The Big Lie About Failure and Success Everyone Believes

Research by the American Psychological Association reveals that the belief in failure leading to success is both misleading and potentially harmful. A new study finds that success follows failure less often than expected. A study by the American Psychological Association indicates that the common belief that failure leads to success is incorrect and harmful. Misconceptions about learning from past failures result in reduced support for interventions, potentially skewing public policy towards ineffective solutions.

Challenging the Notion of Failure Leading to Success

The platitude that failure leads to success may be both inaccurate and damaging to society, according to new research published by the American Psychological Association. Researchers conducted 11 experiments with more than 1,800 participants across many domains and compared national statistics to the participants’ responses. In one experiment, participants vastly overestimated the percentage of prospective nurses, lawyers, and teachers who pass licensing exams after previously failing them.

Misconceptions About Learning From Failure

“People expect success to follow failure much more often than it actually does,” said lead researcher Lauren Eskreis-Winkler, PhD, an assistant professor of management and organizations at Northwestern University. “People usually assume that past behavior predicts future behavior, so it’s surprising that we often believe the opposite when it comes to succeeding after failure.”

“That which does not kill you makes you weaker….and will probably kill you the next time it shows up.”— Norm MacDonald

In some experiments, participants wrongly assumed that people pay attention to their mistakes and learn from them. In one field test, nurses overestimated how much their colleagues would learn from a past error. The research was published online in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.

The Real Impact of False Hope

“People often confuse what is with what ought to be,” Eskreis-Winkler said. “People ought to pay attention and learn from failure, but often they don’t because failure is demotivating and ego-threatening.” While telling people they will succeed after failure may make them feel better, that mindset can have damaging real-world consequences, Eskreis-Winkler said. In one experiment, participants assumed that heart patients would embrace healthier lifestyles when many of them don’t.

Shifting Perspectives With Real Data

“People who believe that problems will self-correct after failure are less motivated to help those in need,” Estreis-Winkler said. “Why would we invest time or money to help struggling populations if we erroneously believe that they will right themselves?” However, people may recalibrate their expectations when given information about the negligible benefits of failure. In two experiments, participants were more supportive of taxpayer funding for rehabilitation programs for former inmates and drug treatment programs when they learned about the low rates of success for people using those programs.

“Correcting our misguided beliefs about failure could help shift taxpayer dollars away from punishment toward rehabilitation and reform,” Eskreis-Winkler said.

Reference: “The Exaggerated Benefits of Failure” by Lauren Eskreis-Winkler, PhD, Northwestern University; Katilin Woolley, PhD, Cornell University; Eda Erensoy, BA, Yale University; and Minhee Kim, BA, Columbia University, 10 June 2024, Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. DOI: 10.1037/xge0001610