People often believe that one of the benefits of failure is that it inspires future success. Unfortunately, this does not appear to be true in general, recent research has found.

“People expect success to follow failure much more often than it actually does,” the study's lead author, Lauren Eskreis-Winkler, said. “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.”

It may make people feel better to think we are more likely to succeed after failure, but this idea often has negative consequences.

In 11 experiments involving more than 1,800 people, Northwestern University researchers compared actual national statistics to the participants' predictions regarding the likelihood of success among those who had failed previously across many domains, from healthcare to education.

People's predictions were found to be consistently overly-optimistic, and the benefits of failure were shown to be negligible. For example, in one experiment, participants vastly overestimated the percentage of prospective nurses, lawyers and teachers who pass licensing exams after previously failing them.

The study participants also assumed, in another experiment, that people who had experienced heart failure would embrace healthier lifestyles — exercising more and eating a better diet — but the facts show that many of them don't.

It may make people feel better to think we are more likely to succeed after failure, but the idea comes with negative consequences, Eskreis-Winkler, an assistant professor of management and organizations at Northwestern, explained. “Why would we invest time or money to help struggling populations if we erroneously believe that they will right themselves? People who believe that problems will self-correct after failure are less motivated to help those in need.”

Becoming aware of the actual odds facing those who have failed can help people recalibrate their expectations. In two experiments, people were more supportive of taxpayer funding for rehabilitation programs for former inmates and drug treatment programs when they learned about the low rates of success for people using those programs.

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

The study is published in Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.