Good news! You do in fact learn from your mistakes, study finds

Turns out, the old adage is true — you do learn from your mistakes, but it helps if you were close to getting the right answer all along, according to a new study published in Memory.

“Our research found evidence that mistakes that are a ‘near miss’ can help a person learn the information better than if no errors were made at all,” Dr. Nicole Anderson, the senior author on the study, said. “These types of errors can serve as stepping stones to remembering the right answer. But if the error made is a wild guess and out in left field, then a person does not learn the correct information as easily.”

Guesses that are nowhere near the right answer are not going to help you make a better answer next time, in other words.

We remember best when our mistake is almost right

To test the power of a helpful mistake, the researchers recruited English speakers who had no background in Spanish to learn the correct translations for Spanish words. When the Spanish words were closer in meaning to the English word, such as “carrera which means degree in Spanish and sounds like “career” in English, they were better able to remember the correct translation. They had a harder time remembering from wrong answers that had widely different meanings.

Why does this close trial-and-error form of learning work? It’s strengthening the activation of related information in our memory. When we make a mistake that is almost right, we are giving our brains a better chance at retrieving the right information next time, the researchers suggest. “Greater learning is required when outcomes differ widely from expectation, leading to greater attentional deployment to feedback,” the study said.

Inevitably, employees make mistakes. If you’re a boss wants a lesson to stick, you may be better off giving your employees choices that guide them towards the vicinity of the right answer, instead of leaving it open-ended.

“In a series of it may be better to ask questions that guide learners to guess in the right ballpark (e.g., Question: What kind of living thing is an earwig?; Answers: reptile, bird, insect) as opposed to left field (e.g., Question: What is an earwig?; Answers: earring, hairpiece, insect),” the study concluded.