Why Is It So Hard to Learn From Somebody Else’s Mistake?

Recently, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to drive to Key West from southern Florida. (I know, I know, it sucks to be me. If you’ve done it before, you know what I’m talking about. If you haven’t, I highly recommend it). It’s an absolutely spectacular drive along Route 1, with crystal blue water as far as the eye can see on either side of a long, straight, wide-open road. Really long. Really straight. And really wide open. With a heavy foot on the accelerator and some decent horsepower, one could really cut some time off this trip. Or at least pass that annoying RV piled high with bicycles, kayaks, and fishing gear, going a grinding 40 mph, and towing a rusting, mustard yellow 1994 Pontiac Aztec.

That was probably the same thought that flashed across the minds of many of my fellow drivers…right before they became names on the roadside memorial signs that dot both sides of the Overseas Highway from Homestead to the Southernmost Point.

I’ve been driving to the Keys at least once a year for 20 years. And every time, there’s a big sign with flashing lights that announces how many fatalities to date have been reported. And every time, it’s in the double digits (13 in 2012 at the time of my trip, in case your inquiring mind wants to know). So why do we never learn, even when the evidence is right in front of our eyes?

I started wondering about this as we meandered along behind the RV under cloudless blue skies, taking in the stunning vistas of mangroves, watching the boats from far away and the pelicans from closer up, and counting the small, white signs that represented the site of gruesome tragedies. At least 39 people in addition to the aforementioned 13 had ignored the history of the unfortunate drivers before them—and that was just between Key Largo and Key West.

Never mind the cause of their crashes (yes, the majority are alcohol-related). How about, “Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it”? The sad signs were there. Obviously. How could somebody miss them?

Maybe the answer lies in the dual concepts of “proximity” and “causality.” The ability to learn from our own mistakes is globally recognized: we make a mistake, and the result affects us directly as we are very close to it (“proximity”). There is a direct connection between our action (or inaction) and the consequence (“causality”). This is borne out at a neurological level and can be documented via electroencephalography. Within 50 milliseconds of a screw-up, your brain involuntarily sends out an initial reaction called error-related negativity (ERN) involving the anterior cingulated cortex. This part of the brain monitors behavior, anticipation, reward response, and regulates attention, helping you recognize that an error has occurred. (Also known as the “uh oh.”) The second signal, called error positivity (Pe), shows up 100 to 500 milliseconds later. This signal shows that you are aware of and paying attention to your mistake and its results (informally, the “you IDIOT” response). Numerous studies have shown that we learn more effectively when the ERN signal is larger, suggesting a bigger initial response to error, and the Pe signal is more consistent, demonstrating we are paying attention to, and thus trying to learn from, the mistake.1

 Our ability to learn from others is a little more complex. A 2011 Scientific American article shows that people can learn from other people in a competitive situation—but more from their competitors’ failures (what not to do) than their successes. In an experiment, volunteers played a simple game, modeled after foraging for resources in the wild, against a computer. While the computer was making its move (which simply consisted of changing the color of a box), the live player’s mirror neuron system (a system known to respond to the actions of others) was engaged as if the player him/herself was making the same choice. If the computer’s choice failed, the mirror neuron system of the live player immediately shut down the mental simulation—in other words, the live player’s brain learned from the computer’s mistake so he/she would not make the same error.2 Why? Proximity and causality: the live player was directly involved with the computer player, and the decisions the computer player made directly influenced the decisions and actions of the live player. The relationship between the person and the computer came down to learning “what’s in it for me” by seeing what failure looked like, and acting on that knowledge to achieve success.

So back to those unfortunate accident victims: Shouldn’t they have learned from the examples of their fellow fatalities? I would think that living to see another day would be a pretty strong motivator to trigger the “what’s in it for me” learning response, wouldn’t you? Again, this is all about proximity and causality. If you don’t see the accident, or the fates of the victims don’t impact your life directly, your neurons won’t react the same way. You may feel distressed or sad about the people behind the memorial plaques, but you have no direct experience of their failure and therefore no context for how you could learn from their mistakes. On the other hand, if your brain is sending out ERN signals while you’re behind the wheel, you’re probably already involved in something awful…and hopefully, will have the opportunity to experience the Pe response and learn how not to repeat the mistake in the future. Unlike the unlucky 13.



  1. Lehrer, J. Why do some people learn faster? Wired. 2011. Available at: http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2011/10/why-do-some-people-learn-faster-2/. Accessed June 19, 2012.
  2. Swaminathan S. Monkey see, monkey don’t: learning from others’ mistakes. Scientific American. 2011. Available at: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=monkey-see-monkey-dont. Accessed June 19, 2012.


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