Failure is a tough topic to bring up but a necessary one. When we are in it, it’s all we can think about. When we are past it, we often do not want any further reminders of it. Failure, behaviorally, and psychologically, is a part of everything we do as a variable, and factors in to every future strategy we use. It is a part of our past that defines how we interact with the future. In a previous writing I discussed “Overcoming the Fear of Failure”, but this one will be about what to do when it happens to us. How do we move on? How do we grow from it? How to we set our future expectancies to do better? To what do we attribute failure to? All of these and more are necessary to making each failure a stepping stone to a future success, or else we might find ourselves in a loop generating ever worse strategies. Instead, we need to learn to get back up. Let’s talk now about some of the research we have on the topic and how we might navigate failure and find motivation from it.
Mastery Orientation vs. Learned Helplessness
When it comes to deriving motivation from failures, both big and small, the strategies that we develop in childhood have a great deal of influence on our current behavior. You may have heard of the term “learned helplessness” before, which describes a pattern of behavior of low motivation and outputs after repeated failures. The individual receives so little reinforcement following their actions that they simply do not continue to try. Diener and Dweck (1978) popularized these concepts in a study on youths that they split into two groups based on patterns and strategies that they observed without being taught. They found that some children when faced with repeated challenges and varying degrees of failure would either consistently give up, and reduce responding, while others would re-assess and modify their responding based on the inputs of their failure. The researchers were very interested in the cognitive strategies that both of these groups displayed, all without any coaching, and determined that even at a very young age, there were clear distinctions on these two types by their ideas on their loci of control. A locus of control is a belief system that people use to determine whether they have control of outcomes, or if outside forces do. A person with an internal locus of control would see the results of their actions as largely based on their own actions and future control. An individual with an external locus of control would see the results of their actions as largely impacted by an outside force or their environment. Now, there is a part of this study that some consider a little unfair. No matter what answer the children gave to their respective stimuli at the start, they were told they were incorrect. How they responded afterwards largely correlated based on how they viewed their loci of control.
Mastery oriented individuals appeared to generally attribute their failures to a lack of effort or something they’d missed. Even at that age, their first reaction focused on pivoting and reassessing.
Learned helpless individuals tended to attribute the failures to the situation as largely beyond their control (in this case, without knowing it, they were technically right as far as the experiment was concerned).
So what happened?
Mastery oriented individuals kept trying, kept changing their responses based on feedback, and largely kept at the task longer than the other individuals. They showed no decline and became more sophisticated in their strategy use (which was eventually validated).
Learned helpless individuals tended to show a progressive decline in the use of good-problem solving strategies and began to include less sophisticated and poorer problem solving strategies. Ones that would be even less likely to work.
This model of attribution is still used to this day, but has a few caveats. Unlike this study, in the real world, people are not always one or the other. In many cases, and complex problems, it requires using multiple loci of control, but also understanding whether the factors we evaluate and learn from are stable (long term) or unstable (temporary). The stability of an attribution is its relative permanence as a factor. If you know you are good at jumping rope, meaning you have high ability, you have a stable factor to consider your next success with. But, if you attribute jumping rope to how much effort your legs can put out, then the source of success is unstable—effort can vary and has to be renewed on each occasion or else it disappears. We’ll talk a little more about how effort and ability works in a second. The important part is that when it comes to evaluating our part in the grand scheme, the internal locus of control tends to help us perform better. Let’s look at some examples.
It rained today and we got all wet. We hate that. What if it rains tomorrow and we don’t want to be rained on? Would a belief system around an internal loci of control make sense if we focus purely on ourselves and ignore the sky? Not very well. No matter how many strategies we might attempt based on our own feedback, we are unlikely to change the weather. On the other hand, a person using this internal loci of control might decide to travel away from the storm as a strategy, bring an umbrella, or wear a rain coat, which has some functionality for them but the rain still happens where they once were. Internal loci of control work best when we take into account our solutions but do not ignore the immutable environmental factors.
What about using an external loci of control on task performance? Perhaps we’d like to pick up three items off of our room’s floor within ten minutes. We might begin to generate all the reasons why we cannot, and how far the floor is from our fingers, and how many other factors there are between the items and the trash can, leading to very low performance on this task within a time frame. It’s the room that’s messy. It’s been messy for days now. So messy. So much mess too. What if we just pick up one thing then go back to bed? It’s still messy. Might as well not. Then, we’ve just effectively wasted time generating non-functional thoughts (poor strategy), and nothing was done (poor outcome). That isn’t helpful either.
Generally speaking, when it comes to our own behavior, within our own repertoires of ability, it is wiser to use an internal locus of control to conceptualize our potential impact on tasks and problems. When there are larger systems and unavoidable outcomes from the outside, it does not hurt to consider what lies in an external locus of control. We, as individuals, cannot control everything. But, as we see above, when faced with continual failure feedback, utilizing an internal locus of control early on can help us come up with strategies which mitigate the external circumstances and perhaps land us in a better spot. There is no harm in generating increasingly sophisticated strategies to put ourselves into better conditions and allow the external factors outside of our control to be managed from ever increasing positions of control and strategy on our part. Sometimes when failure comes, it comes after we thought we had a great strategy focusing on our own improvement and it just did not work.
How do we do it? How do we take back some semblance of control when the waves of failures keep coming?
Consider that the concepts of a locus of control, and how our actions impact our goals are called attributions, and have an effect on our future behavior and how we respond to challenges. When we attribute too much to external causes, it can lead us to decrease our attempts. When we attribute too much to internal causes, it can sometimes lead to more sophisticated problem solving, but blind us to other factors might be outside of our control and narrow our perspective too much.
Mediating these attributions not just in the moment of the first failure we come across, but those that follow can help us create a better perspective on our situation. We can also rely on our social circle, relay our experiences, to see if others can help us see what we might have missed and help our future strategies find better success.
- Evaluate your current attribution and locus of control of the problem.
- What are some ways we can evaluate our own pattern of responding and improve it? (Internal Locus)
- What are some environmental factors that impacted our failure that our behavior did not change (External Locus)
- How do we refine our strategy so that our next attempt can put us in a better position against those environmental variables if they happen again? Can we mitigate what held us back?
Purposive Behaviorism and Re-Training our Attributions
As individuals we can create systems that help us maintain a level of reinforcement to offset failure, and as social creatures, help create an environment of positive interactions that can help us both realize our achievable goals and find strategies to access them. Thankfully, we have concepts and theories at our disposal to explain the hows and whys. Let’s talk Purposive Behaviorism and how we can re-training our Attributional Theories.
If you’ve read my other works on this site, behaviorism itself is familiar to you. Purposive Behaviorism goes beyond the more mechanistic systems of reinforcement and punishment, stimulus and response, that you see in some of the more traditional theories. Yes, reinforcement is important to keep us moving forward. Yes, punishment (failure) can knock us back. But we are human, and complex beings, and a good analysis always takes that into account. From a purposive behavior standpoint, we use goals and work hard to achieve them. That is an intrinsic part of what it is to be human. In older theories by Edward Tolman, the term cognitive map was developed to describe how we do that. Our cognitive map is how we envision our path to our goal. We all have beliefs, unspoken ones, that a specific action on our part will get us closer to an intended consequence or goal. Let’s call these expectancies. They cover both the behavior we intend to do, and the goal we intend to achieve with them. It’s a roadmap. Tolman also believed that we learn from our successes and failures largely through a latent process. There is an automaticity to reinforcement that helps us pick up what has worked and set aside what has not worked, and integrating more cognitive and conscious strategies to what we have learned latently is the best way to move forward. Keep in mind not just what you can remember and consciously recall, but also what might have been learned latently from the experience.
When we map out our actions to meet a goal, we often give ourselves a time frame (hopefully realistic) in which to reach them. By giving our goals, or conceptual map of how we achieve them, a context in time we help judge how to act and what to expect. Generally speaking, acting now is always better than acting later unless you have a more advantageous use of time further along to position towards your goal. With our expectancies in mind, we have our actions, our goals, and our time frame. As adults, we also learn to discriminate effort from ability. Effort can be defined as the amount of energy or resources we must expend to progress towards the goal, while ability may be defined by our existing proficiency or skills that can achieve it. In most situations it is a combination of both effort and ability that help us reach complex goals.
Let’s reintroduce failure here. Let’s say that we mapped out our goal, we made our attempt to the best of our effort and ability, and we find that we simply did not meet success. Perhaps we even see repeated failure. It can be easy to get disheartened, and even travel down that path of learned helplessness, but we should do everything we can to avoid it. Let’s imagine that we did our best to conceptualize our locus/loci of control, and they were as accurate as they could be, but we still missed the mark. We tried, we failed. Let’s say our expectancy, our goal and plan to reach it, is still very important and we do not want to change the goal. How do we use our time most effectively now to get back up and try again? We need to re-train ourselves, and that means re-training our attributions.
Do we have the ability to achieve this next step in our goal? What did our failure show us?
Did we apply the necessary effort to achieve the next step in our goal? What did our failure show us?
Were our attributions on stability based around factors that were stable (ability) or unstable (effort)?
The combination of evaluating our ability and effort and attribute our failure and successes along these variables is key to knowing when something can be achieved alone, if further training, resources, or additional help from others is needed, and how to adjust our plans going forward to include these more sophisticated and evaluated plans that came from the experience. Failure here is a teacher. It’s not always easy to maintain effort after a failed attempt even if the ability was there. To retrain ourselves to analyze our attributions of the failure correctly, we must take some time to evaluate the factors. Use this tool from Dweck (2000), who we saw in that earlier study too, below to take a particular situation you might have been in the past, and see where the attributions fall.
Plug some of your attributions in the grid above and see where they fall. Do you think anyone else evaluating your situation might have a different series of attributions for it?
We tend to get the best results out of ourselves and planning ahead by attributing a reasonable portion our previous successes to internal and stable causes. What went right in the situation within our ability, even if there was an ultimate failure, that we can consistently do again? Example: I might not have won the race, but this was close to my best personal time yet.
When analyzing our failures, we can go wrong in attributing things entirely to unstable and external causes. Things that we see as completely out of our control, and leaves nothing for us to work and grow on. Example: I was going to go in to work today but then the roads were so busy and you know I can’t drive on busy roads…
The take away:
- Turning failures into successes takes analysis of what happened.
- Sometimes we analyze the situation well and can think of some improvements for next time focusing on our internal factors.
- “Stable Dimension” attributions help us reflect on our ability and how to improve it.
- “Unstable Dimension” attributions help us reflect on our level of effort and if we can improve it next time.
- If we see many attributions leaning in the unstable or external direction, maybe it could take an extra pair of eyes to help us get a new perspective.
- Reaching out to a trusted friend, or experienced advisor on the topic.
- Re-evaluating the attribution by considering internal factors.
- Learned helplessness can arise from attributing too much to external factors, avoiding evaluation of internal factors, leading to poor problem solving and less sophisticated goal directed behavior.
Getting back up after failure requires analysis of our actions, re-training our attributions to avoid learned helplessness, and consistent effort going forward.
What are some attributions you’ve thought about recently? Have the behaviors you’ve used to reach those goals been effective? Have they been ineffective? How has your belief system on the locus of control impacted the process? Have you utilized others to help you with alternate perspectives?
Comments? Questions? Feedback? Leave them below.
Cooper, J. O., Heron, T. E., & Heward, W. L. (1987). Applied Behavior Analysis. Merrill.
Edward Chace Tolman. (2015). Introduction to Theories of Learning, 302–326. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315664965-16
Hoose, N. A.-V. (n.d.). Educational psychology. Lumen. Retrieved November 11, 2021, from https://courses.lumenlearning.com/edpsy/chapter/attribution-theory/.
Molden, D. C., & Dweck, C. S. (2000). Meaning and motivation. Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation, 131–159. https://doi.org/10.1016/b978-012619070-0/50028-3
Schunk, D. H., Meece, J. L., & Pintrich, P. R. (2014). Motivation in education: Theory, research, and applications. Pearson Education Ltd.
Tolman, E. C. (1967). Purposive behavior in animals and men. Irvington.
Title image: Getty Images/iStockphoto
Attribution Grid: Christian Sawyer, M.Ed., BCBA