Benefits of failure are overrated

The notion that failure paves the way to success is a comforting platitude, but new research suggests it may be both misleading and harmful. A series of experiments conducted by psychologists at Northwestern University found that people consistently overestimate the likelihood of success following failure across a range of domains, from professional licensing exams to health interventions.

The study, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, involved 11 experiments with over 1,800 participants. In one test, subjects greatly overshot the mark when asked to estimate the percentage of aspiring nurses, lawyers, and teachers who pass licensing exams after initially failing them.

“People expect success to follow failure much more often than it actually does,” said Lauren Eskreis-Winkler, PhD, the study’s lead author and an assistant professor of management and organizations at Northwestern. “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.”

Failure’s Lessons Often Go Unheeded

The researchers found that participants frequently assumed people pay close attention to their mistakes and learn from them. However, a field test involving nurses revealed they overestimated the extent to which their colleagues would learn from past errors.

“People often confuse what is with what ought to be,” Eskreis-Winkler explained. “People ought to pay attention and learn from failure, but often they don’t because failure is demotivating and ego-threatening.”

While reassuring people that failure will ultimately lead to success may provide comfort, the researchers warn this mindset can have damaging real-world repercussions. In one experiment, participants presumed that heart patients would adopt healthier lifestyles following health scares, when in reality many do not.

“People who believe that problems will self-correct after failure are less motivated to help those in need,” Eskreis-Winkler noted. “Why would we invest time or money to help struggling populations if we erroneously believe that they will right themselves?”

Correcting Misconceptions Could Spur Reform

However, the study found that people may adjust their expectations when presented with information about the limited benefits of failure. In two experiments, participants expressed greater support for taxpayer-funded rehabilitation programs for ex-inmates and drug treatment when informed about the low success rates for individuals in those programs.

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

The Exaggerated Benefits of Failure,” Lauren Eskreis-Winkler, PhD, Northwestern University; Katilin Woolley, PhD, Cornell University; Eda Erensoy, BA, Yale University; and Minhee Kim, BA, Columbia University, Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, published online June 10, 2024.

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