The Failure Myth: Success Doesn’t Always Follow

Summary: The belief that failure leads to success is often misguided and harmful. Analyzing over 1,800 participants across various experiments, researchers found that people vastly overestimate the likelihood of succeeding after failing.

This misconception can demotivate individuals and hinder support for necessary interventions. Correcting these beliefs may shift focus towards more effective rehabilitation and reform efforts.

Key Facts:

  1. People overestimate the likelihood of success after failure across various fields.
  2. Misbeliefs about learning from failure can reduce motivation and support for interventions.
  3. Educating people about the true impact of failure can lead to better support for rehabilitation programs.

Source: APA

The platitude that failure leads to success may be both inaccurate and damaging to society, according to research published by the American Psychological Association. 

Researchers conducted 11 experiments with more than 1,800 participants across many domains and compared national statistics to the participants’ responses. In one experiment, participants vastly overestimated the percentage of prospective nurses, lawyers and teachers who pass licensing exams after previously failing them. 

This shows a man sitting on a cliff edge.
In one experiment, participants assumed that heart patients would embrace healthier lifestyles when many of them don’t. Credit: Neuroscience News

“People expect success to follow failure much more often than it actually does,” said lead researcher Lauren Eskreis-Winkler, PhD, an assistant professor of management and organizations at Northwestern University.

“People usually assume that past behavior predicts future behavior, so it’s surprising that we often believe the opposite when it comes to succeeding after failure.”
In some experiments, participants wrongly assumed that people pay attention to their mistakes and learn from them. In one field test, nurses overestimated how much their colleagues would learn from a past error.

The research was published online in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General

“People often confuse what is with what ought to be,” Eskreis-Winkler said. “People ought to pay attention and learn from failure, but often they don’t because failure is demotivating and ego-threatening.”

While telling people they will succeed after failure may make them feel better, that mindset can have damaging real-world consequences, Eskreis-Winkler said. In one experiment, participants assumed that heart patients would embrace healthier lifestyles when many of them don’t. 

“People who believe that problems will self-correct after failure are less motivated to help those in need,” Estreis-Winkler said.

“Why would we invest time or money to help struggling populations if we erroneously believe that they will right themselves?” 

However, people may recalibrate their expectations when given information about the negligible benefits of failure. In two experiments, participants were more supportive of taxpayer funding for rehabilitation programs for former inmates and drug treatment programs when they learned about the low rates of success for people using those programs.
“Correcting our misguided beliefs about failure could help shift taxpayer dollars away from punishment toward rehabilitation and reform,” Eskreis-Winkler said. 

About this psychology and motivation research news

Author: James Sliwa
Source: APA
Contact: James Sliwa – APA
Image: The image is credited to Neuroscience News

Original Research: The findings will appear in Journal of Experimental Psychology

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