Why does failure inspire some and demoralize others?

Stanford Magazine reports on the applications from psychological research Carol Dweck's work, which uses careful experiments to determine why some people give up when confronted with failure, while others roll up their sleeves and dive in.
Through a series of exercises, the experimenters trained half the students to chalk up their errors to insufficient effort, and encouraged them to keep going. Those children learned to persist in the face of failure–and to succeed. The control group showed no improvement at all, continuing to fall apart quickly and to recover slowly. These findings, says Dweck, “really supported the idea that the attributions were a key ingredient driving the helpless and mastery-oriented patterns.” Her 1975 article on the topic has become one of the most widely cited in contemporary psychology.

Attribution theory, concerned with people’s judgments about the causes of events and behavior, already was an active area of psychological research. But the focus at the time was on how we make attributions, explains Stanford psychology professor Lee Ross, who coined the term “fundamental attribution error” for our tendency to explain other people’s actions by their character traits, overlooking the power of circumstances. Dweck, he says, helped “shift the emphasis from attributional errors and biases to the consequences of attributions–why it matters what attributions people make.” Dweck had put attribution theory to practical use...

...[S]ome of the children who put forth lots of effort didn’t make attributions at all. These children didn’t think they were failing. Diener puts it this way: “Failure is information–we label it failure, but it’s more like, ‘This didn’t work, I’m a problem solver, and I’ll try something else.’” During one unforgettable moment, one boy–something of a poster child for the mastery-oriented type–faced his first stumper by pulling up his chair, rubbing his hands together, smacking his lips and announcing, “I love a challenge.”

Such zest for challenge helped explain why other capable students thought they lacked ability just because they’d hit a setback. Common sense suggests that ability inspires self-confidence. And it does for a while–so long as the going is easy. But setbacks change everything. Dweck realized–and, with colleague Elaine Elliott soon demonstrated–that the difference lay in the kids’ goals. “The mastery-oriented children are really hell-bent on learning something,” Dweck says, and “learning goals” inspire a different chain of thoughts and behaviors than “performance goals.”

The Effort Effect, Carol Dweck's book, "Mindset: The New Psychology of Success" (Thanks, Dad!)


  1. Sometimes it is a matter of the parents. If a kid has controlling, abusive, personality-disordered parents, he might just have learned-hopelessness too.

  2. I used to handle failure by trying harder until I decided to waste 8 years of my life studying religion and philosophy. I would have been better off studying rhetoric and psychology!

  3. Purley,

    You ain’tent ded yet, as Nanny Weatherwax would say. So get back in there and study rhetoric and pyschology already.

  4. This article supports Maria Montessori’s educational methods. She put the focus of learning on the child and letting the child take the lead in their education. Montessori schools try to take the performance competition out of the classroom. Every child can succeed and learn at their own level. They can compete against themselves to improve, but not worry about failing.

  5. I get the feeling that this phenom is also tied to people who Over-Internalize or Personalize things.

    ie: the difference between your Core Self of potential, and your Behavior.

    This really great coach once said of the impressions you make on others, “It’s not You, it’s your Presentation.”

    ie: don’t make it about Labeling (or any other cognitive distortion) and trying to encapsulate your whole life+soul in 1 word; instead, you just did what you did and it either worked or didn’t to a +/- degree.

    Also, part of the performance-based attribution seems like it’s tying Self-Esteem up in there on a minute-to-minute basis, and that’s why a setback is/can be so discouraging.

    Your self-talk is not, “Well, that didn’t work this time.” it’s “I suck because this experiment didn’t work perfectly (the first time). There must be something wrong with my core self.”

    Didn’t read the Stanford link, but that’s the impression I get.

  6. You’ll want to read the Stanford link.

    We all should read this article and the works of Carol Dweck. As an educator I’ve seen nearly all students of the last 15-20 years paralyzed by exactly this phenomenon. I work with all my students (music) on these issues exactly, and the results are astounding. As it says in the article, “Carol Dweck deserves a big audience. It is criminal if she does not get that audience.” Let’s get her the audience she deserves.

  7. Carol Dweck’s work is so innovative and teaches us that failure is a state of mind. In my new book, Freeing Your Child from Negative Thinking: Powerful, Practical Strategies to Build Lifetime of Resilience, Flexibility and Happiness, I devote an entire chapter to the topic of teaching kids how to think their way through and overcome failure, trying something new, losing, disappointment and jealousy. Parents need to learn themselves how to see losing or failing as a temporary state that can be changed by our perseverance rather than as an endpoint.

    Parents and teachers may want to read an excerpt of my book at http://www.freeingyourchild.com.

    Thanks for the great post and for keeping these issues on the radar.

  8. I will definitely buy the book – I’m not that familiar with Carol Dweck’s work. I do have one quibble with the article, which is her contention that tests are bad at showing potential. This sort of blanket statement seems too simplistic, and in fact the goal of well-designed tests is to reveal potential.

Comments are closed.