Why do we bounce back from failure better when we have a growth mindset?

We know that we generally bounce back from failure better when we have a growth mindset than when we have a fixed mindset (Dweck, 1999). This has to do with the fact that we interpret failing differently in different mindsets and because of that we also feel and behave differently. In a growth mindset we view failure as a consequence of not having put in enough effort or not having used an effective strategy (read more).

ERP research into mindsets

Since a few years neuroscientists have also started to study mindsets. Two studies (Mangels et al., 2006 and Moser et al., 2011) which used the event-related brain potentials (ERP’s) methodology to examine brain activity after making mistakes. An ERP is an observable electrophysiological response in the brain to events. The researchers specifically looked at two well-known ERPs which are evoked after mistakes: 1) the error-related negativity (ERN), and the error positivity (Pe). ERN is the response which indicates frustration after making a mistake. Pe is the response which indicates focused attention after making a mistake. Together these two studies showed that mindset was no related to ERN but was related to Pe. A growth mindset thus appears to be related to more awareness of and attention to mistakes.

Growth mindset: more attention to mistakes, better performance after mistakes

A new study (Schroder et al., 2017) looked into whether these findings would also apply to young children. With a sample of school children (N=123) they looked into the relationships between three variables: ERN, Pe, and performance after the mistake (post-error accuracy). As expected the children with a growth mindset had a stronger Pe which suggests that they were more aware of their mistakes and focused more attention on those mistakes. Also, they performed better after their mistakes. Theses studies confirm the predictions of the mindset theory that 1) individuals in a growth mindset find mistakes more relevant for their growth, and 2) these individuals pay more attention to processing their mistakes and adjusting their performance.


An important part of having a growth mindset is paying attention to the mistakes you make. When in a growth mindset, you pay more attention to mistakes and you analyze mistakes more thoroughly so that you can adjust your approach. This helps to improve your performance.

Sometimes I hear phrases like: "Don't focus on what is wrong but rather on what is right." While this sounds sympathetic and is surely well-intended, it overlooks something important. In order to learn we must be aware of our mistakes so that we can improve. It is wise to learn and to teach our children that, while mistakes may not be pleasant, they are useful. When we are working with children we must be careful not to avoid talking about mistakes so as to protect the child's "tender soul." Perhaps children are more resilient than we fear. Do not burden children with the idea that mistakes are a taboo. Normalize mistakes. We do not exactly have to start liking them but they are essential.

What do you think?