Even though they're unpleasant, we feel negative emotions for a reason: They likely played an important role in human evolution and survival.
Negative emotions tell us to pay attention, signaling that something's wrong — with our body, with our environment, with our relationships.
So if you avoid negative emotions, you also might be avoiding the thing that needs your attention. Could deciding to focus on the negative emotions associated with failure lead to thoughts about self-improvement — and, with time, actual improvement?
We designed a series of experiments to test this question.
In the studies, we used something called a two-stage paradigm: First participants attempted a task in which they failed; then — after series of unrelated tasks — they would have the opportunity to redeem themselves.
In one, we asked our participants to search the internet for the lowest price for a particular blender brand and model (with the possibility of winning a cash price if they were successful). In reality, the task was rigged. At the end, the participants were simply told that the lowest price was US$3.27 less than what they had found.
We then asked half the participants to focus on their emotional response to having failed, while the other half were instructed to focus on their thoughts about how they did. Then we asked them to reflect, in writing, on how they felt.