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How Disappointment Slows Us Down But Mistakes Are Our Ally



When we make mistakes our body and mind will actually begin to slow down. This is not just because of the disappointment of making a miscalculation but there is a neurological response as well that causes us to slow down.

Neuroscientists at New York University found that when we take more time to make decisions after making a mistake it is because of a mixture of adaptive neural mechanisms. The study was designed to help add some clarity to the long-standing debate about how it may be to our advantage to have our minds and bodies slow down after making a mistake.

After doing a series of tests that showed how people will slow down and hesitate when they fail to predict the next move on a computer accurately the scientists found that even though we slow down we actually speed up the amount of data we are receiving.

So if we are playing a game of chess and we make a wrong move we may slow down a bit on our next move but all of our senses start working harder to take in more data so we can make the right decision moving forward.



“Patients with ADHD or schizophrenia often do not slow down after errors and this has been interpreted as an impaired ability to monitor one’s own behavior,” explains Purcell.

“Our results suggest that this absence of slowing may reflect much more fundamental changes in the underlying decision-making brain networks. By better understanding the neural mechanisms at work after we make a mistake, we can begin to see how these afflictions impair this process.”

“Our research reveals that a combination of changes in the brain slow us down after mistakes,” explains Braden Purcell, one of the co-author on the study. “One gathers more information for the decision to prevent repeating the same mistake again. A second change reduces the quality of evidence we obtain, which decreases the likelihood we will make an accurate choice.”

According to this one set of research, the average person won’t actually benefit from this natural process. This conclusion is unfortunately from a limited perspective that intelligence is fixed.

When we add in our higher levels of perception and we use the power of our mind to make sure we benefit from our mistakes we rewire our minds to grow regardless.

“Whether you think you can or think you can’t — you’re right,” said Henry Ford

Another study was performed that showed that people can learn from their mistakes and the brain can learn new reactions to events. While some people believe that intelligence is fixed these Psychological Scientists aimed to show that if you believe that you can change the outcome then you are right.

“One big difference between people who think intelligence is malleable and those who think intelligence is fixed is how they respond to mistakes,” says Jason S. Moser, of Michigan State University, who worked on this new study with Carrie Heeter, Hans S. Schroder, Tim P. Moran, and Yu-Hao Lee.

See there are two groups of people in this world, according to the research. Depending on your perception you can either keep thinking at the same level you always have or you can learn and grow from your mistakes.

Type 1: Intelligence is malleable

When people have this perception they often say things like “If I make a mistake, I try to learn and figure it out.” or “When the going gets tough, I put in more effort”. A third important angle of this type of person is to “Work smarter, not harder”.

Type 2: Intelligence is Fixed

The second group of people believe that they can’t get any smarter and will not take advantage of the many opportunities to learn and grow from their mistakes. You can see very quickly how this type of thinking would limit us in school and in life. If you think your IQ or general intelligence is a fixed thing then you won’t see the value of pushing yourself beyond the limits and trying a new approach on the next exam.

A cap worn by subjects in a Michigan State University experiment picks up EEG signals at the scalp; the signals are then transmitted via optical cable to a computer where the data is stored for analysis. The experiment deals with people learning from mistakes. Credit: G.L. Kohuth

A cap worn by subjects in a Michigan State University experiment picks up EEG signals at the scalp; the signals are then transmitted via optical cable to a computer where the data is stored for analysis. The experiment deals with people learning from mistakes.
Credit: G.L. Kohuth

In this particular test, the researchers had people do a simple task which would be also easy to make a mistake on. They test subjects would have to identify the middle letter out of a set of 5 letters that were similar such as “MMMMM” or “NNMNN.”

“It’s pretty simple, doing the same thing over and over, but the mind can’t help it; it just kind of zones out from time to time,” Moser says.

With a simple test like this people would quickly get lazy, make mistakes, and then feel stupid.

The subjects also would wear a cap of sensors on their head that would record the electrical activity in their brains. When mistakes would be made the brain would make two signals: one where the brain would signal that something went wrong, which the research Moser called the “oh crap’ response” and the second signal which is when the conscious mind recognises the mistake and try and fix it.

Type 1 people would improve after making a mistake whereas the people who believed intelligence is fixed generally would not.

Even though everyone’s brain would have a quick response the people in the intelligence is malleable group would have a bigger secondary signal that seemed to said “I see that I’ve made a mistake, so I should pay more attention” according to Moser.

Which of these two groups do you feel you fit into? Understand that if you are in the second group you can choose to shift into the first group if that is something you would prefer. That is the magic of our minds, we can rewrite and change our patterns in order to improve ourselves.

Moser said. “This might help us understand why exactly the two types of individuals show different behaviors after mistakes.”

Anyone who believes that they can learn from their mistakes and aren’t afraid of them will be able to fine tune their brains in order to pay closer attention in the future. In the end, this will increase our intelligence and give us the tools we need to change our lives.


Association for Psychological Science. “How your brain reacts to mistakes depends on your mindset.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 1 October 2011.

New York University. “Why mistakes slow us down, but not necessarily for the better.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 21 January 2016.

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