THE BLOG
09/28/2011 09:00 am ET | Updated Nov 28, 2011

How Your Mind Misinterprets Success for Failure

It probably won't surprise you if I tell you that thinking about your past successes and failures can influence your performance in the here and now. There's nothing like a winning season to give a player confidence going into that last game, and there's nothing like a string of awkward dates to make you nervous about how the next one is going to turn out. But thanks to new research, it's become clear that the relationship between our past and present isn't as obvious as you might think.

Imagine you are about to take a difficult test or undergo a grueling interview. Before you begin, you take a few moments to reflect on some of your past successes -- moments where you really shined. This turns out to be a really good idea, because when you think about the many times in the past when you reached your goals, you start feeling like you've really got something that makes you a successful person.

In other words, reflecting on past successes (plural) leads your brain to unconsciously, and quite naturally, assume that since you are the common denominator in all of those successes, your traits (e.g., your intelligence, creativity, charm) are the reason for your success.

Believing that you've got it, whatever it is, makes you more confident and provides a very real boost to your performance.

Of course, the same kind of process occurs when you reflect on many past failures before embarking on a new task -- you unconsciously assume that something about you is to blame for your bad track record, and as a consequence your performance in the here and now suffers.

No real surprises there, right?

But what if instead of reflecting on your past successes and failures, plural, you just thought about a single success or failure? What does your brain do with just one particular memory? The answer: It unconsciously draws the opposite conclusion! That's right -- remembering a single episode of success can make you doubt yourself, just as the memory of a single instance of failure can leave you feeling more confident.

But why?

General memories, or memories about a group of similar behaviors (like many games won, or many dates gone wrong) lead you to make unconscious inferences about your own traits, because they seem to reflect what you typically do.

Specific memories, on the other hand, are about a single event (e.g., that one win against Central High, that one bad date with Brad). When you focus on a single event, you are less likely to see yourself as responsible for whatever happened and more likely to unconsciously conclude that it was all due to the situation you were in. You beat Central High because their team isn't that strong. Your date with Brad was awkward because Brad isn't really your type.

In other words, memories of a single occurrence in our lives can easily feel like the exception, rather than the rule.

This was nicely illustrated in a set of recent studies. Some of the 117 study participants were asked to reflect on a number of their past successes or failures by completing the sentence: "In general, I'm successful (I fail) when... "

The other participants focused instead on a single episode of success or failure by completing the sentence: "I succeeded (failed) once when I had to... "

Though the study itself was small, the results were remarkable. People who were asked to reflect on their many past successes or a specific failure scored roughly 10 percent better on tests of mathematical ability, as well as verbal, spatial and abstract reasoning, than those who reflected on either many past failures or a single specific success.

Let that sink in for a second. You get the same boost of confidence from thinking about a single time you screwed up that you do from reflecting on the many times you really shined. And you fall victim to the same nagging self-doubt from thinking about that one time you did something right that you do from dwelling on all the times you did everything wrong.

So if you're looking to bolster your confidence and really motivate yourself before your next test, or your next blind date or maybe the next meeting you have to run, remember that it's a good idea to draw on your memories of success, so long as you have a string of successes in mind. That way, your unconscious mind (which is so often the maker or breaker of a great performance) will clearly understand that your awesomeness is not the exception -- it's the rule.

For more science-based tips for finding success at work, in your relationships, and everywhere else, check out my new book "Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals." Or, visit my website The Science of Success. Follow me on Twitter @hghalvorson.