This article addresses an important but understudied aspect of the recent Great Recession in Europe: the institutional strategies political elites deployed to learn from past policy failures and address accountability, more specifically, truth commissions. We raise two overlapping puzzles. The first concerns the timing of the decision to adopt an economic truth commission: while Iceland established a truth commission at an early stage of the crisis, Greece and Ireland did so much later. What accounts for ‘early’ versus ‘delayed’ truth seekers? The second concerns variations in learning outcomes. Iceland’s commission paved the way for learning institutional lessons, but truth commissions in Greece and Ireland became overtly politicised. What accounts for these divergences? This article compares truth commissions in Iceland, Greece and Ireland and identifies two types of political learning – institutional and instrumental – related to the establishment of a truth commission. It argues that political elites in countries with higher pre-crisis levels of trust in institutions and public transparency are more likely to establish economic truth commissions quickly; this is the ‘institutional logic’ of learning. The ‘instrumental logic’ of learning, in contrast, leads governments interested in apportioning blame to their predecessors to establish commissions at a later date, usually proximal to critical elections.