The Importance of How You Think About Mistakes

“Whether you think you can, or think you can’t – you’re right.” – Henry Ford

We all make mistakes.  Some people seem to learn from their mistakes more readily than others.  Many people haven’t given specific consideration to how they think about mistakes.  We all have beliefs about what mistakes mean, the importance of making mistakes, and what is to be gained (or not) from those mistakes.  Take a moment to consider your own mindset when it comes to mistakes.  What do mistakes mean to you?  How do you typically respond when you do make mistakes?

A recent study that will soon be published in an upcoming issue of Psychological Science found that people who believe they can learn from their mistakes have a different brain reaction to mistakes than people who believe intelligence is fixed.  Jason S. Moser, of Michigan State University, explains that “one big difference between people who think intelligence is malleable and those who think intelligence is fixed is how they respond to mistakes.”

To understand the way that you think about mistakes, reflect upon a time in your life when things were very stressful and you found yourself making some painful mistakes.  People who tend to believe that intelligence is malleable will approach these times with a belief such as “when the going gets tough, I put in more effort” or “if I do make a mistake, I will try to learn from it.”  Conversely, some people have an attitude that intelligence is fixed and that no matter how much effort is put forth, it makes little difference.

In this study, participants were given a task where it was relatively easy to make a mistake.  They were instructed to identify the middle letter of a five-letter series like “MMMMM” or “NNMNN.”  Sometimes the middle letter was the same as the other four, and sometimes it was different.  With this type of task, it is common for people to zone out a bit and to feel foolish when they realize they have made a mistake.

While participants were engaging in the task, they wore a cap on their heads to measure electrical brain activity. When somone makes a mistake, the brain produces two quick signals: an initial response indicating that something has gone wrong (the “oh crap” response) and a second response that indicates the person is consciously aware of the mistake and is actively trying to correct it.  Both of these electrical signals occur within a quarter of a second after making the mistake.  Once the experiment was complete, researchers investigated whether or not people believed they could learn from their mistake or not.

Interestingly, people who believed they could learn from their mistake did better after making a mistake.  Basically, people with this belief were better equipped to “bounce back” after realizing they had made an error.  At the same time, their brains reacted differently than those without this belief, producing a bigger second signal (i.e., the signal that occurs upon conscious realization that one has made a mistake). Researchers explain that these individuals essentially have the thought “I see that I’ve made a mistake, so I should pay more attention.”

This research sheds light on how people are fundamentally different in how they think about and respond to making mistakes.  The core beliefs that you have about intelligence and your ability to learn and bounce back from mistakes is directly related to how your brain responds to making mistakes and how successfully you are able to learn from those mistakes.  You can make the choice to begin to think about mistakes differently.

The next time you are aware that you have made a mistake, make the conscious choice to slow down, take notice of what has occurred, and piece together what you can learn from that mistake to respond more effectively in the future.  Use mistakes as an opportunity for growth… recognize your own ability to change your mindset when it comes to making mistakes.

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Association for Psychological Science (2011, October 1). How your brain reacts to mistakes depends on your mindset. ScienceDaily. Retrieved October 3, 2011, from­/releases/2011/09/110930153048.htm

Featured image: Don’t Cry by billaday / CC BY-ND 2.0

About Laura K. Schenck, Ph.D., LPC

I am a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) with a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Northern Colorado. Some of my academic interests include: Dialectical Behavior Therapy, mindfulness, stress reduction, work/life balance, mood disorders, identity development, supervision & training, and self-care.

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