New Zealand Listener


Failure – everything from blunders and botch-ups to catastrophes and disasters – attracts its fair share of glib bumper-sticker solutions. Fear and shame are the bedfellows of failure, while its twin, success, enjoys all the limelight. And that’s because we don’t learn from it. For all the proclamations about failure being a “teachable moment”, in five studies at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, failure did the opposite: it undermined learning.

Researchers Ayelet Fishbach and Lauren Eskreis-Winkler asked dozens of teachers to recall a specific time they had been successful and a specific time they had failed at work. When asked which stories the teachers would choose to share to help other teachers, nearly 70% chose a success rather than a failure. The same thing happened when they asked online volunteers to think of times they had succeeded at staying focused at work, compared with times they’d failed and become distracted.

“Across five studies, participants learnt less from failure feedback than from success feedback – even when both types of feedback contained full information on the correct answer,” the two researchers wrote in a research article for the Association for Psychological Science. “Failure feedback undermined learning motivation because it was ego threatening: it caused participants to tune out and stop processing information.”


Elizabeth Peterson thinks it’s more complex than that. The associate professor of psychology runs the University of Auckland’s 5E Lab (Engage – Enhance – Enliven – Educate – Enable), a research group dedicated

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