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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