The Effects of the Fear of Failure in Education


Whistling Vivaldi by Claude M. Steele is a narrative of the confirmation of “how stereotypes affect us and what we can do”. The question arose after decades of underperformance by African American students compared to equally competent white students in selective colleges in the United States. A similar puzzle is the underperformance of women with advanced competency in math compared with comparably competent men. Research confirmed that students in both groups are defending themselves against stereotypes which make it more difficult for them to perform to their potential. This extra burden derails learning and test-taking in the most competent students.


Working harder so they do not confirm the stereotype is effective when the task is well within the student’s abilities but not when the task is at the frontier of their skills and requires all of their attention and working memory. “Perhaps the chief discovery of our research is that this protective side of the human character can be aroused by the mere prospect of being negatively stereotyped, and that, once aroused, it steps in and takes over the capacities of the person – to such an extent that little capacity is left over for the work at hand.” p. 214


These influences, like most of what effects our performance and decision-making are outside of our consciousness which makes them difficult to control. Awareness that these influences exist can help. Stepping back and taking time to view the larger perspective has been demonstrated to be useful. Changing our behaviors is difficult, but possible. “One of the first things one learns as a social psychologist is that everyone is capable of bias. We simply are not, and cannot be, all knowing and completely objective. Our understandings and views of the world are partial, and reflect the circumstances of our particular lives. This is where a discipline like science comes in. It doesn’t purge us of bias. But it extends what we can see and understand, while constraining bias.” pp. 13 – 14

While they were not the subject of this book, what effects do the stresses to perform have on young, less-competent students without a history of academic success to support a perception of personal adequacy? Those with learning disabilities, learning-related vision problems, and autism are always being asked to perform at the frontier of their skills – or beyond. These children have less resilience (Resilience) and need to develop the incremental mindset espoused by Carol Dweck (Mind Set). When a child has an incremental or growth mindset they believe that persistence will be rewarded assuming that they have been asked to perform a task which is reasonable for them. Failures are steps along the way. Difficult problems cannot be solved without wrong turns and errors. They are part of the learning process and can stimulate new ideas and new directions. Children with a fixed mindset believe that intelligence and abilities are innate and that errors indicate a lack of intelligence and are to be avoided.

Children do not develop a growth mindset if they fail consistently and are frustrated because additional effort is rarely rewarded. Since they may not use planned processes, they may not know how they got a correct answer – similar to what happens to me with an unfamiliar computer program. They need to learn from hard-won successes that persistence is rewarded and is worth the effort. They need to know that making mistakes is an integral part how we learn and is natural when tasks are challenging. We all need resilience and a perception of personal adequacy for us to persist when challenged. These human characteristics should be a primary consideration in education and in therapy. Content, how it is presented, and the pace of presentation needs to honor these natural human characteristics. Under these conditions the potential for children to understand and assimilate what they are presented is optimized as is the likelihood that they will become life-long learners.