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Not Learning From Failure—the Greatest Failure of All

Our society celebrates failure as a teachable moment. Yet in five studies (total N = 1,674), failure did the opposite: It undermined learning. Across studies, participants answered binary-choice questions, following which they were told they answered correctly (success feedback) or incorrectly (failure feedback). Both types of feedback conveyed the correct answer, because there were only two answer choices. However, on a follow-up test, participants learned less from failure feedback than from success feedback. This effect was replicated across professional, linguistic, and social domains—even when learning from failure was less cognitively taxing than learning from success and even when learning was incentivized. Participants who received failure feedback also remembered fewer of their answer choices. Why does failure undermine learning? Failure is ego threatening, which causes people to tune out. Participants learned less from personal failure than from personal success, yet they learned just as much from other people’s failure as from others’ success. Thus, when ego concerns are muted, people tune in and learn from failure.