If people master a challenging task, they experience positive emotions. A recent study from our lab finds that the emotional response is shaped by how much people think they are personally responsible for an achievement and characterizes brain activity associated with receiving outcomes in controllable environments.
Experiencing events as controllable is essential for human well-being. This sense of control depends on whether people believe that the course of events is shaped by their own doing and whether they are able to perform the required actions. The new results show that successes that depend on own actions and capabilities, such as hitting the bullseye in a game of darts, make people happier and experience pride.
The study, published in Nature Communications, investigated the emotional reaction to successes and losses in tasks that had different levels of controllability. Previous research could already show that making choices, such as betting on one color in a game of roulette, was inherently valued and preferred over conditions where no choices were possible. The present study extends these findings by letting people solve a task in which they experienced their own abilities and efforts to lift success rates above chance level.
“Such experience of control has been shown to determine whether individuals show effort and how they make career choices. The more generalized belief of internal control is also a well-established protective factor for various psychiatric conditions.” said David Stolz, Ph.D. candidate at Lübeck University and lead author of this study.
Across three studies, altogether 129 young adults completed three different simple tasks that induced varying control beliefs. First, equaling a lottery, participants were asked to click a button to initiate a gamble and to potentially collect a reward. Second, equaling a coin-flip, subjects could choose between two options of which one was later rewarded. Third, subjects were instructed to find the brightest square out of a set of several closely matching squares, providing participants with the idea that only their ability and effort determined whether they would be able to gain rewards above chance level. During all three conditions, small monetary rewards were obtained in case of successes, while the probability of winning was 50% and similar for all three conditions. In between, participants were also asked to report on their happiness and pride. As expected, control beliefs substantially increased when outcomes depended on the capability to perform the task correctly and people reported increased happiness and particularly pride in contexts of greater internal control.
“We think that the experience of pride can shape how people approach novel tasks and how much they prefer environments where they believe to have control. In this line, when people had the option to choose, those who experienced more pride were also more willing to forego money in order to play the task with greater control.” explains Frieder Paulus, assistant professor at the Social Neuroscience Lab at the Translational Psychiatry Unit at Lübeck University who conducted the study together with David Stolz and colleagues.
A complementing functional MRI study suggests that brain activity in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex could be responsible for building the preference for tasks offering greater control. This brain area is closely connected with dopamine neurons in the brain’s reward system and responded to both the level of control and success when people received their rewards. In addition, activity of the ventromedial prefrontal cortex was also linked to the ups and downs in the experience of happiness and pride during the experiment. “This convergent tracking of successes and self-contributions could help people building a concept of worthiness and positive self-evaluation.” said David Stolz. “After all, it is not only important to receive a certain reward. Sometimes it is more desirable to shape the world according to one’s own needs than to be at the mercy of chance, even if the result is ultimately identical”.