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The Failure Gap

Across 24 studies (N = 12,065 across 33 domains), people exhibited a failure gap: they thought problems and failures were less common than they actually are. People underestimated the frequency of both broad and specific problems at the personal, national, and international level, spanning 33 unique domains. For example, at the international level, participants estimated the rate of 17 problems featured in the United Nations’ 17 Global Goals for Sustainable Development. Across these varied contexts, a failure gap emerged. The failure gap was driven by the relentless positivity of shared information. Newspapers, social media, and other shared information under-discuss failure relative to the true rate at which it occurs. This leads observers to believe problems are less prevalent than they are. In the lab and in the field, the failure gap undermined policy reform for core societal problems (e.g., gun control, paid parental leave) among citizens and global leaders. Encouragingly, teaching the true prevalence of failure reversed these outcomes. Taken together, the failure gap is robust, consequential, and correctable.

Lauren Eskreis-Winkler
The Kellogg School of Business, Northwestern University
United States


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