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  • Posted June 11, 2024

Failure's 'Benefits' Might Be Overrated

Winston Churchill once said, “Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.”

It's one of countless platitudes claiming that failure leads to success.

But there's strong evidence that such a notion is wrongheaded and can lead to terrible real-world consequences, researchers said in a new report.

In fact, many people do not learn from their failures, and it's folly to expect otherwise, according to findings published June 10 in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.

“People often confuse what is with what ought to be,” lead researcher Lauren Eskreis-Winkler, an assistant professor of management and organizations at Northwestern University, said in a news release. “People ought to pay attention and learn from failure, but often they don't because failure is demotivating and ego-threatening.”

A series of 11 experiments involving more than 1,800 participants found that people often don't gain wisdom from failure, and that expecting them to do so can have potentially terrible consequences:

  • People vastly overestimated the percentage of prospective nurses, lawyers and teachers who pass licensing exams after previously failing them.

  • Nurses tended to overestimate how much colleagues would learn from a past error.

  • People assumed that heart patients would embrace a healthier lifestyle, when many don't.

“People expect success to follow failure much more often than it actually does,” Eskreis-Winkler said. “People usually assume that past behavior predicts future behavior, so it's surprising that we often believe the opposite when it comes to succeeding after failure.”

Telling people they will succeed after failure might blunt the sting of a fiasco, but that mindset won't automatically translate into folks learning a lesson, researchers said.

On the other hand, people can recalibrate their expectations of others when given more information about how little failure actually pays off.

Experiments found people were more supportive of taxpayer funding for rehabilitation and drug treatment programs when they learned about the low rates of success for people using those programs.

“Correcting our misguided beliefs about failure could help shift taxpayer dollars away from punishment toward rehabilitation and reform,” Eskreis-Winkler said.

More information

Harvard Business Review has more about learning from failure.

SOURCE: American Psychological Association, news release, June 11, 2024

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