Our brains work on the principle "if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it" – at least as far as success is concerned.
This is an ancient evolutionary device signaling "keep doing what you’re doing because it feels good."
The Winner Effect
When we are in such a mental groove, our minds are biased to notice positive things – signs of more reward to come – and to remember past successes and pleasures.
This rosy glow of mental positivity, lifts our mood, our confidence, and hence makes us capable of more success. This is part of the winner effect, which is the reason that greatest recipe for success is… success.
In such a state, our minds are future- and reward-oriented and because rewards make us feel good, we narrow the focus of our attention towards signs of more to come.
Success, in other words, physically blinkers us and so limits our capacity to notice signs of… failure.
Psychology of Failure
If success feels good, failure feels bad – painful, even – and goes hand in hand with a drop in dopamine activity in the brain’s reward network. But its effects are much wider than this.
When life stops delivering the rewards we call success, the brain switches into a quite different mode, and with it a whole different realm of feeling and thinking.
This is a state where a tendency to avoidance and withdrawal rules the mind. Bad rather than good memories spring more easily to mind and this drags down our mood and ignites more anxiety.
In such a state we avoid more and hence do less, thus reducing our chances of regaining success – while the failure effect hasn’t been formally named in biology the way the winner effect has, it almost certainly exists.
But there is at least one upside to failure…
When we fall off the success carousel and hit the hard ground of failure, there is one very important consequence.
Our attention zooms out from its close-in focus on future reward to a wide-angle perspective on a suddenly unpredictable and reward-poor world.
In evolutionary terms, this is a red alert to make us scan for new threat and also for means of escape.
This zooming-out of attention happens because another chemical messenger called norepinephrine (also known as noradrenaline) floods our brains.
But an upside of this is that this wide focus opens our minds to new thoughts, perceptions and possibilities – in other words, it can make us temporarily more creative, provided we manage not to become overwhelmed by the stress.
This is because the new wide-angle focus is not just about finding escape – its purpose also is to scan for opportunities for new sources of reward.
Paradoxically then, failure can help us to encounter new possibilities because it forces us to abandon the blinkered focus on reward that repeated success causes.