How do you feel after you have made a mistake? How does our mindset about mistakes affect our performance?
Researchers have studied how the brain responds to errors we make by recording brain activity while individuals carry out a task. When a person makes a mistake, the brain creates two specific kinds of activity.
The first activity the brain creates is called error-related negativity, or ERN. ERN happens almost instantaneously, occurring no later than 100 milliseconds (1/1,000 of a second) after an error has been made. It is as though the subconscious brain already knows we are making a mistake within fractions of a second, before we are even aware of it, and occurs even when we don’t consciously realize we have made a mistake. Many studies have shown that after making a mistake that causes ERN, we respond more slowly the next time we are presented with the same task. This may be because the brain is trying to give itself more time to avoid repeating the same mistake.
The second type of activity the brain creates is error positivity, or Pe. Pe is a brain signal thought to reflect conscious attention to mistakes. Pe usually peaks ∼100–200 milliseconds after an error. This happens when there is awareness that an error has been made and conscious attention is paid to the error.
One of the most interesting and useful takeaways from the research around brains and mistakes is that your mindset affects the way your brain reacts to mistakes you are conscious of. Experiments have shown that people who believe they can learn from their mistakes perform better after making a mistake – when they realized they were making a mistake, they successfully bounced back from their error by changing their approach. Their brains also reacted differently, producing a bigger Pe signal, the one that says “I see that I’ve made a mistake, so I should pay more attention,” Moser said. The mindset, combined with the mistake, yielded better performance.
What does this mean for us?
Studies seem to show that our brains have evolved some clever strategies to maximize outcomes after we’ve made mistakes. Subconscious processes (ERN) force us to slow down after making an error. And awareness of our mistakes (Pe) offers us the ability to adapt and grow. How do we make the most out of mistakes? Adopting a growth mindset, an open-mindedness about mistakes as an opportunity to assess, form a new strategy, and grow from our errors, allows us to capitalize on the unique adaptations of the human brain.
Moser, J. S., Schroder, H. S., Heeter, C., Moran, T. P., & Lee, Y. H. (2011). Mind Your Errors Evidence for a Neural Mechanism Linking Growth Mind-Set to Adaptive Posterror Adjustments. Psychological Science, 0956797611419520.
The Role of the Error Positivity in the Conscious Perception of Errors. Joseph M. Orr, Melisa Carrasco.
Journal of Neuroscience 20 April 2011, 31 (16) 5891-5892; DOI: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0279-11.2011
Francesco Di Gregorio, Martin E. Maier, Marco Steinhauser. Errors can elicit an error positivity in the absence of an error negativity: Evidence for independent systems of human error monitoring.
NeuroImage, Volume 172, 2018, Pages 427-436, ISSN 1053-8119, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuroimage.2018.01.081.