For some people, pressure helps them focus; for others, it makes them more likely to fold. A recent study set out to investigate why bad news can motivate some people to work harder while prompting others to give up. The study found that not only are different outcomes the result of the level of control we perceive ourselves as having over the situation, but that the perception itself determines whether we take one out of two paths associated with two distinct areas of the brain.
Published in the scientific journal Neuron, the researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to examine activity in a part of the brain that guides goals and past experiences (known as the ventral striatum). The authors found that a region of the area they were examining, responsible for regulating emotional flexibility (ventromedial prefrontal cortex), was tied to the quality of persistence. This persistence is believed to be one of the major factors in the difference between those that are discouraged by failure and the ones that are able to use it as motivation. Those who felt more in control over their failure were more likely to show increased activity in their ventromedial prefrontal cortex, making them more likely to stay persistent and motivated to succeed the next time.
With this in mind, it is apparent that much of what causes a person to become motivated or discouraged is due to the context that the failure is presented in. In many cases, the person delivering the bad news has more influence than they think over the person’s future; for those whose job descriptions include a vested interest in the person’s outcome, their delivery of bad news can be vital to the person’s success.
Constructive approaches to delivering bad news
Although sugarcoating is not necessary with most people when informing them about failure, the key to allowing them to handle it positively is by offering them a solution. Whether or not the person actually receives any help is irrelevant – the presentation of an alternative course of action allows the person options, increasing their feelings of control over their situation. By experiencing their failure in less absolute and dire terms, they will be more likely to access their ventromedial prefrontal cortex, enabling them to be more flexible and resilient emotionally, greatly increasing their chances of success the next time. If one simply delivers bad news (especially in an authoritative position such as a teacher or supervisor), the person is more likely to feel a sense of certainty about the results, and thus, more likely to quit instead of trying a new route.
However, this can also work against the person, with situations that seem too indefinite leading to unwarranted hope and futile persistence. For example, some breakups that end without sufficient closure can leave too much uncertainty about its finality, leading one person to continue to waste their energy trying to find ways to fix it.
“There are times when you should not be persistent with your goals. That’s where the striatal system in the brain, which can be a source of more habitual responses, may be a detriment. You keep thinking ‘I can do it, I can do it.’ But maybe you shouldn’t do it. During these times, interpreting the setback more flexibly, via the vmPFC, may be more helpful,” said Dr. Mauricio Delgado, associate professor of psychology at Rutgers University and co-author of the study.
In cases such as these, the person’s ventromedial prefrontal cortex (responsible for persistence) can actually work against them. Being able to ascertain when someone should or should not continue trying is an even more complex issue, and is the subject of further research for Dr. Delgado’s team in the future.
When taken into context with other recent studies that have revealed much of our susceptibility to depressive disorders being linked to a perception associated with a loss of control, the results of Rutger’s study are not too surprising. Our idea of how much control, or perhaps a more appropriate word being choice, over a situation, seems to be very influential to our feelings of negative emotions and motivation not just in the face of failure, but in everyday life.
At Sovereign Health, we base our entire treatment philosophy around the idea that every person is a unique individual with the ability to choose whether or not they want to work towards recovery. If you would like more information, feel free to contact us today or check out the reviews section of our site.
Written by Chase Beckwith, Sovereign Health Group writer