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How Individuals Learn From Both Failure And Success

Drawing on attribution theory in psychology, a new research paper investigates how individuals learn from both failure and success.

The authors contend that when individuals fail, they ascribe the performance deficit as the result of situational factors beyond their control. As a result, individuals are likely to fail to learn as much from their own failures as they do from their own successes.

While failure may be an important source of information for learning, we propose that individuals do not rely on it as much as they rely on success, when evaluating their own prior experience. We base this prediction on attribution theory, a psychological theory which suggests that individuals tend to attribute their failures to external factors (thus not recognizing their role in the failure) and their successes to internal factors (e.g., their ability or skills)

As for learning from others, the authors suggest individuals are more likely to learn from others' failures rather than others' successes.

Attribution theory suggests that the way people interpret success and failure will differ when they evaluate the actions of others, as compared to their own actions. In this case, individuals tend to attribute the failure of others to internal factors (i.e., these others’ actions and abilities), and the successes of others to external factors (i.e., situational forces beyond their control).

Prior successes have a complementary effect on performance.

Individuals are more open to learning from their own failure when they experienced success in the past and when they observed others fail.


Learning from past experience is central to an organization's adaptation and survival. A key dimension of prior experience is whether the outcome was successful or unsuccessful. While empirical studies have investigated the effects of success and failure in organizational learning, to date the phenomenon has received little attention at the individual level. Drawing on attribution theory in psychology, we investigate how individuals learn from both failure and success from their own past experience as well as the experience of others. For our empirical analyses we use 10 years of data from 71 cardiothoracic surgeons who completed over 6,500 procedures using a new technology for cardiac surgery. We find that individuals learn more from their own successes than from their own failures, while they learn more from the failures of others than they do from others' successes. We also find that individuals' prior successes and others' failures can help individuals to overcome their inability to learn from their own failures. Together, these findings offer both theoretical and practical insights into how individuals learn directly from their prior experience and indirectly from the experience of others.

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