How To Cope With Failure, According To Psychology

By Emma Young

We all have times when we feel that we’ve failed — but it’s how we respond to it that really matters. Here are five findings that could help you cope with failure:

1. Be kind to yourself

It’s an old one, but a good one: practise some self-compassion. Being self-compassionate entails being kind and non-judgemental towards yourself in the face of difficulty — including failure. Perhaps the best-known proponent of self-compassion is Kristin Neff at the University of Texas, Austin (you can take her self-compassion test here). Back in 2005, Neff published work finding that students who are self-compassionate in the wake of exam failure go on to study harder for future exams. More recent work has found that being kind to yourself if you feel that you’ve failed at something (and recognising that you’re far from alone in failing) is linked with better mental health. And self-compassion is even linked to greater physical health too, according to a recent study in BMC Public Health.

2. Resist “socially prescribed perfectionism”

If you feel that other people expect you to be perfect, and will judge you harshly if you fail to meet their expectations, you experience this type of perfectionism. A major 2017 review of work into factors that foster resilience after failure or mistakes highlighted it as a clear risk factor: people who scored higher on this measure experienced more anxiety, depression and anger after being led to fail at a task. Interventions aimed at improving wellbeing and resilience should target this factor, the researchers concluded. Exactly how to go about this is another matter, of course. There is some evidence that exposure to contrasting messages — some anti-perfectionism, others in favour of it — helps to tackle this type of perfectionism. But for an individual, it could be worth resisting the urge to think about how other people might judge you after a failure.

3. Don’t worry too much if you were over-confident — and wrong

Overconfidence is not a good thing; it leads us to study less hard and make more mistakes. But let’s say you take an exam or test feeling convinced that you’re on top of the material and are getting pretty much everything right, only to receive a poor grade. Your initial confidence was clearly misplaced. No doubt, it was at least partly responsible for your failure. However, there’s plenty of evidence that the surer you are about an answer that turns out to be wrong and is corrected, the better you’ll remember the correct answer and use it in future. This, at least, was one of the conclusions of a 2017 review of work on learning from errors by Janet Metcalfe at Columbia University. “A strong degree of belief in the truth of one’s errors makes them more, rather than less, susceptible to being correctable,” Metcalfe writes. However….

4. Try not to take evidence of failure too personally

A recent set of studies on almost 1,700 American participants, published in Psychological Science, found that feedback on what they had got wrong on a variety of tests or tasks rather than what they had got right — a “failure focus” rather than a “success focus” — undermined subsequent learning. (These participants’ confidence in their answers was not assessed.) Why? The researchers, at the University of Chicago, think that because personal failure feedback can threaten a person’s self-image, it leads them to tune out. However, participants did learn effectively from other people’s failures — when their ego concerns would have been “muted”. Perhaps encouraging people to reappraise feedback in less ego-threatening terms might help them to learn better from failure, the team suggests. However, as they also note, people in some countries — like Japan — persist for longer at a task after failing at it than after being successful, but this pattern is reversed for Americans. So culture clearly has a huge influence on the impact of failure.

5. Embrace “productive failure”

The idea here is that instead of carefully teaching people how to do something, you let them loose on a new task with only the minimum of guidance. As Sunita G. Chowrira at the University of British Columbia and her colleagues explain in a recent paper, “While students often fail to produce satisfactory solutions (hence ‘Failure’), these attempts help learners encode key features and learn better from subsequent instruction (hence ‘Productive’).”

Productive failure has been found to have benefits in all kinds of teaching situations, including classrooms. In this particular study, Chowrira and her team divided first year biology students into two groups. One received standard instruction on various topics. The other group read a relevant chapter prior to the class, then embarked on challenges in small groups. They received feedback immediately afterwards, followed by instruction on any gaps in their understanding. This second group went on to do better at subsequent exams, and this was especially true for low-performing students. A productive failure approach “has the potential to transform large introductory university courses,” the team concluded. For an individual, there are lessons, too: those people who prefer to throw themselves at a new task rather than carefully reading the instructions first may well “fail” more (and anyone who’s ever tried this approach with a piece of flatpack furniture knows how bad that can be), but learn more and do better next time.

Emma Young (@EmmaELYoung) is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest