Is Success a Greater Teacher Than Failure?

 There is a growing body of research that connects neuroscience to leadership – and one of the more fascinating discoveries is that the brain can “rewire” itself based on experience, something scientists call neuroplasticity. Recently, a team at MIT published a study documenting a popular form of environmental feedback that may trigger this rewiring – success.  Of particular interest was that the opposite of success (failure) had no significant impact on rewiring our brains.

Writing about the study in the January, 2010 issue of the Harvard Business Review, Scott Berinato quotes the lead researcher from the MIT team, Earl Miller, who says “understanding the link to environmental feedback is crucial to improving how people teach and motivate because it’s a big part of how we learn. But apparently, we may learn more from success than from failure.”  The study in question involved monkeys and a simple learning task – neurons in the prefrontal cortex and striatum (where the brain tracks success and failure) sharpened their tuning after success, and these changes lingered for several seconds, making brain activity more efficient the next time the monkey performed the task.  In other words, the monkey had learned.  But after failure, there was little change in brain activity – the brain didn’t seem to store any information about what went wrong to use in subsequent trials.

Miller believes this proves that on a neurological level, success is actually a lot more informative than failure. If you get a reward, the brain seems to remember what it did right. But with failure, unless there are significant consequences (i.e., touching a hot stove), the brain isn’t sure what to store, so it doesn’t change at all. Perhaps you can see where this is leading…

…does this research support the currently popular management philosophy of focusing on our strengths (successes) more than our opportunities (failures)? Miller isn’t ready to make that connection just yet, because of the dynamic environment of the modern workplace.  But, he offers: “maybe the lesson is to know that the brain will learn from success, so you don’t need to dwell on that. You need to pay more attention to failures and challenge (understand) why you failed.”

Ah-ha! I think we’ve just found another connection – between neuroscience and leadership development. Turns out your brain will help you learn from your successes.  But you better put in the time to reflect on your failures, to help your mind learn and adapt new patterns of behavior; otherwise, you might be doomed to repeat those mistakes again and again.