It is really difficult to learn from experience. Whether that experience is a good or a bad one, whether its personal or at work.
The reason it is so hard is down to “hindsight bias”. This is the very human instinct to justify what has just happened to you (good or bad) in a way that makes sense of your world. And it is so strong that we will bend facts to fit it and create stories around them.
Just watch any episode of Deal or No Deal and you can immediately see this in action.
Every emotion seems to be generated in an episode of Deal or No Deal. There is greed, hope, faith, pragmatism, superstition, desire, joy and hatred.
I only catch it occasionally, but I think it would be too emotionally draining to watch it every day even if I could.
For those few people who have yet to discover it Deal or No Deal is Noel Edmonds’ reincarnation as guardian of hope and pastor of dreams. Running since 2005 in the UK on Channel 4, it runs in some format or other worldwide from Albania to Zimbabwe. The games are explained in detail at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deal_or_No_Deal or you can watch episodes at http://www.channel4.com/programmes/deal-or-no-deal.
The crux of the game is that the contestant has to choose several times between taking the deal offered by the banker (a known amount of money) or the continued pursuit of an unknown but possibly much larger amount.
Two things stand out as you watch the show. First that the banker uses behavioural nudges to an exemplary level in order to persuade the contestant to do a deal for their box. In one recent episode where the contestant talked about his aim being able to go on a dream holiday to Greece, the Banker offered the holiday as well as a sum of money to close the deal. And the contestant caved in, faced with a concrete holiday as an offer rather than just money.
Second in every episode the person playing the game creates a narrative that justifies the outcome. At the outset of the show, every contestant will assume that they might have the maximum amount within the box in front of them. They then will have some “reason” for picking out specific boxes. If the boxes run as the contestant hopes, that piece of random luck will seem like a massive achievement on the part of the contestant. When the boxes (as usual) fail to live up to their early promise the contestant with Noel Edmonds’ help, will start to come up with “reasons” for their failure. Often the other participants in the show are notionally blamed and will apologise for instance for opening high value boxes. Or it will turn out that a high value box opened will have been had the number matching the birth date of a wicked ex wife or boyfriend. Story after story is narrated at the show’s website: http://www.dealornodeal.co.uk/news/newsstory/.
My dad and mum watch Deal or No Deal regularly. My mum – who loves a good story – with fascination for every human emotion is reflected. My dad – somewhat of a stoicist – with some disgust, regularly shouting at the TV, for the ridiculous way in which random events are interpreted with hindsight.
Clearly the show doesn’t attract rationalists either as viewers or to participate. But if ever you need to remind yourself how easy it is in retrospect to justify chance with a story, then Deal or No Deal is the place to do it. Beware Hindsight Bias if you hope to learn from experience.