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The role control plays in persistence

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I’ve written a few times recently about the importance of your mindset when it comes to tackling challenging things.  Under such circumstances it seems inevitable that you will encounter setbacks and failure along the way, and it’s how you handle such setbacks that often defines your success.  Think of each setback as a reflection on yourself and it’s less likely that you’ll learn from them and improve as if you regard the setback as an opportunity to get better.

A recent study suggests that control may also play a big role in how you react.  The study found that there are certain areas of the brain that fire into action when we persist with goals, despite encountering setbacks alone the way.

The study saw participants placed inside brain scanners whilst they played various games.  The games would typically involve participants encountering setbacks on the way towards achieving their goal.  In this instance, the goal was to earn a degree, with setbacks including failing a test or seeing the course cancelled.

Here is where the control aspect comes in.  For the test element of the game, each participant could press a button to ensure they passed the test successfully.  They had no such control over whether the course was cancelled.  Failure in either element however would result in losing the game, at which point each participant was asked if they wanted to play again or do something else.

It transpired that the participants were much more likely to play the game again when they had control over the outcome (ie they failed the test) rather than in situations where they lacked any control at all.  Which kind of makes sense.

What was interesting however was that when participants persisted with the game, the ventral striatum area of the brain became less active, and the less active it became, the more likely the player was to continue.

“When setbacks are uncontrollable, [people] may need to cope with frustration and other emotions in order to persist,” the researchers said.

The researchers suggest that the findings may prove valuable to managers hoping to understand why certain tasks receive high dropout rates, or indeed why some people persist more in the face of adversity than others.  Alas, they aren’t quite so forthcoming with practical ramifications of their neurological findings, other than their recommendation that feedback be couched in such a way as to retain a vestige of control.

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