When making mistakes in not a bad thing

Updated: Feb 17, 2019, 08:38 IST | Jane Borges

With a global project providing social scientists a platform to admit to flaws in their research, has the time finally come to celebrate our wrongs?

When making mistakes in not a bad thing
Julia Rohrer

Sorry, I made a mistake: In Germany-based psychologist Julia Rohrer's world, where research is king, these words of apology, invite nothing but shame and stigma. To say that your study has a few loopholes, could mean a whole lot of things, especially that you are a failure. "But research is all about trial and error; the very idea of getting it correct all the time, could defeat the purpose and process of research," says Rohrer.

What this has created is a science that is non-credible, where imperfect findings are lauded and celebrated as the truth, until someone finally cracks. In 2016, Dana Carney, associate professor at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Business, actually did. Six years after the publication of a widely read study that Carney had co-authored, which showed that taking a moment alone before an important meeting to assume one of two power poses could boost your self-confidence, she had come out and questioned its validity.

Jayaram Easwaran
Jayaram Easwaran

Carney's admission became an entry point for Rohrer's project, Loss Of Confidence, an unusual confession platform, which is now gaining steam among psychologists. What Rohrer, a personality psychologist at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development, is trying to do, is getting her peers to openly admit to flaws in their research. Until last month, Rohrer and team were still accepting submissions on their website. The aim, she says, is to start a new culture, where self-correction is valued as much as success.

Platform for self-correction
When Rohrer led the project in 2017, she remembers that the public response to it had been "overwhelmingly positive". "But, only a few [social scientists] came out and shared statements about loss of confidence in their research. This shows that people are generally reluctant," says Rohrer. There could be many reasons for this. "People are concerned about their jobs, or that sometimes they don't want to jeopardise the careers of co-authors. They also fear being perceived as a sloppy researcher," she says.

Shabnam Aggarwal
Shabnam Aggarwal

The other reason is the fierce competition to bring something new to the table — a problem plaguing most professions. "In certain fields of psychology we tend to get rewarded for coming up with flashy findings that look perfect. Competition for jobs and grants is cut-throat, so people might feel pressured to produce certain results against their own convictions," she says.

But Rohrer finds most of these fears unfounded. "Till now, those who have published their statements with us, haven't spoken about facing negative consequences. I personally feel that the fear of the consequence is often exaggerated. The public reaction or response to self-correction is often positive and accepting. Rohrer was particularly impressed with the admission by Tal Yarkoni, a research associate professor in the department of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, who participated in their project. He described his study on decision making as "absurd " and his theoretical explanations as being "ludicrous in their simplicity and naiveté". "It must have taken great degree of honest, self-reflection of his own work to arrive at this statement," she says.

While the Loss of Confidence team hopes to create a safe space for academics to discuss their mistakes, they understand that public confessions are never easy. "This is no closed room, where a private exchange is taking place. When I think of a safe space for scientific self-correction, I think about a community where a healthy conversation can take place around self-correction. The idea is to create a culture."

Need to reward mistakes
Gurgaon-based author, mentor and management consultant Jayaram Easwaran, while lauding Rohrer's initiative, says such efforts need to be extended to the corporate space, where one is more often than not penalised for making a mistake. There are exceptions, of course. Here, he recalls an incident that took place in the 1980s, when he was heading corporate marketing for Eicher Group. "At the time, I had messed up on something badly. I was so ashamed that I wanted to bury my head in the sand. But instead of sacking me, the MD Vikram Lal, explained to me what had gone wrong and how I could have averted it," says Easwaran, who speaks of this in his new book Inside the C-Suite.

The positive reinforcement, he says, took him a long way. Easwaran also cites how a friend, G Raghavan, CEO with real estate company Bhartiya City in Bengaluru, has started an innovative measure to help in course correction. "During construction, there can be accidents as well as near misses. Often, employees fear reporting near misses. They don't realise that this could snowball into something bigger later. To avoid this, Raghavan has started rewarding his employees with incentives, if they report 'near-misses'. The company then reviews these cases. This is a clear case of how you can get people to admit to their mistakes, without fear or backlash," he says.

Rwanda-based Shabnam Aggarwal, who wrote about her failed entrepreneurial journey after she left her cushy Wall Street job in the US to launch a start-up in India, in her book Freedom to Fail, says the stigma around failure is so huge, that people refuse to even have a conversation about it. "Even when I was writing the book, my family wasn't sure why I wanted to talk about how my start-up failed. They were worried that I was letting failure define me. But it's just me accepting that I have failed, and that I will fail again, and understanding that is important. If we don't talk about it, we are only going to raise ourselves into believing that our mistakes are bad, when in fact, they can be a learning tool."

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