Learning Lab

Why do some people succeed in their goals, whilst others are left behind?

By Amy Brann

Not just realising your goals, but achieving them.

Why is it that some people can more easily succeed in their goals, whilst others are left behind? Why are some people able to overcome hurdles along the way, whilst others find themselves stumbling along? And why is it that some people can achieve success, whilst others are left behind?

There are many answers to these questions. But one thing that can help us understand these differences is the concept of procrastination. Or in neuroscience speak “action control”.

In other words our ability to control our actions in a meaningful way to achieve our goals, whilst not getting distracted by other things, or becoming bogged down in negative thought.

How action oriented are you?

Back in the early 1990s, a researcher named Julius Kuhl proposed that there were two main groups of people – or ends of a spectrum (although of course there are other ways to measure the differences between people). He classed these two groups of people as being “action-oriented” or “state-oriented”.

According to his theory, one way these two “types” of people differ is how they behave in situations where they are required to take action and work towards a goal, especially when they have to do so under pressure. Individuals who are more action-oriented have greater resistance to events that typically trigger a stress response. They are also better at forgetting about bad events, leaving them mentally behind, and moving on to start something new. And they are better at focusing on a task without being distracted by alternative activities. In contrast, state-oriented people are more likely to ruminate about negative events. They struggle to initiate a path of action (i.e. they procrastinate). And they are more prone to switching between different tasks without good reason.

But all this doesn’t necessarily mean that is solely beneficial to be action-oriented. There are circumstances where being state-oriented is useful too. For example, spending more time thinking about the possibility of failure – the “what ifs” in life – means you are more cautious and deliberate in your behaviour – and in turn, you can be less impulsive and risk-taking.

What is going on in the brain of someone who is “action-oriented”?

But this is all at a theoretical level. Determined by studying people’s behaviour without a window into the brain. So do people who are action-oriented versus state-oriented differ at the level of their brain?

This question has been answered by a recently published study which used structural brain imaging to study how the brain’s of people who are more “action-oriented” differ from those who are less action-oriented (i.e. more state-oriented). Specifically, they looked at how the size of different brain regions differed, and how the strength of neural connectivity between those brain regions varied. To do this they first measured how “action-oriented” people were using a behavioural task, and then they measured their brain activity whilst the people lay in the scanner resting.

And they found that people’s brains are structurally different according to how action-oriented they are.

Structural change 

In particular, they found that the size of one region – the amygdala – which has been most commonly associated with the experience of fearful emotions and memories, was larger in people who were less action-oriented, i.e. more state-oriented. This suggests that the people with larger amygdala volumes were, therefore, those who tended to be more hesitant with their actions and were slower to initiate a task, possibly because they worried more about what might happen based on fearful memories of the past.

Also, they found that there were also differences in the connectivity patterns between the amygdala and a region called the anterior cingulate cortex. In this case, stronger connections between these two regions were found in people who were more action-oriented and who were more likely to take the initiative. This anterior cingulate region is involved in various functions related to self-regulation and the strategic control of behaviour and emotion. The coordination between these two regions is therefore critical for emotional regulation, self-control and the suppression on unwanted behaviours or feelings which can hold you back and cause you to become distracted when trying to achieve your goal.

Correlations not causes 

Of course, this kind of result is only correlational. In other words, it doesn’t necessarily mean that these observed structural changes cause the individual differences in action-orientation. It just tells us that there is a correlation between these two variables, which could, in turn, be explained by a third factor which wasn’t measured in this particular study.  But it is interesting all the same that researchers have found some specific structural changes in the brain – whether driven by genetics or by life experience (or by both) – which manifest themselves as differences in someone’s ability to succeed in their goals or to suppress the unwanted forces of procrastination.

It also highlights the importance of 3 key elements of goal pursuit and success:

  1. Emotional regulation. Being able to move on from past failures, overcome doubts and fears, and deal with uncertainty helps you to move forward towards your goals, rather than dwelling on the past or become stuck in the present.
  1. Self-control and initiation. Being disciplined through mental self-control allows you to proactively take control of your behaviour and initiate actions according to your own internal goals and desires, rather than just reactively responding to external events and experiences you come across without the necessary long-term planning.
  1. Focus. Being able to sustain your attention over time, and block out unnecessary distractions which delay you or cause you to get momentarily sidetracked,       means you are more likely to stay on task, achieving your goals more quickly and efficiently.

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