In Defense of Mistakes

April 17, 2024 BY Dan Ariely

In a world that is hyper-brutal and punishing of mistakes, offenses, and missteps – small or large – on both social media and in real life, it might seem odd for me to promote making more mistakes. Yet, I want to make the case for making more and better mistakes.

I am an expert on mistakes. Not just in the purely theoretical or academic sense, but in the real-life sense. When I was nearly 18, an accident disfigured over 70% of my body with burns, removing nearly all functionality from my hands. I spent the next three years in a hospital missing out on many of the normal experiences of young adulthood. It could have filled me with rage, depression, or regret. Instead, it inspired my life’s work studying human behavior and trying to figure out what we can do to make our lives better. (It also inspired my signature half-beard.)

In my professional life, I have conducted countless studies that just didn’t work out the way I assumed they would. I have left positions under complicated circumstances. I had startups that failed. I’ve had interactions with colleagues that I wish had gone differently. Each of these experiences, while very painful at the time, were opportunities for observing myself and human nature. They became experiences of personal and professional growth.

I have also spent the better part of the past three years reliving a set of decisions I made and actions I took over a decade ago, around a now-infamous study of human behavior using car insurance data. Working in partnership with trusted colleagues, I did what was expected and right at the time. When the findings of the original study were called into question years later, we re-tested our assumptions, publishing results that put doubt on the original findings. When issues with the original data set were uncovered, we retracted the paper. Later we re-examined and replicated the findings, and in early 2024 published two papers that show that the effects of signing first matter (links to the papers are at the bottom of this post), but also that they matter in a more nuanced and complex way. Such is the scientific process. (See link to my official statement about this event).

As I was trying to understand what went wrong with the 2012 paper, people were very quick to criticize and question my professional judgment, casting a shadow over my life’s work. “Where did it all go wrong?” I have asked myself many times a day for the last few years. I have looked long and hard, but given that so much time has passed, I have come up empty-handed, and I simply don’t know for sure what went wrong. “Should I have done things differently?” Evidently. But as I examine all my decisions, I feel that I did the best I could at the time. And I’m okay with that.

Do I wish I did not make these mistakes? Of course. And, not at all. I obviously wish I did not make these specific mistakes, but in general, I accept these circumstances and continue to believe wholeheartedly that mistakes are essential to growth and evolution. Which brings me to my argument: We should all be making more and better mistakes.

What do I mean by that? To start, there is no reward without risk. Think about venture capitalists or investors in the stock market. As they approach their portfolios, they know that getting higher returns necessarily means taking greater risk. Risk, in the context of investing, is about investing in both sure things and in long shots.

Sometimes we also take risks to invest in ourselves or try something new – moments in our lives where we take a leap of faith and hope that things will work out. There is an expectation and understanding that some things will work out and some won’t, but overall, we know that we will be better off for having tried. Succeed or fail, the secret to success is charging forward boldly in new directions.

As a professor, I teach students about the logic, or lack thereof, in taking risks. We do case studies on Amazon’s fail-fast approach. We openly analyze past mistakes to learn from them. We talk about fostering cultures that will help us avoid another O-ring disaster.

There are mountains of self-help books and countless life coaches in the world, each telling us in their own ways that it is imperative to live in service of our desires, free of judgments of others and with more forgiveness for our shortcomings. “It’s okay to fall down. You just have to get back up.”

But the case for mistakes does not end here. It is not just about trying more and accepting more mistakes as the price of learning and success.

I am also advocating for better mistakes. What do I mean by better mistakes? We need to do the wrong thing the right way in order to maximize our learning. Specifically, we should aim to make more mistakes from bold action and fewer mistakes from inaction.

Popular wisdom says that when we look at our life in general, we will feel the most regret over the things we didn’t do. And yet, asymmetrical fear of regret leads us to fear mistakes from bold action more than mistakes from inaction, making us less likely to try new things – and more likely to do nothing.

When it comes to making the case for better mistakes, it means that we should be bolder and a little more fearless, by making a particular effort to make more mistakes from action. Taking calculated risks with a clear objective and having the courage to dust ourselves off if these risks don’t pan out. And try again.

Take, for example, the recent testimony of the three university presidents in front of Congress and the rest of the world. There is no question that this was a tragic performance that set academia back years, at a cost of public opinion that will take decades to rebuild. My sense is that these three university presidents should have dusted themselves off and worked even harder to tackle head-on the violence and hatred on their campus. This of course is a tall ask, and some of their efforts, particularly the more novel and creative ones, might have backfired. Yet, they should have taken more risks and tried different and novel approaches that might have contributed to their universities and to our understanding of how to help people to live in peace and civility with each other.

Sadly, the reactions to their testimonies prompted universities to do the exact opposite. Instead, universities now seem to be working hard to do as little as possible in order to fly under the radar. They seem to be largely motivated by a hope that students, faculty, trustees, and donors will soon forget about this particular war, and maybe even stop paying attention to anything that happens in the world altogether.

If we did more of the opposite of doing nothing and instead took bolder risks, would we more frequently experience the pain of erring, hit ourselves over the head, and say, “Why did I do this?” Sure, we would. But by accepting the downsides of bold action, we also increase the chance that we will learn something useful about how to move forward. If universities took bolder risks, maybe they would have lived up to their social mission and helped all of us better understand how to reduce hate, improve dialogue, and more.

At the end of the day, the progress of society and the success of any individual is made based on the totality of actions. And the biggest enemy of progress is fearing mistakes so much that we end up doing nothing.

To be sure, society can’t function without rules, boundaries, and consequences, but they should be proportionate. We must change the way we judge one another, to allow room for rehabilitation, reconciliation, or recompense. We must promote safer environments for failure, growth, and learning. Otherwise, we will motivate subterfuge among those who try and fail, and instill fear among those who might’ve tried but couldn’t stomach the potential aftermath.

For my part, I am planning on many more years of mistakes. I don’t intend to let fear and regret drive my decisions. I want to keep learning and growing. I intend to continue to make my own mistakes, and I even hope to normalize making more of them. I am optimistic enough to believe that as a culture, we can find a way forward that encourages people to take risks, fall down, and then get back up.

In the words of the famous philosopher, Yoda: “Pass on what you have learned. Strength. Mastery. But weakness, folly, failure also. Yes, failure most of all. The greatest teacher, failure is.”


Irrationally yours,


Links to the papers

Link to the paper “How Pledges Reduce Dishonesty: The Role of Involvement and Identification“: https://tinyurl.com/ycpumrtk

Link to the paper “I Solemnly Swear I’m Up To Good: A Megastudy Investigating the Effectiveness of Honesty Oaths on Curbing Dishonesty“: https://tinyurl.com/53mbn5ws and see also a link to a discussion about this paper: https://youtu.be/AjQ58irCZGg