Fear of failure – another unhelpful cognitive bias

Much is written about how the fear of failure is a strong disincentive to entrepreneurs here in the UK. Most of the explanations are societal – law punishes bankrupts more severely here than in the US and failure carries greater social stigma.

These explanations have always seemed a bit too simple to me, largely because some level of fear of failure is rational. When businesses fail it hurts. Founders suffer emotionally and financially as do many of their employees. Understanding this issue properly requires a more nuanced understanding of what level of fear of failure is appropriate and how to get to the right point, as individuals and as societies.

The following passage from the excellent brainpickings throws some light on the psychology of the fear of failure:

“impact bias” — our tendency to greatly overestimate the intensity and extent of our emotional reactions – …. causes us to expect failures to be more painful than they actually are and thus to fear them more than we should.

Then the article goes on to describe our “psychological immune system” which fights “threats to our mental health” but operates “largely beneath our conscious awareness” causing us to avoid taking risks that might cause us pain, partly by underestimating our resilience in the event of failure.

Thus fear of failure is another cognitive bias.

It’s irrationality is evidenced by the fact that when we look back on life our regrets are not focused on the failures we suffered but the things we didn’t attempt in the first place. Regrets of inaction outnumber regrets of action by two to one.

As with seemingly all things in life there is a balance to be struck. Not taking action leads to regret, but at the same time being reckless isn’t sensible either. For most of us, however, our psychological bias takes us down the path of inaction more often than it should. That’s something to bear in mind.