ladder to success through failures

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The findings, in a nutshell

Lauren Eskreis-Winkler from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University and her team discovered that people significantly overestimate the likelihood of success following failures, such as passing a test after initially failing or improving their health after a medical crisis. The findings challenge the common narrative that failures are simply stepping stones to success, highlighting the need for more realistic expectations and support systems.

People expect success to follow failure much more often than it actually does,” says lead researcher Dr. Eskreis-Winkler, an assistant professor of management and organizations at Northwestern University, in a media release. “People usually assume that past behavior predicts future behavior, so it’s surprising that we often believe the opposite when it comes to succeeding after failure.”


Eskreis-Winkler and her colleagues embarked on an extensive series of 11 studies, including field studies among medical professionals and controlled experiments, to investigate how accurately people estimate the bounce-back from failures. These studies explored a range of failures, from professional exams to health crises like heart attacks and drug overdoses.

The researchers’ methodology involved not only observing actual outcomes but also measuring how external observers predicted these outcomes would turn out. The comparison between these predictions and reality forms the crux of their insightful findings.

Study Results

Across the board, the findings were consistent and startling. People, in general, tend to greatly overestimate the likelihood of succeeding after failing. For instance, the study showed that the predictions made about professionals passing a retest after initially failing were significantly higher than the actual pass rates. This trend was similar when assessing patients’ health improvements post-crisis or addicts recovering after a relapse. The stark discrepancy between perceived and actual success rates illuminates a critical oversight in our understanding of failure and its consequences.

“People who believe that problems will self-correct after failure are less motivated to help those in need,” Estreis-Winkler explains. “Why would we invest time or money to help struggling populations if we erroneously believe that they will right themselves?”

Study Limitations

The research, while thorough, isn’t without its limitations. The scope of observed failures primarily revolved around professional and health-related setbacks, potentially overlooking other areas where failure dynamics might differ, such as personal relationships or creative endeavors. Furthermore, cultural factors that might influence the perception of failure were not deeply explored, which could vary significantly across different global contexts.


The implications of these findings are profound, especially for policy-making and educational strategies. If people understood the real statistics behind failure, there might be stronger support for structures and programs designed to genuinely aid those trying to recover from setbacks. This research calls for a recalibration of our societal narrative around failure, urging a shift from glorifying resilience without acknowledging the real challenges that come with bouncing back.

“People often confuse what is with what ought to be,” Eskreis-Winkler says. “People ought to pay attention and learn from failure, but often they don’t because failure is demotivating and ego-threatening.”

“Correcting our misguided beliefs about failure could help shift taxpayer dollars away from punishment toward rehabilitation and reform.”

StudyFinds Editor Chris Melore contributed to this report.

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StudyFinds sets out to find new research that speaks to mass audiences — without all the scientific jargon. The stories we publish are digestible, summarized versions of research that are intended to inform the reader as well as stir civil, educated debate. StudyFinds Staff articles are AI assisted, but always thoroughly reviewed and edited by a Study Finds staff member. Read our AI Policy for more information.

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StudyFinds publishes digestible, agenda-free, transparent research summaries that are intended to inform the reader as well as stir civil, educated debate. We do not agree nor disagree with any of the studies we post, rather, we encourage our readers to debate the veracity of the findings themselves. All articles published on StudyFinds are vetted by our editors prior to publication and include links back to the source or corresponding journal article, if possible.

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