Oct 03 2011

Learn from Your Mistakes – Or Don’t

Psychologists are discovering that attitude is often a self-fulfilling prophesy. Richard Wiseman pointed out, for example, that if you feel you are lucky you will, in fact, have more “luck.” Specifically, you will create opportunities, you will take opportunities, and you will try harder because you are optimistic about the future. You will, in essence, make your own luck.

There is no magical “secret” to this effect, and no, you cannot change the world simply by wishful thinking. But your attitude and beliefs about yourself affect how you behave, and sometimes attitudes become self-fulfilling. The general principle seems to be – that it is better to be optimistic than pessimistic.

A new study is in line with this principle.  Researchers in this case focused on attitudes regarding the ability to learn from one’s mistakes. They gave subjects a simple test – identifying the letter in the middle of a five-letter sequence. This is an easy task, but when done over and over eventually people make mistakes. The research focused on how they react when such mistakes occur. Some individuals seemed to learn from their mistakes, increase their effort, and improve later performance. Others did not recover from the mistake and improve their later performance.

These behaviors correlated with the subjects’ attitudes. Those who felt they could learn from their mistakes, did. Those who felt that intelligence and performance are fixed characteristics did not improved their performance after the error. Again – these attitudes appear to be self-fulfilling.

The researchers also peeked at brain function with EEG mapping during the task. After the mistake was made, every subject had a specific spike in activity – the recognition of the error. But those who learned from their mistake had a prominent second reaction (spike in activity in a specific brain region) while those who did not learn from their mistake had less of a second reaction.

With such correlational studies it is not possible to separate out the arrow of cause and effect (which is often not clean when it comes to brain function anyway). In other words – are we seeing a difference in brain function leading to the behavior, or is the behavior learned and we are just visualizing the brain function that underlies the learned behavior? More study will need to be done to sort this out. Specifically, it would be interesting to see if people can switch into the optimistic group with a little cognitive therapy.

If we  take the lesson from this and other studies – it is better to assume that people can change (a recursive self-fulfilling belief). You should be optimistic about your ability to become more optimistic.

There is an interesting tension here. The psychological literature clearly shows that people’s beliefs and behaviors are highly malleable. There are a myriad of ways that we can be psychological manipulated. And our assumptions about ourselves and the world affect our outcomes. From this perspective it is better to believe that you can achieve your goals, that effort makes a different, that you can improve yourself and correct your mistakes, and that effort is rewarded. These optimistic attitudes will motivate you to improve yourself and your life.

On the other hand, many have observed that we are currently living in the “American Idol” generation – where many people believe that they can achieve whatever they desire, even if they lack the talent or ability. This goes beyond optimism to almost a feeling of entitlement – the younger generation feels they are entitled to not only success but to excellence. The American Idol reference comes from the early parts of the season when we are treated to many contestants who are hopelessly terrible singers, but are deluded into thinking (often, it appears, with the support of parents and friends) into thinking that they are “the next American Idol.”

How do we reconcile these two apparently contradictory observations? I think, as with many things, it is all about balance. The advantages of a positive attitude are now highly documented in the research. But perhaps this positivity needs to be tempered by realism.

Further, my personal opinion is that the realism does not necessarily have to involve the ultimate limits of our ability, but the amount of work it takes to achieve. The entitlement problem is that people feel they deserve to be successful even without all the hard work. While the research shows that it is the belief that hard work can pay off that pays off.

Sure – some people have natural talents. But successful people seem to share the trait of thinking that hard work is worth it, and they achieved through hard work – even if it seems effortless.

I don’t know if anyone can become an American Idol with enough hard work, despite their starting point of natural talent. But I also don’t know that they can’t. Some psychologists who have studied this type of question have come to the conclusion that with sufficient work and effort anyone can master pretty much anything. Mastery is a matter of the 10,000 hours of practice, not inborn gifts.

The take home message is that it is better to be optimistic and to assume that hard work will be rewarded with skills and success. It is also better to focus on the process rather than the result. This all applies to critical thinking and scientific knowledge as well. We can all make the world a smarter place – if we believe we can and focus on the process of doing so.

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