Successes enjoy more attention than failures. We celebrate stories of triumph, and pore over them to extract the reasons why things went so well. Industries package the lessons and share them as tips for ‘best practice’, while after-dinner speakers regale their audiences with the steps they took to glory. By contrast, if they’re not buried completely, failures, and those who perpetrate them, are more often seen as sources of shame or ignominy.
Yet it is often the errors, missteps and outright flops that contain more useful practical information on how to do things better, if only we were more willing to share and study them. That’s according to Ayelet Fishbach and Lauren Eskreis-Winkler, psychologists at the Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago.
The pair believe that we often fail to learn sufficiently from when things go wrong. “Take bad business decisions, which we make because we don’t learn from others’ and our own failures. We similarly often ignore signs that our relationships aren’t going well or that our boss is unpleased with our performance. We don’t code [pay attention to] failures and don’t bother to learn the lesson for how to succeed,” says Fishbach.
Reluctance to share
Previous research had already exposed our unhelpful aversion to information about ongoing or future failure – a problem dubbed ‘the ostrich effect’ by University of Sheffield psychologist Thomas Webb and his colleagues. Whether we’re trying a new fitness regime, building a company website or planning for a looming pandemic, the human inclination is to put our heads in the sand once we’ve embarked on our path. Rather than monitoring our progress to check if we’ve gone off track, we grit our teeth, continue and hope for the best.
We also tend to neglect imagining what might go wrong when we look ahead toward attaining a goal, as research by psychologist Gabriele Oettingen at New York University and the University of Hamburg has shown. Yet when people are prompted to engage in ‘mental contrasting’ – anticipating the obstacles along the way to attaining their goal – they are more likely to persevere and succeed in their aims.
Now Eskreis-Winkler and Fishbach have added to this literature by focusing on our reluctance to pay attention to failures – both our own and others – after they’ve happened. In their recent paper, the researchers asked dozens of teachers to recall a specific time they’d been successful at work and a specific time that they’d failed. When they asked the teachers which story they’d choose to share to help other teachers, nearly 70% opted to share their success rather than their failure.
The same thing happened when they asked hundreds of online volunteers to think of times they’d succeeded at staying focused at work, and then of times they’d failed and become distracted. The majority were more reluctant to share their focusing failures than successes. The aversion to sharing failures remained true even when the researchers asked the volunteers to share with their ‘future selves’, suggesting there is more to this bias than wanting to make a good impression on strangers.
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