When things don’t go your way, it’s popular advice to think about what you could have done differently, or shake it off and move on. But what if that kind of attitude dooms you to make the same mistake again?
A new report published in Journal of Behavioral Decision Making found that the best way to rebound and learn from failure is to lean into the pain. Simply reflecting on why something happened can lead to making excuses, which doesn’t help you avoid making a similar mistake in the future. People who focus on their emotions, on the other hand, put forth more effort when they try again.
“Self-help literature often tells you not to dwell on your mistakes, to not feel bad,” says Selin Malkoc, co-author of the study and professor of marketing at Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business. She and research partner, Noelle Nelson, assistant professor of marketing and consumer behavior at the University of Kansas, felt that didn’t ring true. “If you don’t feel the pain, you don’t learn the lesson,” says Malkoc.
To test their theory, Malkoc, Nelson, and Baba Shiv, professor of marketing at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, asked college students to search online for a certain kind of blender. If they found the lowest price, they could win a cash prize. Before they found out if they had won, half the participants were told to focus on their emotional response to winning or losing, while the other half were instructed to focus on their thoughts about how they did. The price-search task was rigged, and all of the participants lost.
The participants were asked to write about the experience. Those who had been told to just think about their failure often shared thoughts such as “I could not have found it even if I tried” or “I didn’t care about it anyway.” Participants who had been asked to focus on emotions wrote sentences such as, “I know how I can do better next time.”
Next, students were asked to search for a book to give a friend that would fit a limited budget. The participants who previously had been asked to focus on their emotions spent nearly 25% more time searching for a low-priced book than the participants who been asked to focus on their thoughts.
“When people concentrate on how bad they feel and how they don’t want to experience these feelings again, they are more likely to try harder the next time,” says Malkoc.
Why We Have a Hard Time With Failure
Learning from failure is difficult because humans tend to be self-protecting. Thinking about mistakes can lead to a desire to protect your ego and distance yourself from the event, says Malkoc. “When you think how you feel, however, your solutions are more self-improving,” she says.
Most real-life situations involve cognitive and emotional responses to failure, but our default response is most often thought-based reactions, says Malkoc. “The important thing to remember is not to avoid the emotional pain of failing, but to use that pain to fuel improvement,” she says. “Emotional responses to failure can hurt. They make you feel bad. That’s why people often choose to think self-protective thoughts after they make mistakes. But if you focus on how bad you feel, you’re going to work harder to find a solution and make sure you don’t make the same mistake again.”
While feeling the failure can help you avoid making a similar mistake, sometimes you do need to let it go of, especially when it’s small or inconsequential. “Deciding when to focus on emotions is an individual call,” says Malkoc. “My inkling is if this is a repeating task, it’s better to learn from it. Don’t run away from feeling bad. It is useful when moving forward.”