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Why are some people so much more effective at learning from their mistakes?

Jonah Lehrer comments on a new study forthcoming in Psychological Science led by Jason Moser at Michigan State that helps explain why some people are more effective at learning from their mistakes than others.

…the scientists applied a dichotomy first proposed by Carol Dweck, a psychologist at Stanford. In her influential research, Dweck distinguishes between people with a fixed mindset — they tend to agree with statements such as “You have a certain amount of intelligence and cannot do much to change it” — and those with a growth mindset, who believe that we can get better at almost anything, provided we invest the necessary time and energy. While people with a fixed mindset see mistakes as a dismal failure — a sign that we aren’t talented enough for the task in question — those with a growth mindset see mistakes as an essential precursor of knowledge, the engine of education.

On the Moser study, Lehrer comments, “It turned out that those subjects with a growth mindset were significantly better at learning from their mistakes. As a result, they showed a spike in accuracy immediately following an error. … implying that the extra awareness was paying dividends in performance. Because the subjects were thinking about what they got wrong, they learned how to get it right.”

Dweck’s research, found mindsets have important practical implications. She debunked the commonly held belief that praise for ability encouraged motivation, concluding that “that praise for intelligence had more negative consequences for students’ achievement motivation than praise for effort.” How you approach the problem makes a difference. “According to Dweck, praising kids for intelligence encourages them to “look” smart, which means that they shouldn’t risk making a mistake.”

So, praising for innate intelligence encourages kids to avoid learning activities where they are likely to fail. And unless we experience the unpleasantness of being wrong and direct our attention to the very thing we’d like to ignore the mind will never become effective at learning from mistakes. As Lehrer concludes, we’ll keep making the same mistakes, “forsaking self-improvement for the sake of self-confidence.”

If you want to learn more, read Dweck’s book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.

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Jonah Lehrer is the author of How We Decide and Proust Was a Neuroscientist.