The Super Mario Effect: A Psychological Trick to Help Achieve Success Painlessly

An important life lesson from a familiar Italian plumber.

Dr. Akshad Singi
Mind Cafe

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Photo by Angga Ranggana Putra on Unsplash

About 3 years ago, Mark Rober, a former NASA and Apple engineer and a YouTuber with more than 15 million subscribers conducted an interesting experience leading to a life lesson that changed his life.

Mark Rober asked his YouTube followers to play a simple computer programming puzzle that he made with a friend. The object of the puzzle was simple — to get the car across the maze by arranging the code blocks (on the right in the image) that represent typical computer programming operations.

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Once the player was satisfied with the code, he would hit run and the car would move according to the code sequence. He did this experiment because he said he wanted to prove that anyone from any background can learn to code. 50,000 of his followers took the test.

But the truth was that he had no intention of proving that anyone could code. What his followers didn’t know was that Mark randomly served up two different types of tests.

In one version, if you’d hit run and weren’t successful, you didn’t lose any of the starting 200 points. It showed this message: “That didn’t work. Please try again.” However, if you hit run in the other version and weren’t successful, the program showed a slightly different message: “That didn’t work. You lost 5 points. You now have 195 points. Please try again.”

The minute difference between those two messages unveiled something very significant about the human psyche through the results of the test.

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68% of the people who didn’t lose any points ultimately solved the puzzle yet only 52% of the people who lost 5 points were able to solve the puzzle. That’s a delta of 16%! Another piece of data Mark collected was how many tries the players took before they gave up. The group that didn’t lose any points averaged at about 12 tries, while people who lost 5 points, averaged at about 5 tries.

To put simply, the group that made more attempts saw higher success rates than the ones that made fewer attempts. Which is also true about success in the real world. “Nana Korobi, Ya Oki” — says the Japanese proverb — “Fall down seven times, stand up eight.”

However, the difference between the two groups stemmed from the different messages they were shown on failing. This experiment helped Mark come up with The Super Mario Effect which can help us be more successful in our endeavours relatively painlessly. We’ll discuss it, but first, let’s discuss our current model of failure.

Our Current Perception of Failure

We want to be rich, therefore by extension, we don’t want poverty. We want success, therefore by extension, we don’t want failure. If poor is the opposite of rich, failure must be the opposite of success. At least that’s what our current model is. But maybe it’s broken. Hold that thought in the back of your mind; we’ll get back to it.

I believe it’s safe to assume that we see failure in a negative light. Fear of failure causes us to never try in the first place. Failure can cause us to quit, earlier than we should. Failure, if allowed to be more powerful than it has to be, can even devour our self-esteem.

But maybe, it’s not failure that’s the culprit. Perhaps, it’s how we see failure. For instance, in the experiment Mark conducted, both groups failed, but their failure was given a different meaning in both cases. For one, it was simply to try again. For another, it was “You lost something. Please try again.”

Even if the group was losing points which Mark himself describes as “no value in the real world, no one will ever see these, completely meaningless fake internet points,” they still quit earlier than the ones who didn’t see failure in a negative light.

Our current model of failure is just like that as well. We see failure as bad and painful. We think of it as something that shouldn’t have happened. We think of it as something we’d rather hide from our judgmental neighbours. And when we fail, the world tells us to be optimistic and try again.

But maybe, there’s a better way to look at all of this. Enter, The Super Mario Effect.

The Super Mario Effect

Unsurprisingly, The Super Mario Effect has its origin in Mark’s childhood obsession with the game. Mark spent a lot of his childhood wanting to get to the castle and rescue the beautiful princess Peach.

Mark says in his TED talk, “When it comes to games like this, no one ever picks up the controller for the first time and after jumping into a pit, thinks — I’m so ashamed. That was such a failure — and they never want to try again.” That doesn’t happen. What really happens is they remember that there’s a pit right there and their job becomes to not fall into the pit again. While playing a game, we learn from the failures but don’t focus on the failures.

This is the idea of life gamification or the Super Mario Effect. Playing a game and conquering one level after the other may be hard. It may be a long journey and sometimes, when you’re stuck at the same level, it might as well be annoying. However, it’s never painful. It’s painless. You don’t question your self-confidence each time you fail.

Note: Mark says that this idea is not about optimism. Instead, the idea goes beyond optimism and questions the need for optimism in the first place.

Think about it. To be optimistic, you need something to be optimistic about. And that something, by definition has to be a negative event. This model wants you to see failure not as a negative event, but as a necessary, albeit annoying part of the journey, completely bypassing the need for optimism.

As I said before, we think that failure is the opposite of success just like poor is the opposite of rich. But being poor for a long time doesn’t make you rich. But failing a lot — granted that you learn from the failures — eventually makes you successful.

Failure then is not the opposite of success, but the predecessor. Failure is not the opposite of success, it’s the gateway. Jay Shetty puts it’s best

I actually believe that failure has the ability to lure success. Countless failures are almost doorkeepers to success.

J. K. Rowling had to face 12 rejections only to be accepted by the 13th one. Edison had to fail 1000 times, only to have invented the light bulb the 1001st time. Just like that, you have to fail x amount of times to succeed at anything. And you never know, you might have already failed x-2 times and x, and by extension success, are closer than you realise.

With The Super Mario effect, Mark wants us to see failure as a necessity. He wants us to understand that each failure means that we’re getting closer to our goal. And more importantly, he wants us to see it in a way that leaves no necessity for optimism in the first place.

Final Thoughts

Our current perception of failure is that it’s painful and to be successful, you have to power through the pain. However, Mark’s experiment says that it’s detrimental to see failure in a negative light. Instead, we must see failure as a predecessor to success; a necessity to learn more.

And I understand that it’s much easier said than done. But it’s certainly possible. If we’re to trick our brains into thinking that it’s a game not much different than Super Mario, we can begin to embrace failure, learn more, and consequently find more success in life. And oh, all of that without the need for optimism. Isn’t that wonderful?

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Dr. Akshad Singi
Mind Cafe

12x top writer. Doctor. Published in Business Insider. Using mindfulness to induce an inner revolution. Get in touch: akshadwrites@gmail.com