Mistakes are a part of life, they help us grow, improve and change our old behaviour. But no matter how hard we try, sometimes we struggle to learn from our mistakes and make the same errors over and over again. For example, people continue to date the same kind of people, or cheat on their existing partner, or buy things which they don’t require or even indulge in overeating.
Research suggests that emotions and behavioural actions influence the act of making the same mistakes over and over again. As we learn new behaviours, whether good or bad, our brain forms neural connections, these connections/pathways allow us to remember and recall how to complete an action. Progressively, as we repeat the same behaviour, it becomes stronger and more efficient. This is how habits are formed- the more reinforced and stronger are the neural pathways, the stronger the habit becomes.
We often tend to repeat the same mistakes when we are under stress. This is because under stress we tend to retreat to the habits of emotional regulation formed in toddlerhood. A toddlers brain is predominated by emotions and feelings and not by logical reasoning and facts.
Research says that emotions play a major role in guiding our actions at least till the age of 25 till the prefrontal cortex (a region of the brain which helps in making rational and objective decisions) is fully developed. This means that while decision making is linked to our emotions throughout our lives, it is more profound when we are young. Hence, our long-term habits often have an emotional aspect.
Sigmund Freud, the founder of Psychoanalysis, referred to the process of repeating the same mistakes as “Repetitive Compulsion”- the drive to repeat mistakes from past, hoping that this time they would turn out differently, but the truth is that they rarely do.
According to research, our brain often slows down the decision making process when confronted with a similar issue, this is known as “post-error slowing” and does not guarantee an accurate decision. In order to understand this phenomenon, researchers at NYU conducted experiments monitoring the brain activities of humans and monkeys while they made mistakes during a computer game. They concluded that while they took time to make their subsequent decisions, the accuracy of their decisions did not change. According to Roozbeh Kiani, an assistant professor at the New York University, “the brain gets involved in the quest to understand why the error took place? Did something about world change? Is there something wrong with me?” This tends to distract the brain from the decision-making process and make the same mistake over and over again.
So the reason we keep making the same mistakes repeatedly is that we tend to slip back to the already existing neural pathway by default. So it’s best not to try and learn from our previous mistakes because remembering them would only strengthen our neural pathways and encourage us to go down the same road. It’s better to think about a situation from a different angle and form newer neural pathways which will lead us down to a more successful road.