Some Learn From Mistakes, Others Don’t


Quick Cap EEGIn Managing by Mistakes, I wrote about the power of learning from mistakes. Some of the most successful individuals in different fields credit relentless focus on even small mistakes with their high achievement. Researchers at Columbia University divided student subjects into two groups, “grade hungry” and “knowledge hungry” based on a short survey, reports Newsweek’s NurtureShock column, and then tested them with general knowledge questions. The researchers immediately provided feedback as to whether the subject was right or wrong, and showed the correct answer. The brain activity of the subjects was monitored using EEG caps. The differences in the way the subjects handled the feedback was striking:

The Knowledge-Hungry paid attention (but not quite as obsessively) to whether they were right or wrong, and they paid significantly more attention to the correct answers. They took advantage of the chance to learn. This contrast was most dramatic when each group got an answer wrong. The Knowledge-Hungry activated deep memory regions, indicating they were storing these new facts away for later. Such activity was not nearly as deep in the Grade-Hungry, suggesting a far more cursory interest; instead, their brains seemed to feel threatened by learning they’d gotten an answer wrong. Their brains indicated a far more emotional, fearful response. They clearly did not like being wrong, and they didn’t care that Katmandu is in Nepal.

Not surprisingly, when the students were later surprised by a retest, consisting only of the questions they’d gotten wrong the first time around, the Knowledge-Hungry kids did far better. [Emphasis added. From Newsweek NurtureShock – This is Your Brain on a Test by Po Bronson.]

So, from a neuromanagement viewpoint, it would make a lot of sense to hire people capable of learning from their mistakes. Hiring the equivalent of the “grade hungry” students will yield employees who are motivated but who, over time, may not improve their performance nearly as much as individuals who internalize lessons learned when things don’t work perfectly.

So how can you screen for this trait of learning from mistakes? The researchers asked the students questions about their motivation:

One group was concerned, primarily, with being better than others. They agreed with statements like, “You have a certain amount of intelligence and you can’t do much to change it,” or “It’s important to me to be smarter than other students.” The other group disagreed with those statements, and instead agreed to comments like, “It’s very important to me that my coursework offer real challenges.” This latter group wasn’t into comparing themselves.

Clearly, the second group might well make better employees (although the motivation for doing better than one’s peers shouldn’t be discounted). Via either testing or the interview process, teasing out the “learners” should be possible. (The hiring process in the U.S. is governed by a variety of laws and agencies, so be sure to check with a human resources professional before subjecting applicants to a test of your own design!)

The Columbia University research was led by Carol Dweck, whose work was also featured in our article, How to Praise Your Child.

  1. Tanya says

    Hmm…very interesting. I hadn’t thought before about the differences between “knowledge-hungry” versus “grade-hungry” students, but it makes complete sense. Students who crave knowledge really do strive to correct their mistakes more often, and it’s amazing to see that connection from student to employee just based on the way we learn.

    1. Roger Dooley says

      I think there are probably any number of ways to characterize groups of subjects – the key distinction, I think, is to identify those that learn from mistakes, and those who don’t. Finding a short set of questions that reliably distinguishes between them (I doubt if job applicants would want to put on an EEG cap!) would be the Holy Grail.


  2. Jeffrey Tang says

    The most important question for me is whether or not a person can “move” from one group to another. Can a Knowledge-Hungry person become Grade-Hungry through laziness or conditioning? Can a Grade-Hungry person learn to move past the fear of being wrong and focus on knowledge instead? Or is this something deeply ingrained within us?

  3. Brendon Clark says

    I wonder if there’s a link to deeper motivational aspects here that would be useful in the workplace. The knowledge group are intrinsically motivated to learn and improve, whereas for the grade group learning is extrinsically motivated by wanting to achieve grades. In the workplace, if learning is used to improve people, jobs, satisfaction etc, I’d hire for intrinsic motivation in favour of using promotion or salary to have to entice learning.

  4. Nathan Tothrow says

    This is an outstanding post, Roger, and relevant to hiring managers in any field. I came across a similar dichotomy of flight instructors when first learning to fly. Many instructors were young people en route to a career in commercial flying. For them, instructing was a convenient way to build hours, and they mechanically moved students from one task to the next with little regard for the hows and whys of flight.

    Then, there were the older – often ex-military – pilots who held an obvious love of the science and art of flying. The usually had other careers and taught flying because they held a great passion for it. These were the instructors I sought out. And this is the character of the “knowledge hungry” student, I believe. As a manager, I look for people with this quality.

  5. Laurel Miltner says

    Very interesting information, here, Roger. Thanks for including the tips on screening for these attributes when evaluating potential employees.

    @Jeffrey – you raise a great question! I’d assume that motivation and maturity could change over time, and may impact whether one is grade- or knowledge-focused, but I’d be interested to know if there has been any research on this. Also, I wonder if subject matter would have an impact?

  6. Claire Boyles says

    This is an interesting study, I was doing a course with last year when I was able to identify how I tend to focus on what went wrong, rather than what went right- Since then I’ve made a conscious effort to change that mindset, and I’ve been quite successful.

    I actively celebrate my successes now- no matter how small, I acknowledge progress & focus on what I DID do well- so that I can increase that ability, rather than what I didn’t do well.

    I write out daily “What I did well today” lists (Not every day but fairly regularly)

    The other interesting thing I thought about this was that I imagine “Knowledge Hungry” people would be far better team players- less concerned with admitting mistakes & learning from them & more supportive of others who made mistakes & helping them learn too. Rather than the “Grade Hungry” who appear more competitive & want to be better than others.

    Fascinating research!

  7. Dov Gordon says

    While it’s interesting to explore whether people can change from one tendency to another, this can be a tempting distraction.

    I’ve seen many entrepreneurs hire the wrong person and hold onto the belief that they’ll change. Never happens.

    Roger, I think many existing behavior based interview questions would help tease out a person’s tendency. In the end, we’re looking for certain behaviors, regardless of how you frame the underlying cause.

    Your thoughts?

    Dov Gordon

    1. Roger Dooley says

      There’s no doubt that objective, in-depth interviewing can discover important information about a candidate’s behavior and tendencies. Most interviews aren’t conducted that well, though. I’ve seen stats that suggests that reviewing resumes alone can result in better hires than typical interviews.


  8. James says

    Looking back at my recent school days and my children’s education, the teachers i come across appear to have been big fans of “grade hungry” students. More and more time is been sent on techniques like studying from past exam papers and how to provide answers that will score points even if the person didn’t quite know the true answer. so in essence we are going to produce people in the work force that are more “grade hungry” types.

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