Study: Trainees learn better from success, not failure
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Study: Trainees learn better from success, not failure

The idea that we learn at least as much from failure as from success is engrained in our culture. Just look at maxims like “Learn from your mistakes” and “Failure is a great teacher.”

But what if failure isn’t actually such a great teacher, at least in some contexts? Recent research out of the University of Chicago’s business school suggests that this is the case.

The researchers ran a series of experiments in which participants were given a learning task. In one, telemarketers at a call center were asked questions about customer service and their answers evaluated. One group was given feedback indicating which of their answers were correct. Another group received feedback only on their incorrect answers. Then all the participants were retested on the same questions, phrased somewhat differently.

The group that had felt successful after the first round — those who got positive feedback — performed significantly better on the retest. They got a total of 62% of the answers correct, compared with 48% for the failure group, who got negative feedback.

Ego threat

The researchers got the same kind of result in another experiment.

In this one, a randomly chosen group of participants was asked questions about the meaning of symbols in an invented language. Then some participants were given “success feedback,” and others “failure feedback.” Again, the former group learned more than the latter. In the retest, the success group got 80% of the answers right while the failure group got only 59% right.

Analyzing their results, the researchers noted that in both experiments, both groups got all the information they needed to answer the questions correctly the second time.

The difference, they said, was that the people who were told about their failures experienced a threat to their egos that caused them to “tune out and stop processing information.”

Keeping it upbeat

So what are we to conclude from these experiments? That failure never teaches people anything? Of course not.

The researchers noted that the psychological phenomenon known as “aversion learning” is all about learning from sometimes-painful failures. “The burnt child shuns the fire” is based on learning from an understandable aversion to the pain of being burned. If a failure is too big to be ignored, the researchers said, people will usually learn something from it.

But in a learning environment, it seems, it’s better to emphasize where people have gotten it right rather than the opposite. Not just because those administering the training want to be nice and upbeat — although that’s a great way to be — but also because it makes for better learning.

(This blog entry is based on the following research study: Eskreis-Winkler, L., and Fishbach, A. (2019). Not Learning From Failure — the Greatest Failure of All. Psychological Science, Vol. 30, Issue 12, 1733-1744.)

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