One of the best ways to learn from mistakes, for example, is to offer advice to someone else who may be facing similar challenges. In today’s motivational literature, failure is often viewed as something to be celebrated. Disappointments are an essential springboard for success; a turning point in our life story that will ultimately end in triumph. Instead of falling into despair, we are encouraged to “fail”.
If only it were that simple… In the last decade, a great deal of psychological research has shown that most people have difficulty handling failure constructively. Instead, we find ways to devalue the task we failed at, which means we may be less motivated to persevere and reach our goal; this phenomenon is known as the “sour grape effect”.
Alternatively, we may simply not realize our mistakes and blithely carry on as if nothing had happened, preventing us from learning a better strategy to improve our performance in the future. Inspirational speakers like to quote the words of the novelist Samuel Beckett: “Fail again. Fail better”. But the truth is, most of us fail again and fail just the same.
Recent research shows that there are ways around these traps. These solutions are often counter-intuitive: one of the best ways to learn from your mistakes, for example, is to offer advice to someone else who may be facing similar challenges. By helping others avoid failure, it turns out that you can also improve your own prospects for success.
The “sour grape” effect
Let’s first examine the sour grape effect, discovered by Hallgeir Sjåstad, professor of psychology and leadership at the Norwegian School of Economics, and his colleagues. The ‘sour grape effect’ means we find ways to devalue the task we failed at, which means we may be less motivated to persevere and achieve goals.
Sjåstad was intrigued by the tendency of people to give up on their dreams prematurely. “The research was an attempt to understand why we sometimes give up too soon, although we might have been successful if we had been a little more patient and willing to try a second time”, he says.
In his first experiment, Sjåstad asked participants to take a practice test of a test that is supposed to measure the accuracy of your intuition. They were asked to estimate how much 20 apples would weigh, for example, and told that a guess within 10% of the actual answer would be considered a sign of strong intuition. They were told that high performance on several questions was strongly correlated with “positive life outcomes, such as extraordinary achievements at work and a well-functioning social life”, a message that was designed to increase their desire to succeed.
After answering a couple of practice questions, the participants received false feedback, either very positive or very negative. They were then asked to predict how difficult it would be to perform well on the real test and how happy they would be if they got 100%.
Sjåstad hypothesized that people who received negative feedback on their practice answers would underestimate the importance of their future performance to their emotional state… And this was exactly what happened!
People who felt they had failed in practice predicted that a perfect score would do little to increase their immediate happiness. Crucially, this did not turn out to be true; when they took a second test and were told they received top marks, the good news really made them happy. They had been completely wrong in assuming that the result would not make them proud.
Sjåstad says this is a way of protecting himself. “Most of us want to think of ourselves as competent and capable, so when external feedback suggests otherwise, it poses a serious threat to our self-image”, he explains. “The easiest way out is to deny or explain away the external cue, so that we can reduce the inconsistency and preserve a positive sense of ourselves. I think we do this all the time, even without realizing it”.
In a subsequent experiment, Sjåstad explored how failure on practice questions influenced other participants’ judgments about the importance of the test results to their lives. Once again, he saw clear signs of sour grapes: After participants received negative feedback, they were far less likely to say that the test results reflected “who they were, as a person”, or that their intuitive intelligence would determine their
He also tested the effect of sour grapes in real life, among students at a Norwegian university. He found that simply reminding students of a currently low GPA led them to significantly devalue the anticipated benefits of graduating with an A average.
Sjåstad suspects that the sour grape effect could influence motivation in many areas of life. If you interview badly for your dream job, you might decide you don’t really want to work in that field after all, and therefore stop applying for similar positions. The same is true if you fail to impress in a sports event or if a publisher rejects the first submission of your manuscript. “It can be tempting to explain away our shortcomings and blame someone or something else, trying to convince ourselves that our ‘Plan C’ was actually our ‘Plan A’ all along,” she says.
Sjåstad does not believe that we must persevere in all our goals all the time. It can be healthy to put ambitions in perspective and change course if the process no longer makes us happy. But the sour grape effect can lead us to make this decision prematurely, he says, rather than see if we can learn and improve.
The “ostrich effect”
Devaluing the source of your disappointment is just one way your mind can avoid dealing constructively with failure. Another coping mechanism is to bury your head in the sand, diverting your attention from the upsetting situation so you do not have to process it.
Researchers have long known that we often turn a blind eye to incoming bad news. Economists, for example, have found that investors are less likely to check their financial status when their fortunes are falling rather than rising.
This phenomenon has been dubbed the “ostrich effect” and may be an example of a much broader tendency to overlook negative information, according to a series of recent studies by Lauren Eskreis-Winkler, an assistant professor of management and organizations at the University of Northwest, in the United States, and Ayelet Fishbach, professor of behavioral sciences and marketing at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.
Much of her research has focused on an experimental setup called “Coping with the Failure Game”, in which participants were presented with a series of questions with two answer options. They were presented with pairs of symbols resembling hieroglyphs, for example, and asked to guess which represented an animal, for example. After giving their answers, they were told whether they were right or wrong.
Since there were only 2 options, any form of feedback, positive or negative, should have helped them learn the correct answer, so they could perform better on a later test. And there was a small financial incentive to do so: they would receive US$ 1.50 for each symbol they remembered in the next round.
Most successfully recalled their correct answers; surprisingly, however, they failed to learn from wrong responses and did not perform better than chance on these items. “People often did not learn anything”, says Fishbach.
To investigate the reasons for this phenomenon, the researchers asked another group of participants to watch another person’s responses in a round of the game. In these cases, the “observers” seemed perfectly capable of inferring the correct answers from the other player’s incorrect answers and remembering them later.
“This suggests that the task is not that difficult cognitively”, says Fishbach. Instead, it appears that the hurt feelings of being wrong themselves acted as a barrier to learning for the people who actually played the game. Instead of confronting the error, the participants who answered incorrectly let their attention escape, without encoding the correct answer in their memory.
Eskreis-Winkler and Fishbach have now implemented the game in many different contexts, including for groups of telemarketers, who were given the opportunity to learn useful information about their profession. In each case, the participants were perfectly able to recall their successes, but learned almost nothing from their mistakes.
Fishbach has a lighthearted tone when he talks about these results, but he believes that they present a serious challenge to our personal growth. “I laugh because I’ve been doing this research for a while, but it’s pretty depressing”, he admits.
Fortunately, Fishbach and Eskreis-Winkler’s research suggests that there are some strategies for overcoming emotional barriers to coping with failure. The first is a process called ‘self-distancing’, in which you adopt a third-person perspective. Instead of asking “Why did I fail?” you might ask, “Why did David fail?”, for example.
Multiple studies by University of Michigan psychologist Ethan Kross show that self-distancing helps smooth out our negative emotional reactions, allowing us to view upsetting events more objectively. In this case, it should mean that failure feels less ego-threatening, so that we can better analyze the reasons for disappointment, without having sour grapes or defensively burying our heads in the sand.
A second strategy involves offering advice to others who may be in the same position as you, which Eskreis-Winkler and Fishbach tested with Angela Duckworth, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. They found that the satisfaction of helping another person provides a personal ego boost, so people feel more confident in dealing with their own failures. “It forces people to engage with their experience and what they have learned”, Fishbach says.
People struggling with weight loss, for example, wrote advice based on their own failures for other people trying to diet. Subsequently, they felt more motivated to continue pursuing their own goal of losing weight.
Meanwhile, high school students were asked to describe ways to overcome a younger student’s lack of academic motivation. Over the next 4 weeks, they overcame their own procrastination and completed significantly more homework, compared to students who received an advice letter.
Sjåstad points out that failures are an inevitable part of life. “If you never fail, you are probably aiming too low”, she says. And by learning to face disappointment and learn from your lessons, you may find the road to success a little easier to navigate.