How you deal with your mistakes may determine the difference between making excuses and learning a lesson
“That was a colossal mistake, but I meant well and tried my best, so I’m not going to beat myself up about it.” Sound familiar? We all do it. After all, excusing our mistakes makes us feel better and helps us to cope with the failure. However, an interesting new study conducted by a collaboration of scientists from Kansas, Stanford and Ohio State Universities, has found that while making us feel better temporarily, excusing our mistakes does not have the best long-term outcome. The study was published online in the Journal of Behavioral Decision Making.
The U.K.’s Daily Mail recently reported:
We’re often told [to] avoid dwelling on past mistakes if we want to move forward. But one group of scientists say the opposite may be true. They claim feeling the pain of failure leads to more effort to correct your mistake and perform better in the future. Researchers found that people who just thought about a failure tended to make excuses for why they were unsuccessful. This meant they didn’t try harder when faced with a similar situation.
The research team reached their conclusions after conducting several experiments, one of which involved asking 98 college students to search online for the price of a blender with specific technical specifications. The student who discovered the cheapest blender would win a cash prize.
While they were waiting to find out who had won, the students were divided into two groups. One group was asked to focus on their emotional response to winning or losing, while the other group was told to focus on thinking about how they had done. Each person was told that they would need to write about their responses after the competition.
The experiment was rigged, of course, so that nobody found the lowest priced item – essentially, everybody failed.
The goal of the experiment was to determine how the two groups would handle another task in the future, so the participants were then given an additional task. Some were asked to search for a low-priced book as a gift for a friend (a similar task to the previous one), while the rest were asked to search for a gift book that was simply the best choice for a friend (a non-similar task).
The Times explained the results of the experiments:
Emotionally motivated participants spent nearly 25 percent more time searching for a low-priced book than did participants who had only thought about —rather than dwelled on the pain of — their earlier failure.
There was no significant difference in effort made by participants when the second task wasn’t like the first.
Essentially, the researchers found that people who made mistakes and then allowed themselves to focus on how bad those mistakes made them feel, were more likely to try harder the next time they dealt with a similar situation to avoid experiencing those emotions again. (Related: To learn more about human emotions and how to cope with them visit Psychiatry.news.)
“All the advice tells you not to dwell on your mistakes, to not feel bad,” said Selin Malkoc, co-author of the study. “But we found the opposite. When faced with a failure, it is better to focus on one’s emotions — 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.”
Unfortunately, most of us try to protect ourselves from the effects of our mistakes, and protecting our egos often comes first. This emotional distancing makes us less likely to learn from those mistakes and avoid them in the future. (Related: Finnish researchers map how emotions are expressed physically in human bodies.)
So, next time you really mess something up – as all of us do from time to time – try to focus on how bad you feel about it, rather than excusing the error. If the results of the experiment are to be believed, this will set you up for a greater chance of success the next time you deal with a similar situation.