The results of a new study have implications for how to optimize learning. The results of a new study have implications for how to optimize learning. The results of a new study have implications for how to optimize learning. (Photo: Leremy / Shutterstock)

Failure is not the great learning tool we all think it is

Conventional wisdom has always said that failure is a great teacher. Science may say otherwise.

Legend has it that Walt Disney had trouble getting his theme park financed, but eventually – after being turned down by multiple bankers – was able to create the happiest place on earth. The man who created Mickey Mouse was able to learn from his failures and build one of the most successful companies in the world.

But is his experience typical? According to new research, Disney's experience with failure may be the exception to the rule. A new study from the University of Chicago has found that, contrary to popular belief, failure is not the teachable moment we all like to think it is. Science can now confirm that people learn less from failure than from success.

Dr. Ayelet Fishbach, an Israel-born professor who is a renowned expert in motivation and decision making, helped conduct the new study, which involved more than 1,600 participants. "I was very surprised by how little they learned from failure," she told From The Grapevine. "Some people didn't learn anything. They just tune out and stop paying attention."

The genesis for this study came from previous research done by Fishbach and her colleagues, which looked at people who were going through struggles – like trying to lose weight or deal with a financial situation. In both those cases, she found that people who failed to fix those issues felt less confident. "What we found out is that when we ask people what they learned from their struggles, they said most of the time, 'Oh, I didn't learn anything. I don't know anything.' And we were surprised that people who struggle with a problem and obviously learned a lot of information would say, 'What do I know?'

But don't go tearing down those motivational posters about failure just yet. Fishbach was able to find some silver lining in the latest study. People were better able to learn when it was someone else's failure. "Part of what makes it hard to learn from failure is this emotional response that this is not for me," she explained about people who choose to give up. "One way to induce learning from failure is to distance yourself from the failure and think about it as somebody else. Build a barrier to try to think about it as another person's failure."

Dr. Fishbach – a social psychologist who earned her undergraduate, graduate and doctorate degrees at Israel's Tel Aviv University – has published prolifically about the topic of motivations in the past few years. For example, she has studied why good people sometimes make unethical decisions, why we give to some charities and not to others and what your menu choices can do for your business negotiations.

As for the topic of failure, Fishbach admitted that she herself has given up a time or two. "When a study doesn't work, I often forget about it," said the academic. "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."

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Failure is not the great learning tool we all think it is
Conventional wisdom has always said that failure is a great teacher. Science may say otherwise.