Learn by Failing? Not So Easy
- December 16, 2019
- CBR - Behavioral Science
Failure is often framed as a great teacher—the successful sometimes crow about the number of times they failed before hitting it big. But failure may not always teach us as much as it could, often because ego gets in the way, suggests research by Chicago Booth postdoctoral fellow Lauren Eskreis-Winkler and Booth’s Ayelet Fishbach.
In an experiment, the researchers had telemarketers take a 10-question quiz about customer service. Each question offered two potential answers, only one of which was correct. For example, one question asked, “How much money, annually, do US companies lose due to poor customer service?” The participants had to choose between approximately $90 billion and approximately $60 billion. The correct answer was $60 billion.
Half of the participants received “success” feedback for questions they answered correctly, and the other half received “failure” feedback for wrong answers.
When tested later on what they’d learned, the telemarketers who had received success feedback fared better, answering 62 percent of the follow-up questions correctly, compared with 48 percent for those in the other group.
The researchers then performed a similar experiment that involved symbols, with participants from Amazon Mechanical Turk. As before, success feedback produced much better performance in a follow-up test: participants in the success condition got 80 percent of the answers right, versus 59 percent in the failure condition.
In each successive variation of the experiment, a question only had two possible answers, thus the two types of feedback provided the same amount of information. In that case, why was success a better teacher than failure?
Ayelet Fishbach: We are taught to learn from failure, to celebrate failure, to fail forward. 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. When we experience failures in our everyday life, the common response is to ignore the failure, and we basically don’t learn anything if we ignore the experience that we just had and the lesson that we just got.
To the extent that failures are being ignored, to the extent that we actually tune out other than tune in, then there is no learning whatsoever from failures. 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 time when we failed, we just didn’t pay attention.
My collaborator, Lauren Eskreis-Winkler, and I, were developing a paradigm where people are asked a question and there are two possible answers. And the first time they see these questions, they are basically guessing, and they have equal chance of getting it right or wrong. We asked telemarketers, for example, questions about consumer behavior; and there are two possible answers, and so they are kind of guessing, and they either got it right or wrong.
On the next phase, we test them on what they have learned; and now we present the same question, or a variation of the same question, with the same two answers, and we see whether they got it right. Now, on this phase, on the test phase, they are supposed to know either way, OK. If you got it right, then you know the correct answer. If you got it wrong, then you also know the correct answer; it’s the other answer. What we found is that while people mostly remember the correct answer, they don’t seem to remember what was the wrong answer, which means that they cannot tell us what is the right answer on the test phase.
We find that with questions that we presented to telemarketers about their work, basically. We found it when we asked people about a language that they didn’t know: so we present a symbol in some ancient language and ask them whether this is, let’s say, a bird or a piece of furniture. They are guessing. They make their guess; they are either correct or incorrect, and later on we test them about their knowledge. “So, remind me, what is this symbol again?” Those that guessed correctly can repeat the correct answer. Whereas, those that guessed incorrectly, even though they had full information at the point where we corrected them, don’t seem to know what is the correct answer.
We thought maybe it was harder to learn from failures, maybe just doing the switch—“This is not the right answer, therefore the right answer has to be a different one”—is harder for people. It turned out not to be the case. It turned out that when people give the wrong answer, they don’t even remember the wrong answer that they’ve given, so they really tune out. They don’t pay attention. It’s the response that, “This is not for me; I’m not good at it.”
With more experiments, what we were able to see is that it’s really a matter of self-esteem. It just doesn’t feel good to fail, and so people tune out. How do we know it’s about self-esteem? Well, Lauren and I had another variation of our task, where people are learning from somebody else’s failure. What we found is that they can; and they’re doing it pretty well.
If you are watching another person making the incorrect guess on our task, you will know the correct answer. You will know that if this symbol is not a bird, this person was mistaken to say it’s a bird. It means that it’s a piece of furniture, OK. People do this inference when they observe someone else failing; they don’t do it for their own failures, which is a pretty strong clue that this is about self-esteem.
Should we stop talking about failure as a wonderful thing? Well, failure was never a wonderful thing, whether big or small. No one likes to fail. We should acknowledge that it’s hard to learn from failure. We should understand that by exposing ourselves to failures, well, we might not be giving ourselves the best chance to learn.
However, what we found in another line of research is that when you encourage people to learn from failure and, in particular, what we did is encouraging people to come up with advice that they would give others based on personal failures, it’s not intuitive; it’s not easy. It’s not where our mind goes. Often when we fail, our mind goes elsewhere. Basically, “Let’s not do that; let’s engage in something else.” But we can learn from failure if we are encouraged to do so. What we also find is that we can learn from others’ failures, which means that the failures should be shared, that by talking about our failures, by telling others, they might be able to extract lessons that are often harder for us to extract because our ego is involved.
Eskreis-Winkler and Fishbach write that failure can be a big hit to one’s ego, which may reduce motivation. When study participants reported their self-esteem levels following a task, those in the failure condition registered lower self-esteem. And when the researchers removed ego from the equation by having some people learn from others’ wrong answers, not their own, participants learned equally from failures and successes. “Because people find failure ego-threatening, they will disengage from the experience, which means they stop paying attention, or, tune out,” the researchers write.
The results suggest that feedback about failure should be given with caution. And when it is absolutely necessary to give failure feedback—perhaps after a fumbled presentation at work—the researchers suggest that ego be removed from the equation as much as possible, as “reducing the degree to which failure involves the ego will promote learning.”
Eskreis-Winkler and Fishbach further find that although it’s hard to learn from failure, people should still try—there may be benefits for society. Their follow-up work finds that because people don’t realize failures contain valuable information, they don’t share them with others. People’s erroneous belief that failures don’t contain information produces an asymmetrical world of information where failures are common in private but hidden in public.
Ego makes people reluctant to both learn from failure and share much about their failures. But “information on failures is a public good,” says Fishbach. “When it is shared, society wins.”
- Lauren Eskreis-Winkler and Ayelet Fishbach, “Hidden Failures,” Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, forthcoming.
- ———, “Not Learning from Failure—the Greatest Failure of All,” Psychological Science, in forthcoming.
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