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Improve Your Odds After Failure

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Why feeling bad after a failure is good for you.

Go on, wallow! Beat yourself up! I mean, you really messed that one up! Jeez! A new study published in The Journal of Behavioral Decision Making has found that emotional responses to a failure are more useful in the long run than more intellectually driven responses.

“Understanding how performance differs when focusing on feelings versus thoughts could really impact the way people think about their failures or the way employers think about their employees’ failures,” wrote the study’s lead author, Noelle Nelson, an assistant professor of marketing and consumer behavior at the University of Kansas School of Business.

For the study, Nelson and her research team conducted three experiments to trigger a sensation of failure. For example, they had undergraduates search online for a blender to report the lowest price, with the chance of winning a cash prize. All failed, though, as the computer would inform them they had lost (no one said science is nice). The participants were then asked to focus on either their emotions, or on a cognitive response, such as rationalizing why they didn’t win. For the next test, the group who had focused on their emotions exerted more effort—that is, they tried harder next time.

It does sound surprising, as we’ve been taught that calming down and gaining mastery over our feelings is useful in many situations. Still, Nelson noted in the study, the kinds of thoughts people tend to come up with after a failure are sometimes counterproductive.

Nelson wrote that she could see this study’s findings being useful to “consumers employers, teachers or anyone who deals with managing failure in decision making… Someone like a manager or teacher would be able to guide employees and students in how they respond to failure, hopefully improving the way the next decision is made.”

And the good news is, if you’ve been stifling back emotions after a failure, no need. Nelson wrote that overriding that and allowing yourself to feel the negative emotions could lead to future decision-making that is more positive.


Kathryn Drury Wagner

Spirituality & Health’s Wellbeing Editor, Kathryn Drury Wagner, is based in Savannah. She’s been a contributor to the magazine for many years, and she loves sharing ways to build a healthy, mindful, and sustainable lifestyle. 


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