Surprising new study shows we learn less from failure than success

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The age-old saying “learn from your mistakes” is just… well, a saying, according to new research.

Despite many believing the conventional wisdom is supposed to teach us a life-long lesson about our previous failures, new research by the University of Chicago Booth School of Business found that people learn less from mistakes than from success.

“We are taught to learn from failure, to celebrate failure, to fail forward,” said Chicago Booth Professor Ayelet Fishbach in a statement. “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 study, published in a forthcoming issue Psychological Science, examined over 1,6000 participants through five experiments where the experiments had participants answer binary-choice questions.

One experiment focused on telemarketers to ask how much US businesses lost annual due to poor customer service, with the choices being either approximately $90 billion or $60 billion. With there only being two possible answers, participants should know which was the correct answer after no matter how they answered, but when they were asked the same question again, participants who previously answered wrong didn’t learn their failure, according to researchers.

Another experiment focused on removing “ego from failure” by having participants watch someone else’s mistakes and successes. Researchers found that when people observe others making mistakes, they observe and learn more from the failure than if it was them making the same mistake.

“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.”

Some studies have shown that people do indeed learn from their mistakes, but only if you’re in the same ballpark to the right answer. A study published in Memory found that mistake guesses that are a “near miss” can help someone learn the information better than if no errors were made, meaning small errors can help lead the right answer due to creating a trial-and-error type situation for information in our memory.