How we learn from mistakes can lead to fear

How we learn from false expectations we encounter in the real world varies from person to person. While some develop an optimistic view of life, others may adopt a more pessimistic view.

Psychology researchers have analyzed how predictions and expectations can affect people’s moods and outlook in a controlled laboratory setting, but University of Miami researchers decided to investigate the highs and lows of human expectations through what matters most to undergraduate students—their exam grades.

“Whether we’re aware of it or not, we always form expectations,” said Aaron Heller, senior author of the study and associate professor in the Department of Psychology. “If our expectations turned out to be wrong, they become a learning signal that we use to form better expectations in the future.”

While previous lab-based prediction error studies used simulated scenarios, Heller and his team decided to take a more realistic approach by analyzing students’ expectations about their test grade predictions while attending a chemistry class at the University of Miami.

To help the researchers collect the data, the students agreed to split their grades on four exams taken during the semester. After each exam, the students sent Heller and his team the expected grade (from zero to 100) for that exam. In smaller laboratory studies examining how individuals learn from these expectation violations, data has shown that people exhibit what is known as an “optimistic learning bias,” meaning they tend to learn more from positive than negative surprises.

Heller also found similar results in her study with students. In general, most students exhibited an optimistic learning bias, learning more when they were better than expected than when they were worse. However, there was another group of students who were more pessimistic throughout the semester.

READ :  The author describes the connection to the wilderness in memoirs of adventure

“When the more optimistic students received a lower-than-expected score, they adjusted their expectations accordingly, but did not overcorrect on the next exam after those disappointments. But the more pessimistic students were more likely to predict that they would get a lower score on a later exam, even if their final grade was slightly better than they had predicted,” Heller said. “As a result, they were overall less accurate about what they expected and, based on their learning behavior, predicted whether students would develop anxiety symptoms later in life.”

Essentially, the study provides evidence that individuals’ positive and negative emotions were driven not just by the exam grades they received, but by what they expected to receive.

“Helping people have more accurate expectations is an important treatment option for things like anxiety and depression,” Heller said.

– This press release was originally published on the University of Miami website

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *