How To Best Recover From Failure, According To Science

If at first you don't succeed, let yourself wallow with some ice cream for a bit. At least, that's what a study published this fall suggests. Apparently, the best way to respond to failure isn't to try and rationalize why things went wrong, but to allow yourself to feel a little down in the dumps before you try again. When you break out that Snuggie and flip on Netflix after reading a rejection letter from a publisher or getting turned down for a promotion at work, you're doing yourself a favor. Now that's the kind of psychology a girl can get behind.

In a paper published in the Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, researchers rounded up nearly 100 undergraduates and asked them to find the lowest price for a specific type of blender. The catch? The students were doomed to fail from the start. The computer was programmed to tell everyone that the cheapest blender was $3.27 less than whatever they chose, so nobody won the theoretical $50 cash prize. Scientists are sneaky like that.

The students then took part in what they thought was a different study. (In reality, it was the same one.) They performed a similar task, searching for the best-priced college textbook, but this time, scientists paid attention to how much effort they put in.

Here's the interesting part. Before the blender search, the participants had been divided into three groups. One was asked to focus on their emotional state; another had to keep their mind on the cognitive side of things — basically, their intellectual response. The last group was allowed to think however they wanted. As it turns out, this made a difference in how hard they tried in the second task: People who focused on the emotional aspect of failure spent longer searching for the book than everyone else in the study. In other words, thinking about how bad it felt to fail made them try harder next time.


Researchers conducted two other experiments; one directly asked participants how hard they tried, while the last asked them to focus on cognition or emotion after the search was over. Once again, researchers found pretty much the same thing: Students who concentrated on their feelings after failure put in more effort next time. In fact, the stronger they felt, the harder they tried.

"Failure, in general, can be beneficial when an individual actually allows themselves to respond emotionally," the study authors concluded.

This might seem totally counterproductive. What good does it do to beat yourself up when you don't succeed? But the key here isn't making yourself feel terrible — it's recognizing that sometimes, bad things happen, and you might have to try harder next time. Basically, researchers found that people tended to rationalize away their feelings of failure, telling themselves that the task was "not that big of a deal" in the first place. This might make you feel better about yourself, but it's not going to motivate you to do better next time. If it's no biggie, what's the point?


On the flip side, it's definitely important to be kind to yourself. A growing number of psychologists emphasize self-compassion, which has been associated with quicker recovery from life events like divorce. Writing for the Harvard Business Review this January, clinical psychologist Christoper Germer explained:

"Being self-compassionate doesn’t imply that you shouldn’t be ambitious or push yourself to succeed. It’s about how you motivate yourself; instead of doing it with blame and self-criticism, self-compassion motivates like a good coach, with encouragement, kindness, and support."

But self-compassion requires that you acknowledge your failure in the first place. So next time you fail, embrace your emotions instead of suppressing them — then get back to work.