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Don’t make the same mistake twice, feel the pain of failure

Selin Malkoc co-authored a study with findings that suggest people who focus on their emotions after failing to accomplish something are more likely to be successful in a similar future endeavor than people who just focus on the failure itself. Credit: Courtesy of Fisher College of Business website

New research has found evidence supporting the old saying, “No pain, no gain,” is true.

The findings, published Sept. 8, found that people who focus on their emotions after a failure are more motivated to try harder when faced with a similar situation than those who merely think about failure.

“When you are cognitively thinking you try to come up with excuses as to why you failed,” Selin Malkoc, co-author of the study and an Ohio State marketing professor, said. “If those thoughts are fueled with the negative emotions that you do not want to experience again, they tend to be more self-improving rather than self-handicapping.”

A total of three studies were conducted by Melkoc, Noelle Nelson,an assistant professor in marketing and consumer behavior at the University of Kansas, and Baba Shiv, a marketing professor at Stanford University.

According to the studies, reflecting on failure is not enough to avoid similar outcomes. After a failure, one must take the reflection a step further by focusing on the emotions that pair with it in order to avoid repetition of mistakes.

“Only when you have the effective feelings that drive more improvement, and a similar task that triggers that [learned feeling] will you have the learning and improvement that you want,” Malkoc said. “So, if you have those emotions, but are in a situation where you couldn’t use them, then they have no effect.”

In the first study, 98 college students were given a task to purchase the cheapest blender they could find online with the chance of winning a cash prize. Unfortunately for the students, the task would always result in failure.

Before finding out if they completed the task, half of the students were asked to focus on their emotional response to the result and the other half were told to focus on how well they performed the task. After discovering their results, the students would write about their failure.

In the second study, half of the students were told to find a book online for a friend as a gift. The other half were told to find the cheapest textbook online for a friend.

The results showed students who focused on an emotional response to the first task were much more motivated than those who thought about their performance when given a similar task. There was no difference in motivation between the two groups when the task was not similar to the first.

“Following a failure, people tend to justify their behavior and try to blame others. People naturally have these sorts of thoughts, so instead emotion drives the point home,” Nelson said. “So next time you are in a similar situation that [emotion] comes up again, let it guide you to put in more effort or perform better next time.”

The study found students who only thought about their failure had more self-protective thoughts than self-improving thoughts, compared to the response group.

In the third study, the researchers did not tell students how to react to their failure. The results confirmed, humans naturally have a self-protective response to their shortcomings.

Just feeling bad doesn’t help, but avoiding emotions will not help for self-improvement either, Malkoc said. He said letting your emotions guide you will help you understand your mistake.

“Bite the bullet, feel bad about [your failure] a little bit,” Nelson said. “Hopefully next time, things will go better.”

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