Researchers conducted three experiments that required students to perform price search tasks, with a $50 cash prize on offer for the winner. However, the task was rigged so that all the participants failed to win the prize. Some subjects were then asked to focus on their emotional response to hearing they had failed the task, while others were encouraged to focus on a cognitive response, such as rationalising factors for why they didn’t succeed.
The researchers found that, when later presented with a fresh task, the participants who focused on their emotional response to failing exerted more effort than those who emphasised a cognitive response.
Lead researcher Noelle Nelson says the results are clear: allowing yourself to feel bad after a failure will help to guide future decision-making in a positive way.
“A natural tendency after failure is sometimes to suppress emotions and cognitively rationalise the failure but, if people know the possible negative effects of that behaviour, they can override that natural tendency and focus on the negative feelings,” she says. “That should lead to learning and future decision-making that is more positive.”