Can Everyone Learn From Their Mistakes?

HomerProject leaders talk a lot about learning from mistakes. In fact, it’s an important part of the project management process. However, is it possible that some people have a harder time learning from their mistakes than others?

Time Magazine published an article written by Laura Blue a couple of years ago titled, How We Learn from Our Mistakes, that refers to a common gene variant that affects how some people learn (or fail to learn) from the negative repercussions of their actions.

My mother used to routinely say that I had a couple of friends that never seemed to learn—maybe she was right.

“In a small study,” writes Blue, “…researchers scanned the brains of 26 men as they each performed a simple task: choosing one symbol from a pair of symbols. After each selection, the participant was presented with a smiley face or a sad face, depending on the symbol he had chosen. All men were equally good at learning to pick the symbols that won them a smiley face, but some men were worse than others at avoiding the ones that resulted in the sad faces. Those men, it turned out, had a particular gene variant, or allele, that reduces the density of receptors for dopamine—a neurotransmitter that plays a key role in motivation, pleasure and addiction—in certain areas of the brain. Brain scans also showed significantly less activity in those areas in response to the sad-faced negative feedback, in the men who had the allele. When it occurred, however, that brain activity was linked to activity in other parts of the brain that forms memories.”

This study appears to be the first physiological evidence that the density of dopamine receptors may affect how people learn to avoid the consequences of experienced negative behavior. There have been other studies that demonstrate a strong link between a low density of dopamine receptors and addiction, obesity and compulsive gambling. It would seem that my mom is looking smarter all the time, at least in terms of  the ability of some people to learn from the consequences of bad decisions.

That being said, this doesn’t mean that we can’t all learn from our mistakes. Learning is a complex process that involves much more than one kind of brain receptor. “It’s just one factor that may contribute to some problems that might arise in some people,” said Markus Ullsperger, one of the co-authors of the study. “I think you can compensate for many things without even noticing.”

There are many people who have the allele that Ullsperger studied and never have any trouble learning from their mistakes. It’s interesting to know that 30% of Europeans have the allele (according to German researchers).

This may be simply one more reason why a formalized “lessons learned” or “retrospective” process at the completion of a project is important. Not only because it’s a good idea, but because regardless of your project management methodology or the experience of your team, odds are there is someone that possesses Ullsperger’s allele.

Learning from our mistakes (and our successes) in the project management process is very important when organizations are looking to projects as a means to increase productivity and profitability. Do you have a process in place where everyone on your team can learn from their mistakes?

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