•We report two distinct neural mechanisms for persistence through adversity
•Perceiving control over setbacks increases persistence
•Striatum activity relates to persisting after setbacks by correcting mistakes
•Ventromedial prefrontal activity mediates effects of negative affect on persistenceSummary
How do people cope with setbacks and persist with their goals? We examine how perceiving control over setbacks alters neural processing in ways that increase persistence through adversity. For example, a student might retake a class if initial failure was due to controllable factors (e.g., studying) but give up if failure was uncontrollable (e.g., unfair exam questions). Participants persisted more when they perceived control over setbacks, and when they experienced increased negative affect to setbacks. Consistent with previous observations involving negative outcomes, ventral striatum and ventromedial prefrontal (VMPFC) activity was decreased in response to setbacks. Critically, these structures represented distinct neural mechanisms for persistence through adversity. Ventral striatum signal change to controllable setbacks correlated with greater persistence, whereas VMPFC signal change to uncontrollable setbacks mediated the relationship between increased negative affect and persistence. Taken together, the findings highlight how people process setbacks and adapt their behavior for future goal pursuit.From Whalen and Kelly's review :
The vmPFC is necessary for regulating our emotional responses...in the present study, the negative affect change is the catalyst that kicks vmPFC into a higher gear and effects adaptive change (i.e., persistence)...when negative affect accompanies uncontrollable setbacks, as is often the case, the vmPFC activity is necessary to adapt to the emotional reaction and, in so doing, preserve persistence.
The ventral striatum on the other hand is important for signaling prediction errors when behavioral outcomes do not match our expectations...when we believe we have control over situations, the ventral striatum can use value signals to motivate future behavior...this striatal effect is problem focused compared to the prefrontal effect that is more emotion focused.A fetching point about Paul Whalen's and William Kelley's review is that it starts with the example of two professors currently employed at Dartmouth College.
One applied, and he was hired on his very first try (we’ll call him Bill in this example). Imagine that the other; well, he needed more chances before his eventual hire (we’ll call him P.W. to protect his identity). What dictates whether someone will persist when they encounter a setback? Is it the person who remains calm in the moment, not letting this single event rattle her? Or is it the person who reacts strongly to defeat and heavily reinvests in the project, determined to change things the next time? To borrow from Shakespeare, tell us where is persistence bred, or in the heart, or in the head (The Merchant of Venice, 3.2)? ...Bhanji and Delgado (2014) provide clear evidence of the latter.Guess who Bill and P.W. actually are!