Hardwiring helps some learn from flubs

MICHIGAN STATE (US) — People who think they can learn from their mistakes have a different brain reaction to errors than those who don’t, according to a new study.

“This finding is exciting in that it suggests people who think they can learn from mistakes have brains that are more tuned to pick up on mistakes very quickly,” says Jason Moser, assistant professor of clinical psychology at Michigan State University and lead researcher on the project.

The research could benefit students and workers through training programs designed to help people learn more from mistakes and put in more effort to not make the same mistake again.

Hardwiring in the brain helps some people learn from their mistakes, allowing them to bounce back more quickly than others. (Credit: G.L. Kohuth)

“Instead of just asking people whether they think they can learn from their mistakes or not, we’d use their brain activity to decide who needs the ‘I think I can’ training,” Moser says.

For the study, published in Psychological Science, participants were given a task that was easy make an error. They were supposed to identify the middle letter of a five-letter series like “MMMMM” or “NNMNN.” Sometimes the middle letter was the same as the other four; sometimes it was different.

“It’s a pretty simple task, 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.

The participant wore a cap that records electrical activity in the brain. When a mistake is made, the brain makes two quick signals: an initial response that indicates something has gone awry—the ‘oh rats’ response—and a second that indicates the person is consciously aware of the mistake and is trying to right the wrong.

The experiment showed whether people believed they could learn from their mistakes. People who think they can did better after making a mistake, successfully bouncing back after an error.

Their brains also reacted differently, producing a bigger second signal, the one that says ‘I see that I’ve made a mistake, so I should pay more attention,’ Moser says.

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