It’s not the circumstances that cause us to act a certain way, it's how we choose to react that defines us. One person’s reaction to bad news may make them work harder while another person may quit or give up, and researchers have found it all depends on how much control we feel we have over the situation. The findings, which were published in the journal Neuron, detail how researchers examined the brain’s activity in different situations.

“Think of the student who failed an exam,” said the study’s co-author Jamil Bhanji, a postdoctoral fellow at Rutgers, in a press release. “They might feel they wouldn’t have failed if they had studied harder, studied differently — something under their control.”

If a student believes the teacher slipped trick questions into his exam or the test was an unfair evaluation of how he performed in the class, his lack of control is more likely to lead to dropping the course or giving up studying as hard for the next exam. Using a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine, researchers watched brain activity in the ventral striatum, a region that guides goals based on past experiences.

“You may deliver the news to the student — no sugarcoating, here’s your setback,” the study’s co-author Mauricio Delgado, an associate professor of psychology, said in the release. “But then you make an offer — would you like to review those study habits with me? I’d be happy to do it.’ This puts the student in a situation where they may experience control and be more likely to improve the next time. We wonder why there are fewer women and minorities in the sciences, for example.”

If two students fail a test and one believes it was their fault for not studying enough, they’ll try again, but the other student who believes it was out of their control is more likely to quit. Overcoming these emotions exercises the vertromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC), the part of the brain that regulates emotions and, with practice, can promote persistence in our actions. Researchers have found the way bad news is delivered needs to be more constructive, especially in a classroom setting in order for a student to persevere, try again, and exercise their brain to be better next time.

“Maybe in cases like that it’s fair to say there are things we can do to promote reactions to negative feedback that encourage persistence,” Delgado said. “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.”

Source: Bhanji JP and Delgado MR. Perceived Control Influences Neural Responses to Setbacks and Promotes Persistence. Neuron. 2014.