Try Again: Why Some People Persist in the Face of Setbacks

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Whether people continue to pursue their goals in the face of setbacks, or give up, may depend on how much control they feel they have over a situation, a new study suggests.

The study also found that changes in certain brain areas were related to persisting with goals after encountering setbacks.

In the study, 30 college students had their brains scanned while they played a game in which they encountered setbacks on the way to achieving a goal. In the game, the goal was to earn an academic degree, and the simulated setbacks were either a failed test or a cancelled course. Participants had control over whether they "passed a test" — they could pass a test if they pressed the correct button — but they did not have control over whether a course was cancelled. If participants failed a test, or a course was cancelled, they had to start the game over, and decide whether they wanted to pursue the same goal, or choose a different one. [5 Ways Your Emotions Influence Your World (and Vice Versa)]

Participants more often persisted with their goals, choosing to try again to earn the same academic degree, when they perceived they had control over a setback (i.e. failing a test), than if they perceived that they did not have control over a setback (a canceled course).

What's more, activity in a brain area called the ventral striatum was related to persisting with goals in cases where the setbacks were controllable. Participants who showed greater decreases in brain activity in the ventral striatum when they encountered a controllable setback were more likely to persist with their goals.

On the other hand, changes in a brain area called the ventromedial prefrontal cortex were related to persistence when the setbacks were uncontrollable. The ventromedial prefrontal cortex is involved in regulation of emotions, and the new study suggests this brain area helps people cope with negative emotions in order to persist in the case of uncontrollable setbacks.

"When setbacks are uncontrollable, [people] may need to cope with frustration and other emotions in order to persist," study researcher Mauricio Delgado, an associate professor of psychology at Rutgers University, said in a statement.

The new findings may be used in future research to understand why certain groups of students have high dropout rates, or why some students feel they can improve after a setback, while others feel they can't improve, the researchers said.

The findings may also be important for performance evaluations in schools, workplaces and other settings. "Our findings suggest that institutions that wish to promote persistence must pay attention to the way they deliver performance feedback and the way people perceive such feedback," Jamil Bhanji, a postdoctoral researcher at Rutgers University, said in a statement.

The study is published today (Sept. 4) in the journal Cell Press.

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Rachael Rettner

Rachael is a Live Science contributor, and was a former channel editor and senior writer for Live Science between 2010 and 2022. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.