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Persisting in the Face of Failure (or not)

January 6, 2014

A study by professor Kathleen Vohs shows how using chopsticks to move rice kernels has implications in the business world.

Self-affirmation has been embraced as a way to manage stress and anxiety, boost work performance, and even enhance self-control. And the technique--which essentially involves reminding yourself about your deeply held and cherished values--does appear to be more than pop psychology. Numerous studies have demonstrated its beneficial effects.

But can it really help someone deal with failure? Can it help keep them on track to reach long-term goals when you encounter the inevitable roadblocks? Kathleen Vohs, the Land O' Lakes Professor of Excellence in Marketing at the Carlson School examined these questions in recent research.

These questions cannot be examined rigorously via a single experiment or study. The hallmark of her approach is to weave multiple related studies into a portfolio to parse out pieces of the argument. For instance, in one experiment, she asked two groups of participants to use chopsticks to move individual kernels of rice between a pair of plates. One group performed self-affirmation exercises prior to the rice kernel task, while the other simply started working on this obviously arduous task. Each group also performed multiple (some nearly impossible) variations of the task, such as moving a set number of kernels within a strict time limit.

After the task, participants were asked to share their feelings and if they wanted to try the task again. "Individuals who first did self-affirmations were highly motivated to get started," Vohs says, noting that each of her variations provided corroborative results. "But when they met with failure, they lost that motivation. They were more reluctant to re-engage with the task--even if they had the option of using chopsticks held together with a band, which would have made it much easier."

How does moving rice kernels with chopsticks relate to the business world? As Vohs explains, these studies provide deeper insight into self-affirmation. "When people are self-affirmed and repeatedly come up against failures, they'll reassess whether they have the resources to continue battling--and will often conclude that they don't."

"On one hand, that can be seen as a positive, even enlightened thing to do," she adds. "However, some of history's biggest discoveries have come after numerous, seemingly insurmountable failures. In today's business world, where people are often expected to do more with less, I am not sure that disengaging is a good thing."

"Self-Affirmation Can Enable Goal Disengagement"
Vohs, K., et al., Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, (in press)

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