Why can't I learn from my mistakes?

University of Chicago study Our own mistakes don't make us smarter, but those of others do

Mistakes are an embarrassment for ourselves and clearly negative. Who likes to make a mistake? However, psychologists see it differently. They say mistakes are a great opportunity to get better and learn from them. So why don't we do it?

That makes a big difference whether you have knowledge or whether you are also able to implement this knowledge.

Annegret Wolf, psychologist, MLU Halle

If we made each mistake only once, this world might be perfect. On a large as well as small scale. But why do we keep repeating things that are bad for us? Is that an inability or is there a methodology behind it? Researchers at the University of Chicago have researched this in a study.

Knowledge quiz and bonus questions

To investigate this, the test subjects had to take knowledge tests, for example, which were then evaluated directly. Participants received feedback on their answers. The tests were later repeated with slightly different questions.

In another experiment, the participants had to answer questions like this one: Which of the following characters in an ancient script stands for an animal? Here, too, there was feedback as to whether the answers were right or wrong. In a later test, some of the questions were asked the other way round, but money was offered as an incentive for the correct answers. And from the results of the tests, the researchers were able to draw the researchers' conclusions.

Mistakes trigger negative emotions

And they can be summarized as follows: If the participants were successful and did not make any mistakes, they were even better afterwards. But if they made mistakes, exactly the opposite happened and they got even worse. Failure hinders learning, say the researchers. Because mistakes trigger negative emotions, confirms Annegret Wolf.

We humans don't take it that well. But we are very good at strategizing and reducing this dissonance in order to maintain our self-worth. We all know that too. We trivialize: Well, it was just the one cigarette, it was just the one burger, tomorrow everything will be fine.

Annegret Wolf

There is a reason that we downplay errors, which the researchers describe in detail in the study. They show that people react much more violently to negative events than to positive ones, cognitively and emotionally. It attacks them, shakes their self-esteem so much that they no longer want to have the mistake true afterwards. The researchers justify it this way:

Because people perceive failure to be ego-threatening, they will detach themselves from this experience. That means they stop paying attention to the bug and just switch off.

Failure study at the University of Chicago

And that then has direct consequences on learning, since people cannot learn any information that they do not want to take into account. Because, as the psychologists state, mistakes lead us to think that we cannot do it, that the task is far too difficult.

There is one exception, however. And when others make mistakes. According to the study, this takes us further and is similar to the reaction to a sense of achievement. Because then we have the necessary distance, can see what went wrong and are able to draw conclusions from it. So the inventors of the Fuckup Nights did everything right.