Joanne Hird
Special to Horizons 

Making a mistake hurts. It can carry with it embarrassment, even shame, since starting very early in school—and perhaps even earlier than that—most of us have been socialized to associate failure with purely negative outcomes (think bad grades, not being picked for the team, getting turned down for a date, etc.). It’s possible that we can fear failure so much that we will develop a cognitive bias (i.e., confirmation bias) that causes us to filter out negative information (anything that might suggest we did something other than completely nail it) and look only for information (often in the form of praise) that confirms our perfection. 

A body of research suggests that our aversion to failure is itself a failed strategy. Curiosity about our mistakes is the royal road to learning. And mindful techniques can help. 

We can fear failure so much that we will develop a cognitive bias (i.e., confirmation bias) causing us to filter out negative information (anything that might suggest we did something other than completely nail it) and look only for information (often in the form of praise) that confirms our perfection. 

Studies beginning in 2011 suggests that this aversion to mistakes can be a cause of poor learning habits. The research suggested that those of us who have a “growth mindset”—believing that intelligence is malleable—pay more attention to mistakes and treat them as a wake-up call, a teachable moment. By contrast, adopting a “fixed mindset,” believing intelligence is static, shut down their brain in response to negative feedback, and thereby miss a key opportunity to learn. 

An MRI study at USC, compared “avoidance learning” (where mistakes are treated negatively) and “reward-based learning” (where mistakes are treated as opportunities) found that “having the opportunity to learn from failure” and consider options can turn failure into a positive experience that satisfies reward centers in the brain. 

Michigan State researchers reported that in a study of a group of children assessed for whether they had a growth mindset or a fixed mindset, children with a growth mindset “were significantly more likely to have [a]larger brain response after making a mistake,” indicating that the child is giving attention to what went wrong. [Text Wrapping Break]“They were more likely to improve their performance…after making a mistake.” remarked author Hans Schroder who encourages parents and teachers not to “shy away from addressing a child’s mistakes,” instead encouraging them to be curious about what went wrong. 

Educator Richard Curwin developed methods to “teach with mistakes,” including not marking errors on tests and papers without explaining why they are wrong, always giving students chances to re-do their work, and letting students “brag about their biggest mistakes and what they learned from them.” 

Educator Patricia Jennings, encourages teachers to use mindfulness exercises to become aware of their emotional reactions to challenging situations, and over time they can learn to respond instead of automatically reacting. In so doing, they will see more options in each situation and learn as they go. This respond-not-react phenomenon is called “left-shift” by neuroscientists, indicating that the brain shifts in the direction not of aversion to new information but rather acceptance. 

Mice in your kitchen, ants at the picnic, screaming children, losing your temper, grouchy roommates—life is full of imperfections. And yet it’s uncanny how hard we try to keep everything tidy and together.  As we start to loosen up our habits of perfectionism we discover strength and resilience within. 

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