Albert Einstein famously defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” By this measure, when an approach proves unsuccessful, the “sane “ (intelligent) response is to try another.
Why, then, do so many people do the same foolish things over and over? For example . . .
Mothers or fathers who threaten children with punishments, such as taking away privileges, that they and their children know will never be carried out.
Parents who continue to support grown children who show no interest in supporting themselves.
Women who stay with men who repeatedly abuse them.
Debt-ridden people who persist in the buying habits that put them in that situation.
Investors who habitually buy stocks high, then panic when prices decline and sell at a loss.
Politicians who faithfully support programs that have proven wasteful and/or ineffective.
Citizens who repeatedly vote for politicians who have broken their promises.
You can no doubt add many other examples of such behavior, so let’s return to the original question: Why do people continue patterns of unsuccessful and, in many cases, self-defeating behavior? Why don’t they learn from their mistakes?
One reason is the condition known as “learned helplessness” (LH), defined as the acquired belief that one is powerless to change an undesirable situation and must simply accept it. Martin Seligman and others identified that condition in psychological experiments. Researchers say that people can develop LH through difficult experiences; also, that certain characteristics—for example, extreme shyness or malleability—may increase a person’s susceptibility.
But LH is not the only, nor the most common, reason. Another is mental sloth. Many people find it easier to do as they have always done than to invest the mental effort to find a better approach.
Yet another reason is lack of curiosity and/or imagination. Many people have the unfortunate habit of ignoring important questions: What went wrong here? What can I do to increase my chances of reaching my goal next time? Some of those people were no doubt curious as children but suppressed their curiosity when parents and teachers became annoyed answering their questions.
Similarly, whenever a situation needs a response, some people choose the first one that comes to mind instead of putting their imaginations to work, identifying many possible responses, and deciding which is most promising. (Studies show that taking the time to produce many ideas greatly increases our chance of finding good ones.)
Perhaps the most common reason people fail to learn from their mistakes is reluctance to admit they have made an error. In a memorable New Yorker cartoon a man and woman are sitting across from each other and their expressions suggest they have been arguing. The man is saying, “Why am I raising my voice? Because I’m wrong!” The cartoon is humorous precisely because, given the common aversion to acknowledging errors, the man’s comment is completely unexpected.
Those who are averse to admitting their errors typically believe that any such admission diminishes them. The notion is supported by the idea that being able to say, “I did it my way” is ennobling. Though Frank Sinatra did a wonderful job of expressing that idea musically, the idea itself is ridiculous. There is no shame in committing an error, but there is shame in recognizing it as an error and then repeating it. If my way happens to be the wrong way, it deserves to be abandoned, not celebrated.
Some readers may worry that admitting our errors makes us feel bad about ourselves for having been foolish. They are correct, but the bad feeling is more than balanced by the satisfaction of knowing that we have taken steps to be wiser in the future.
The lessons to be drawn from Einstein’s famous insight include these: Being human, we are both prone to mistakes and tempted to deny that fact. We can save ourselves embarrassment by finding our mistakes before others find them. And if we consistently avoid making the same mistake twice, we will be both intelligent and sane.
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