Fail Constructively, with Tim Harford

Fail Constructively: Learn From Your Mistakes, with Tim Harford, Economist and Author, Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure

A Successful Mindset

A few days before Christmas 1954 a group of ordinary people gathered together in a house in Chicago with a very unusual belief: they believed that at midnight aliens would come, collect them and take them to the planet Clarion. And the reason that aliens from the planet Clarion were going to collect them was because the world was about to be destroyed. It would be destroyed at dawn the next day. So the cult gathered together. They were under the influence of a woman called Dorothy Martin who was receiving messages from these aliens. And they waited.

Now what’s interesting about this particular group of people is that they had been infiltrated by a psychologist called Leon Festinger, and Festinger wanted to know what would happen when these people were proved wrong. I don’t want to jump to the conclusion, but it turns out the aliens didn’t come. I’m sorry if that was a surprise. The aliens didn’t come, the world wasn’t destroyed.

Festinger sat and watched as these, this group of people, true believers, sat around in a sitting room – midnight, no aliens, one o’clock, no aliens, two o’clock, no aliens, three o’clock, no aliens – absolutely stunned. And at four o’clock Dorothy Martin burst into tears, broke down, and then at half past four picked up a pencil and announced that she was receiving a message from the aliens and began to write. And the message was: because of the commitment of the group and their belief, the world was going to be spared, and it wouldn’t be destroyed. And so there would be no need for the aliens to come after all.

And then what Leon Festinger predicted happened. The cultists went out on the street and they began to spread the good news. They’d previously been very restrained but now they embraced their old beliefs more firmly than ever before. They sent out press releases. They phoned the newspapers. They wanted everybody to know.

Now why did they behave like this? Festinger said it’s because they had invested everything in their beliefs. They’d left their wives and husbands. They’d left their jobs. They’d given away their possessions. Everything was totally committed to being right. And when they were proved wrong, they couldn’t accept that they were wrong and so they just adapted their beliefs until they weren’t wrong anymore.

Now this idea is called cognitive dissonance. You may have heard of it. All of us are at risk of cognitive dissonance in a small way whenever we make a mistake, particularly a mistake on something that’s important to us, particularly when we’ve invested our reputation, when we’ve put money into it, when we’ve put time into it. That is when we are most at risk because our self-image is under threat. We find it really hard to separate the idea that, I made a mistake, I failed, I did something wrong, with the idea that, I am a failure, I am the kind of person who makes mistakes, I am the kind of person who gets things wrong.

And I think the first step in responding in a constructive way when you’ve made a mistake is to separate yourself from the mistake and to understand: you can be a person who made a mistake – that does not make you a person who will always make mistakes. And hold those ideas in your mind. And then you’ll be able to admit you got something wrong and start to, in a mature and forward thinking way, think about how to fix it.

How to Be a Successful Failure

Let’s talk about how to be a really successful failure, I mean, how to fail in a really exciting, productive, constructive way. And I think there are really three tricks to it. The first thing is to admit that since failure is around every corner -- we’re always making mistakes, if we try to do something interesting we’re gonna be making mistakes -- we need to generate lots of ideas. We need to be doing lots of things. We need to try lots of stuff.

Now it follows pretty directly that if you’re gonna try lots of stuff, you’re gonna fail at lots of stuff. Therefore, you need the failures to be survivable in some way. So whenever you’re trying a new experiment, whether it’s a new job, a new product, a new hobby, a new boyfriend or girlfriend – whatever it is -- you need to give some thought to what you’re gonna do if it doesn’t work out and how to minimize the downside as well as taking advantage of the upside. The biggest disasters in human history are always when people just assume that failure was impossible or they weren’t willing to contemplate it.

And the third thing – the third element that’s really important and easy to say but hard to do – is to have some kind of mechanism, some sort of feedback mechanism that tells you whether things are going well or not going well, tells you whether you’re succeeding or failing. And this could be all kinds of things. In the case of medicine and doctors and epidemiologists, medical researchers have built a huge infrastructure around randomized control trials and matter analysis and double blind just devoted to stopping them from kidding themselves that some new treatment is working when it’s really not. I mean, that’s sometimes what it takes.

But in everyday life often it’s simply a case of asking yourself what the markers for success might be. Or even simpler than that, just asking someone you can trust to give you a straight opinion. It could be remarkably hard to get people to give you an honest and constructive opinion. But that’s absolutely essential. What I’m talking about is not when you go up to somebody and say, “Was that all right? Was that working?” but when you go up to somebody and say, “Can you give me one suggestion for something I might do better?” People are so unused to being asked that question, you may not always get responses, but that’s the kind of feedback that you need if you’re going to fix your own mistakes.  


In this video, economist and author Tim Harford teaches an important lesson about succeeding at failure through the story of psychologist Leon Festinger’s infiltration of a cult led by Dorothy Martin in 1954. Festinger studied the cult members’ reaction to Martin’s false prophecy that the world would be destroyed the following day.Harford uses this example to illustrate the concept of cognitive dissonance. All of us, he says, are at risk of cognitive dissonance in a small way whenever we make a mistake, particularly a mistake on something that’s important to us. We are most at risk when our self-image is under threat. Harford then walks us through an antidote to this phenomenon -- to prepare to be a successful failure. To do that, Harford explains, we need to have a successful mindset and a plan of action for learning from our mistakes.

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How do 80-year-old 'super-agers' have the brains of 20-somethings?

Most elderly individuals' brains degrade over time, but some match — or even outperform — younger individuals on cognitive tests.

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  • "Super-agers" seem to escape the decline in cognitive function that affects most of the elderly population.
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At some point in our 20s or 30s, something starts to change in our brains. They begin to shrink a little bit. The myelin that insulates our nerves begins to lose some of its integrity. Fewer and fewer chemical messages get sent as our brains make fewer neurotransmitters.

As we get older, these processes increase. Brain weight decreases by about 5 percent per decade after 40. The frontal lobe and hippocampus — areas related to memory encoding — begin to shrink mainly around 60 or 70. But this is just an unfortunate reality; you can't always be young, and things will begin to break down eventually. That's part of the reason why some individuals think that we should all hope for a life that ends by 75, before the worst effects of time sink in.

But this might be a touch premature. Some lucky individuals seem to resist these destructive forces working on our brains. In cognitive tests, these 80-year-old "super-agers" perform just as well as individuals in their 20s.

Just as sharp as the whippersnappers

To find out what's behind the phenomenon of super-agers, researchers conducted a study examining the brains and cognitive performances of two groups: 41 young adults between the ages of 18 and 35 and 40 older adults between the ages of 60 and 80.

First, the researchers administered a series of cognitive tests, like the California Verbal Learning Test (CVLT) and the Trail Making Test (TMT). Seventeen members of the older group scored at or above the mean scores of the younger group. That is, these 17 could be considered super-agers, performing at the same level as the younger study participants. Aside from these individuals, members of the older group tended to perform less well on the cognitive tests. Then, the researchers scanned all participants' brains in an fMRI, paying special attention to two portions of the brain: the default mode network and the salience network.

The default mode network is, as its name might suggest, a series of brain regions that are active by default — when we're not engaged in a task, they tend to show higher levels of activity. It also appears to be very related to thinking about one's self, thinking about others, as well as aspects of memory and thinking about the future.

The salience network is another network of brain regions, so named because it appears deeply linked to detecting and integrating salient emotional and sensory stimuli. (In neuroscience, saliency refers to how much an item "sticks out"). Both of these networks are also extremely important to overall cognitive function, and in super-agers, the activity in these networks was more coordinated than in their peers.

Default Mode Network

Wikimedia Commons

An image of the brain highlighting the regions associated with the default mode network.

How to ensure brain health in old age

While prior research has identified some genetic influences on how "gracefully" the brain ages, there are likely activities that can encourage brain health. "We hope to identify things we can prescribe for people that would help them be more like a superager," said Bradford Dickerson, one of the researchers in this study, in a statement. "It's not as likely to be a pill as more likely to be recommendations for lifestyle, diet, and exercise. That's one of the long-term goals of this study — to try to help people become superagers if they want to."

To date, there is some preliminary evidence of ways that you can keep your brain younger longer. For instance, more education and a cognitively demanding job predicts having higher cognitive abilities in old age. Generally speaking, the adage of "use it or lose it" appears to hold true; having a cognitively active lifestyle helps to protect your brain in old age. So, it might be tempting to fill your golden years with beer and reruns of CSI, but it's unlikely to help you keep your edge.

Aside from these intuitive ways to keep your brain healthy, regular exercise appears to boost cognitive health in old age, as Dickinson mentioned. Diet is also a protective factor, especially for diets delivering omega-3 fatty acids (which can be found in fish oil), polyphenols (found in dark chocolate!), vitamin D (egg yolks and sunlight), and the B vitamins (meat, eggs, and legumes). There's also evidence that having a healthy social life in old age can protect against cognitive decline.

For many, the physical decline associated with old age is an expected side effect of a life well-lived. But the idea that our intellect will also degrade can be a much scarier reality. Fortunately, the existence of super-agers shows that at the very least, we don't have to accept cognitive decline without a fight.

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