How Does Culture Affect Our Fear of Making Mistakes?

Making mistakes is at the heart of success. A new spin to your dance move, a different layout for your book or an unconventional approach to a project — these are all opportunities to learn, to understand what works or what doesn’t, to reveal what’s inside of you.

And yet… when my professor asks a room full of students what they prefer — learn nothing and receive an A or learn everything there is to know about the subject but receive a C — it makes me anxious when 90% of the class raises their hand for the letter grade.

It’s due to cultural brainwashing that people are lead to believe that making mistakes correlates with stupidity and incompetence. Assuming you were born in the U.S., you’ve probably experienced panic and fear when a teacher asked a question and you sort of knew the answer, but the fear of raising your hand and possibly being wrong influenced you to look down at the floor. Maybe you attempted to answer a question and was wrong, and everyone laughed.

What is it like in other countries? Is it any different?

When studying self-justifcation, Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson, in Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me), presented  an interesting study on Asian schools versus American schools, and how culture plays a profound role in our learning [emphasis by me]:

“So embedded is the link between mistakes and stupidity in American culture that it can be shocking to learn that not all cultures share the same phobia about them. In the 1970s, psychologists Harold Stevenson and James Stigler became interested in the math gap in performance between Asian and American schoolchildren: By the fifth grade, the lowest-scoring Japanese classroom was outperforming the highest-scoring American classroom. To find out why, Stevenson and Stigler spent the next decade comparing elementary classrooms in the U.S., China, and Japan. Their epiphany occurred as they watched a Japanese boy struggle with the assignment of drawing cubes in three dimensions on the blackboard. The boy kept at it for forty-five minutes, making repeated mistakes, as Stevenson and Stigler became increasingly anxious and embarrassed for him. Yet the boy himself was utterly unselfconscious, and the American observers wondered why they felt worse than he did. ‘Our culture exacts a great cost psychologically for making a mistake,’ Stigler recalled, ‘whereas in Japan, it doesn’t seem to be that way. In Japan, mistakes, error, confusion [are] all just a natural part of the learning process. (The boy eventually mastered the problem, to the cheers of his classmates.)”

The findings of the study is simple: Make that mistake.

Approach that attractive person across the room. Start that project. Organize or curate something. Raise your hand. You’ll most likely learn two things on the way:

1) Your insecurities and fears stem from a cultural (and also biological) influence, which is something you can overcome with practice, and…

2) You will probably fail, which is okay, but you’ll learn something extremely valuable… and people may end up cheering you on.

Reference:  Harold W. Stevenson and James W. Stigler (1992), The Learning Gap, New York: Summit; and Harold W. Stevenson, Chuansheng Chen, and Shin-ying Lee (1993, January 1), “Mathematics Achievement of Chinese, Japanese, and American Schoolchildren: Ten Years Later,” Science, 259, pp. 53-58

8 Comments How Does Culture Affect Our Fear of Making Mistakes?

  1. Kristi


    Reading about the boy standing there for 45 minutes, my heart was pounding and I was feeling nervous. At the end when you said that he finished correctly and his fellow classmates cheered for him, I had tears in my eyes.

    If only I could go back 30-40 years and feel supported instead of ridiculed, I might be a different person today. This is a very important lesson for our teachers and our children. I will pass it on.


    1. Dora E. H. Crow

      Hi Kristi,

      We can’t go back, but there are things we CAN do:

      1) We can help others like you said, by passing this lesson on. And we can mentor others in the ways we wish someone had mentored us.

      2) Be kind to ourselves and don’t listen to the naysayers that may be whispering to us in our minds, “It’s too late, I missed my chance… etc.” We CAN each become that person that we want to be. If we are alive, it’s never too late.

      I have found that now that I am older, I have “learned how to learn”. Part of that came from being thrust into areas of work that I knew nothing about, and being determined to master my role no matter what.

      And now we have the option of online learning–and much of it is free. I’ve also been subscribing to online courses at Udemy, which are excellent.

      I think it is important that we are always doing something to move forward, to change, to experience things we haven’t done before.. and, yes, to make mistakes and learn while doing so!

    2. Paul Jun

      It’s funny you say that. What would a reader in China feel? Would they feel any anxiety for the boy simply by reading a story? Looking back on my childhood experiences, no one ever stood in front of the class for 45 minutes. If someone couldn’t get the problem right, they were asked, kindly, to take a seat and another student gave it a try. But these little actions have such profound consequences not just for our culture, but how we lead our lives.

  2. Dora E. H. Crow

    “Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me)” is a great book.

    It is disturbing to read that a majority of students would rather receive a high grade (and learn nothing) rather than mastering a subject and only receive an average grade. I would definitely want the knowledge and training over an “A” !

    1. Paul Jun

      It’s one of my favorites because I caught myself sliding down the pyramid of self-justification often. My copy is covered in post-its.

      As for the classroom, it shocked me but then I really thought about it and realized I shouldn’t be surprised. The culture within education push the idea of checking off the boxes, getting that degree as fast as possible, etc. — not mastery, not patience, not deeply understanding something so that it becomes practical.


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