Ellen Langer

There are those people who seem to learn from experience and those who don’t seem to learn anything at all. But even for the former group the lesson is rarely all it could be. Typically, we do something, something happens and we experience some consequence. For example, I paint and drop the brush full of paint on my pants. I’m displeased and conclude that I should wear a smock the next time I paint to avoid this happening again. If we pay attention to a contingent relationship between what we do and what happens, we may try to work to avoid the cause if the consequence was experienced as negative or try to repeat it in the future if we experienced it as positive. There is more going on here, however, than most of us realize.

I was having a conversation with a friend who told me of an awful experience she had had some time earlier. She tried to change the light bulb in her bathroom by standing on the porcelain toilet, when it gave way under her and ripped her leg open. She told me how many stitches she had to have and said she learned her lesson. I tried to think of what she learned before asking her. Did she learn not to stand on toilets; on porcelain; not to change light bulbs; not to try and fix things around her house; not to do try to fix anything without enough light; not to do anything without light; not to stand on anything; not to drink so much coffee before attempting to balance herself; etc.. The list of possibilities goes on and on. For her there was only a single lesson to be learned: don’t try fixing things yourself in a house that’s still in construction.

Most of us suffer a naive realism. We act as if the world exists independent of human presence–it is just there the same way for all of us irrespective of how we look at it. And we engage in a single action and presume it has a single consequence. This makes life seem predictable. As will become clearer, however, we give up control to have this illusion of predictability.

One might counter and say, some contingencies are more important than others. If I put my hand in fire and get burned, shouldn’t I learn to keep my hand away from fire? Maybe, maybe not. But, as with the porcelain toilet, it is but one lesson we could learn from the experience. This raises the question of considering which of the many lessons we want to learn. Most of us don’t realize there is a choice. By becoming aware of our choice we have the advantage of coming to know ourselves better. Why this choice and not another? Our choices move us along our life paths. If we realize there is a choice, we can decide where we want to go or we can ignore the opportunity to decide. If we pay attention to these choices we may be able to get to where we want to go faster regarding our personal growth or we may even decide to go somewhere else instead.

The way we choose to understand our past actions or the actions of others, that is, the attributions we make for behavior, influences our future behavior. If I see your gift as a generous gesture, for example, I feel and act differently towards you than if I see it as a “payback,” or as an instance of ingratiation. Social psychologists have researched the importance of the attribution process for some time. What I am suggesting, beyond the important findings that already exist, is that once we realize there are multiple attributions and understandings available to us, it becomes interesting to /question why we chose as we did/. To continue the above example, Why do I see your action as less than generous when all these other explanations are equally available to me? Do I want to be so untrusting? Experience provides the opportunity for us to learn whatever we want to learn.

I just returned from the train station. I waited until a friend’s train was to arrive. She delayed going to the rest room so we could finish our conversation. Then she headed to the rest room only to find it was now about to be cleaned and the public had to wait. She turned to me and told me she learned her lesson. I asked what that was. She replied, “I shouldn’t buy a lottery ticket today.”

Just think about it: It has been said that experience is the best teacher. If 1) there are always several lessons that could be learned from any experience; 2) we choose which of these lessons we what we want to learn; and 3) we learn about ourselves by considering why we made the choices we made, wouldn’t that mean we don’t have to wait for experience to teach us? Rather, than just grow as a function of learning from our experience, we’d experience our growth as we selected what we wanted to learn.