A recent study from Rutgers University explores why people react to personal setbacks or negative news in different ways at different times. A setback, such as a bad grade on a test or a negative performance review at work, sometimes inspires people to work harder and improve on their results. Other times, equally disappointing news leads people to feel that the situation is hopeless and they may as well give up. Using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), the study researchers found that a part of the brain known as the ventral striatum is active when an individual receives bad news of this kind. The ventral striatum is the part of the brain that helps us to evaluate prior experiences in order to make goals for the future. During the study, 30 students were asked to play a game while undergoing an MRI. The game involved pursuing a degree, and the participants needed to pass certain tests and complete certain courses. During the game, setbacks included failing tests, over which the students had control, and classes being cancelled, over which they had no control. When one of these setbacks occurred, the students went back to the beginning and chose to pursue the same goal or a different goal.
Feelings of Control Encourage Persistence
The study revealed that the amount of control that individuals believed they had over a situation contributed significantly to their response. When students failed a test by pressing the wrong button, they were likely to stick to the same goal, believing that they could do better next time. When they faced an uncontrollable setback like a cancelled class, they were more likely to abandon their original goal and try something different. When students felt out of control after a personal setback, the researchers observed that increased activity in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex was necessary to keep them from choosing to give up. This part of the brain has a more flexible response to emotions, and can help to overcome the impulse to abandon an activity.
Perception Is Everything
The study’s co-author, associate professor of psychology Mauricio Delgado, believes that the way in which bad news is delivered could play a huge role in encouraging people to be persistent. If the person delivering the bad news helps the recipient to feel in control, the recipient will be more likely to stick with it. For example, teachers could offer resources such as office hours or review sessions to make these individuals feel that there are steps they can take to improve their situation. His fellow researcher, Jamil Bhanji, a postdoctoral fellow at Rutgers, believes that this type of bad news delivery technique could be used to help people from giving up on career tracks or making other hard-to-reverse decisions too soon. For example, it could be used to help women and minorities, historically underrepresented in the sciences, from abandoning science-related careers after a personal setback. In may be that the results of this kind of setback-delivery play a role in trends that are currently recognized but not fully understood, such as why certain groups of students are likely to drop out of school or abandon certain career goals.
Giving Up Is Not Always a Bad Thing
The researchers also note that responding to a personal setback is not simply a matter of avoiding the “wrong” response in favor of the “right” one. Persistence can be positive in many situations, but it is not always the right decision. In fact, our ventral striatum exists to help us identify situations where there is little chance of success and in which we should not expend unprofitable time and energy. That being said, performance feedback that promotes control and persistence could help to ensure that people give up on their goals only when failure is a true probability rather than a perceived probability.