Jiu-Jitsu Letter

Why You Don't Learn from Failure

In a fascinating episode of Choiceology, Lauren Eskreis-Winkler1 talked about her research showing that people don’t learn from failure nearly as much as from success.


It’s interesting that sometimes they learn nothing, but good to know that we learn a little from failures. Just that we’re learning more from success. Yeah. Why is that? Why is it that we generally seem to learn more when we get positive feedback? Hey, you got that question, right? And then it’s ingrained in your head and you can answer it when it comes up again. But when you got it wrong and you’re corrected, you don’t learn as much.


So there could be multiple reasons. One that we’ve explored extensively, and this is all research with Ayelet Fishbach, is that failure is really ego threatening. It makes people feel bad about themselves. And so you can imagine in any situation in which you fail, there really are two motives.

One is to learn to gain something from the experience. And the other is not to feel bad about yourself. And so what we find often is that when there’s these two competing motives, you might think when you’re outside the situation, that what’s really gonna trump the other is the desire to learn. But what we find over and over again is that that’s not how human beings are created.

Even in relatively inconsequential failures, things that you think would not even be all that ego threatening, people choose to tune out and not pay attention and not look.

And a prerequisite to learning is paying attention. And so just by nature of tuning out and not paying attention, people basically make it impossible for them to learn.


That’s really interesting. It makes me think of Carol Dweck’s work on growth mindset, which of course is all about reframing failures as opportunities to grow, as opposed to demonstrations of your fixed capacity. And of course, when you have a growth mindset, lots of things turn out to be better. I’m wondering if that feels relevant to you, or if there’s anything besides trying to reframe failures as growth opportunities that you think can reduce this bias.


Yes. So I think that’s totally relevant and would be incredibly useful. Right? So if indeed the mechanism here, if the psychological process is that people are feeling very threatened by failure and not paying attention, that I think the key question is how do you get people to stop feeling threatened?

And so one way is to change people’s underlying belief system. And Carol Dweck has really been the pioneer in the sense in figuring out how to create lessons and how to get people to think differently about failure. So it’s not as threatening. Uh, much simpler way to do this is something we did in our studies, which is, Hey, if you don’t want people to feel ego threatened, just remove the ego, which is to say that it’s very hard for people to learn from their own failures, cuz their own egos are involved, but we found that people are more than able to learn from others failures.


So watching other people’s experience teaches us more than failing does. How does it compare to succeeding ourselves?


It’s basically all the same. So learning from others, failures and others’ success is equivalent to each other, as well as learning from one’s own success and learning from one’s own failures is lower.

The entire episode is worth listening to. Find it here: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/choiceology-with-katy-milkman/id1337886873?i=1000576080365

And the research paper is here: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/337127055_Not_Learning_From_Failure-the_Greatest_Failure_of_All

  1. I’ve referenced another of her studies here: http://jiujitsuletter.com/posts/advise-others-advise-yourself/ ↩︎

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