Why We Learn More From Successes Than Failures

Why We Learn More From Successes Than Failures

I’ve heard many people say that we should learn as much as possible from our mistakes… and that we learn more from our mistakes than from our successes.  However, recent research shows this common wisdom is plain wrong.

We learn much more from successes than from failures.  I’ll give you proof from scientific research.  And I’ll tell you exactly how to use this information to get better results in your own life.

First, I’d like you to understand how we know this proposition is true.

In 2009 MIT scientists looked into the brain to see what happens as animals, namely monkeys, learn which actions are “right” and which ones are “wrong.”

Here’s what they did.

They had monkeys look at two images on a computer screen that would alternate.  When shown one of the pictures the animal would be rewarded if it looked to the right.  When shown the other picture it would only be rewarded if it looked left.  The monkeys had to figure out which was which by trial and error.

Here’s what researchers found in their own words:

“If the monkey just got a correct answer, a signal lingered in its brain that said, ‘You did the right thing.’ Right after a correct answer, neurons processed information more sharply and effectively, and the monkey was more likely to get the next answer correct as well.  But after an error there was no improvement. In other words, only after successes, not failures, did brain processing and the monkeys’ behavior improve.”

As a result researchers concluded that

“…brain cells keep track of whether recent behaviors were successful or not. Furthermore, when a behavior was successful, cells became more finely tuned to what the animal was learning. After a failure, there was little or no change in the brain — nor was there any improvement in behavior.”

So our brains are set up to learn from successes so we can duplicate them.  Failures just don’t register as far as learning is concerned (although they may register emotionally, making you feel bad).  And I think with good reason.  It’s just not useful to have detailed knowledge of what doesn’t work.  It’s far more effective to remember what does.

Here’s why this is so important to know.

Every day you engage in useful behaviors.  Some of these behaviors would make you more successful if you did them more often.  This study can give you a powerful clue as to how to make your good behavior more consistent so you can achieve more.

You see the researchers made sure to reward the monkeys for successful behaviors.  In fact the reward is the only way the monkeys (and their brains) knew which actions were “right” and which were “wrong.”

In our world though, we often don’t get an immediate reward for useful behaviors.  Therefore the brain doesn’t learn that you’ve done something “right.” And you may actually stop doing something that would make you successful if you persisted a little longer.

For example, I’ve often found it difficult to get myself to plan my day every day or my weeks even though I know the benefits of doing this.

So how can you make sure your brain learns what it should keep doing in the absence of immediate reward?

The answer is simple.  Create immediate rewards.

There’s two simple ways to do this.

One is to actually give yourself a tangible reward just like the researchers did for the monkeys.  The monkey my have gotten bananas for their efforts but you can give yourself something you’d like to eat, gold stars or points instead.

The second way is easier and may also be more powerful.  That is to take time to acknowledge that you did a useful behavior and allow yourself to feel good about it.  Research by Albert Bandura shows that the sense of pride you get after engaging in successful behavior can actually cause you to do those behaviors more often.

Tomorrow I’ll show you a simple method of developing more pride on your work that also causes you to become more intrinsically motivated and more confident in your abilities all at the same time.

I’m actually using this scientifically proven technique to complete the Thirty Day Blog Challenge.

So tune in tomorrow for my next post which will show you how to enjoy achieving more.


Here’s a link to a press release that gives more detail on the study I describe above.


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