a series of binary-choice questions. In one experiment, researchers asked telemarketers how much money US companies lose annually due to poor customer service. The choices were either “approximately $90 billion” or “approximately $60 billion.”

Because there were only two possible answers, once participants received feedback on their answer, they should have known the correct answer—whether they guessed correctly or not. Next, researchers retested participants on the content of the initial questions to see whether they had learned from the feedback.

we-learn-more-from-failure-than-success

Consistently, participants learned less from failure than from success—even when researchers redesigned the task to make learning from failure less cognitively taxing, and even when learning was incentivized. 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 says. “It just doesn’t feel good to fail, so people tune out.”

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In another experiment, the researchers removed ego from failure by having 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 failure is removed from the self, people tune in and learn from failure.

“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 says. “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 results have implications for how to optimize learning, the researchers say. As Fishbach put it: “We should understand that by exposing ourselves to failure, we might not be giving ourselves the best chance to learn.”

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