Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Do You Learn More From Success or Failure? Think Again

Yesterday preparing for a leadership retreat we were on a conference call with the committee discussing how to set up the best learning environment and what tasks and activities to use. As a defense for a particularly difficult task someone said "we learn more from our failures than our successes." With that, everyone on the call acknowledged the truth of this statement, accepted that the challenge embedded in this one activity would be beneficial and moved on. But I've never been a big fan of old wives' tales (maybe because I'm not) and so I wondered what is the truth behind the saying.

I admit I remember my failures much more than successes. Perhaps that's because I play them over and over in my mind. I think I'm hoping for a different ending. But one thing I know is that I examine every detail of what happened to ensure I won't fail in that way again. Because of my reply it does seem that I learn more from my failures because I pay attention to them more than my success. But what does research say about learning more from failure.

It seems that the belief is false. We learn more from success than we do from failure. Yep, so I apologize to the old wives who believed this. In 2009 MIT studied how the brain processes success and failure. Essentially when we finish a task signal neurons send information to brain cells informing them of the success or failure. The difference is that when we succeed at the task researchers discovered that the signals last significantly longer, are stronger and actually change brain cells so we are more likely to succeed the next time. When we fail at the task the signals are weak and don't change the brain cells at all. Of course more research is necessary to determine if there is a different signal if the success or failure is life threatening, but the initial research points to success as the greater learning tool.

So why does the old theory persist? Because similar to me, many of us focus much more on our failures. We replay them over and over to make sure we learn from them. Yet interestingly, do you ever find yourself making the same mistakes over and over again? I know I do. Now I know why. My brain isn't changing after a failure.

What we need to do is start dealing with our success differently. If it is the better learning tool, we need to replay the successes in our heads to see what we've learned. That will implant the new behavior faster than failure and we will remember it more.

So the next time you succeed, enjoy the moment. Replay it in your head and think of how you did it differently and what you learned. You are programming your brain to do it right the next time and you are more likely to remember it. And perhaps along the way we can change an old wives' tale.

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