Do You Really Want People to Fail?

Is that how you teach persistence, resilience and grit? 

This is another story that just drives me crazy! I have read several articles and blogs about the value in failing. Are they kidding? Why would a parent or manager want people to fail?  You never want to reward failing but you always need to reinforce trying. In order to do that you have to focus on behavior as it is occurring, not on the outcome, as in succeeding or failing. If you reward failing, everybody will surely get the reward; just don’t try very hard, or make a half-baked attempt.

From a story on NPR this morning, “Does Teaching Kids to Get Gritty Help Them Get Ahead?” you get the idea that it is not known how to teach persistence. Several schools are making attempts but few are likely to succeed in my opinion because they think the answer is in making subject mastery hard and to ease the pain they reward failure. The NPR story ends with a paragraph about a student from Lenox Academy, a school trying to make students “grittier.” The reporter who interviewed Lenox students for the story concluded “… as they say around here, that the secret to success is failure.”  Boy is that wrong-headed! It reminds me of an interview with the late comedian and actor, Andy Griffith, who was asked if growing up poor had contributed to his sense of humor. His reply was, “no doubt it did, but it was a hell-of-a-way to learn to be funny.” Having to fail in order to learn persistence is a hell-of-a-way to do it. 

How to teach persistence, resilience and grit has been known for almost 100 years. John B. Watson wrote in 1930 that, “the formation of early work habits in youth, of working longer hours than others, of practicing more intensively than others, is probably the most reasonable explanation we have today not only for success in any line, but even for genius.”

B. F. Skinner showed how various schedules of reinforcement impacted persistence. Robert Eisenberger, Professor of Psychology at University of Delaware wrote an article, “Learned Industriousness” in 1992, in which he reported on 21 research studies he had conducted and reviewed over 150 research studies, articles, and books relating to the subject. He concluded that “These findings suggest that a developmental history of repeated reinforcement of high performance in diverse tasks may contribute to a durable tendency to perform tasks industriously.” If a child was reinforced for high performance in the varied tasks of childhood, it comes to characterize the way he/she approaches any task. In addition when Eisenberger interviewed “employees with various jobs who were exceptionally hard workers he found that almost all had a childhood in which strong reinforcers were used to shape high performance in a variety of tasks.” A side-benefit for these experiences in children was an increase in self-control and moral development.

Those who don’t understand the science of behavior often resort to methods that are exactly the opposite of what is known to be effective. Some schools think we need to make things difficult to teach persistence. Actually, it is not about how difficult a subject is but about the reinforcement received for sticking to a project or task. As Eisenberger found, “reinforcement for increased physical or cognitive performance or for the toleration of aversive stimulation, conditions rewards value to the sensation of high effort and thereby reduces effort’s averseness.” To get some understanding of this watch an episode of Naked and Afraid, a reality survival show. The successful contestants were put into the harshest conditions imaginable, as in the Amazon jungle with no clothes, no food and water, never complained of the task being too hard, although they did complain about mosquitos. Too bad that academics confuse “hard” with angst and failure when we know that when accompanied with reinforcement “hard” just makes the accomplishment all the more reinforcing and memorable. To a distance runner, breaking into a sweat is a positive reinforcer as you know that you are doing yourself some good.

We know how to teach persistence, resilience, grit, passion, creativity, etc. The methods and technology are here now. We used to do it. Remember, “If at first you don’t succeed,…” You know the ending to this. That saying is not about failing; it is about success. When positive reinforcement is embedded in the trying, hard becomes easier, exciting and exhilarating. Persistence then is an outcome of the reinforcement delivered for the accomplishment of small steps on the way to some final success. Hard and rewarding should go together but all too often they do not in our educational system and in the workplace. And that’s what drives me crazy!!!!

Let's change this. 

Posted by Andy Lattal, Ph.D.

Dr. Andy Lattal is the Centennial Professor of Psychology at West Virginia University (WVU). Lattal has authored over 150 research articles and chapters on conceptual, experimental, and applied topics in behavior analysis and edited seven books and journal special issues, including APA’s memorial tribute to B. F. Skinner.