By Alexandra Sifferlin
September 4, 2014

When you feel like you have some control over your failures, you’re much more likely to continue to try to achieve your goals.

That’s what scientists report in a recent study published in the journal Neuron. The researchers wanted to find out how people deal with setbacks and press on toward their goals. While volunteers played a game designed to measure persistence after experiencing a setback, researchers scanned their brains. The game was formulated a bit like life, where some setbacks would result from the player’s own errors and others were randomly created by the computer. The game looked at whether the participant continued down the path they were on, or if they gave up and tried something else.

The results showed that when the gamers failed by their own fault, the area of the brain that deals with learning via trial and error, called the ventral striatum, responded. That could mean that when people make mistakes by their own actions, they learn from them and forge ahead. However, when the participants experienced a setback that was out of their control, the area of the brain called the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, which deals with emotional regulation, was activated. That suggests that when people encounter uncontrollable bumps in the road, they need to emotionally deal with the setback to move forward, researchers think.

A real-life example the researchers give is a student failing an exam. If the student decides they did poorly because they didn’t study hard enough, they’re more likely to try to do better next time. But if they blame their failures on outside forces, they’re more prone to feeling frustrated and defeated, and they’ll have to overcome their emotions to succeed. How a student responds depends on how they process the blow.

The researchers hope that their findings can help inform learning environments and lifestyle interventions about how to promote persistence. Places like addiction programs or weight loss centers could benefit from understanding how and why people give up, and what it takes to decide to keep trying.

Contact us at editors@time.com.

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