KeywordsTraumatic Brain Injury Problem Gambler Memory Consolidation Traumatic Brain Injury Patient Goal Pursuit
Contextually inappropriate and unintentional repetition of a response or behavioral unit.
In an ever-changing world, humans are faced with two fundamental demands: to persist in the face of distractions and to adjust course in light of new information. These two challenges – stable pursuit of goals and flexible switching of plans – impose antagonistic constraints on cognitive control processes. Someone who is unable or unwilling to ignore incoming information risks becoming so distracted that they fail to achieve their goals, whereas someone who is unable or unwilling to take in new information risks becoming so inflexible that they perseverate on plans that cannot take them where they wish to go. The pitfalls of distraction highlight the reasons why someone should narrow attention and the “good” that can come if they persevere on a chosen course, whereas the drawbacks of rigidity highlight the reasons why someone should broaden attention and the “bad” that can come if they perseverate.
Of the two, greater empirical and theoretical attention has focused on the “bad” and the risks of maladaptive perseveration. However, adaptive outcomes of perseveration in the face of distraction – such as enhanced memory and increased creative achievement – are often overlooked. Inattention to the more positive aspects of perseveration might occur because the term “perseveration” is typically defined in a manner that implies unwanted effects; for example, as a form of rumination, worry, and brooding. There are other forms one might consider, however, such as reflecting, enduring, planning, and persisting. The current chapter thus presents a brief overview of the evidence for both the maladaptive (“bad”) and adaptive (“good”) outcomes of perseveration and calls for greater attention to the moderators that determine which quality one should predict.
Maladaptive Outcomes of Perseveration (“The Bad”)
Numerous correlational and experimental studies have shown the link between perseverative attention and depression, when perseveration has been operationalized as “rumination” (i.e., ongoing and often repetitive thought). Rumination has been shown to be a reliable predictor of greater depressive symptoms and the onset of major depressive episodes (e.g., Nolen-Hoeksema 2000). Critically, however, strength of the link between rumination and depression appears to depend in part on how it is operationalized. Research points to the need to differentiate between the reflective or “pondering” component of rumination (which has been associated with some of the desirable outcomes described later) and the worrying or “brooding” component, which is a reliable predictor of depressive symptoms (Treynor et al. 2003). Ruminative thought is also related to negative affective states, such as grief (Davis et al. 1998), stress (Roger and Najarian 1998), and anger (Rusting and Nolen-Hoeksema 1998).
Pathology and Traumatic Brain Injury
Rumination also has been linked to key differences in brain trauma and pathology. It is well established, for instance, that patients with frontal lobe dysfunction are especially stimulus dependent and perseverate even on simple motor tasks (Luria 1969). Indeed, perseveration during verbal fluency in Alzheimer’s disease and traumatic brain injury patients reflects impairments in working memory (Fischer-Baum et al. 2016), as well as the dysfunction of the executive and/or a deficit in the ability to allocate cognitive resource on a dual task (Sebastian et al. 2006). Various forms of perseverative activity have also been noted among schizophrenia patients (see Crider 1997 for review).
A number of problematic behaviors have been linked with response perseveration. Problem gamblers, for example, show response perseveration in the face of gambling losses, and there appears to be links to brain structure and function (de Ruiter et al. 2009). Evidence further suggests that rumination is associated with problematic health behaviors where individuals persist in the face of the “punishing” consequences of past choices, for example, problem drinking and disordered eating, such as bulimia (Nolen-Hoeksema et al. 2007), and self-harm (Nolen-Hoeksema et al. 2008).
Adaptive Outcomes of Perseveration (“The Good”)
Despite the clear and overwhelming evidence linking perseveration to any number of maladaptive causes and consequences, simple intuition suggests that perseveration will in many cases be adaptive. Indeed, trait rumination has been linked to enhanced ability to ignore distracting information during goal pursuit (Altamirano et al. 2010) and to more stable maintenance of task-relevant information (Whitmer and Banich 2010). Just as important is the valence of perseverative thoughts, as frequent positive thoughts appear to increase positive mood, as well as predict both resilience and life-satisfaction (Cohn et al. 2009). Research in these traditions draws attention to the adaptive aspects of perseveration, revealing a number of “good” ways we persevere.
Perseveration has been discussed as an essential component of memory consolidation. Müller and Pilzecker (1900) proposed the “perseveration-consolidation” hypothesis, suggesting that neural activity initiated by newly learned information perseverates for a while and that such perseveration is critical for consolidating memory. Although it has not become the primary theory of memory consolidation, recent findings provide compelling evidence suggesting that it may be appropriate to restore “perseveration-consolidation” hypothesis (Pelletier et al. 2005).
Creative achievement is another domain in which perseveration, or persistence, may be highly functional. According to the dual pathway to creativity model, creative originality can be reached through cognitive flexibility, as well as through exploring fewer categories in greater depth, that is, through persistence (Nijstad et al. 2010). Truly, in order to create new ideas, new machines, or highly original paintings, people have to invest an inordinate amount of focus and persistence in the task at hand (Simonton 1999). In order to have a new idea, persistence on the topic is needed in order to learn what is already known in the field and what problems or issues could be addressed with new ideas. Even when ideas come in a flash, persistence is required to put them to good use. A considerable body of research suggests that creativity involves the ability to maintain an extended focus. Artists, for instance, spend more time reworking their drawings than do nonartists (Kozbelt 2008). Additionally, people with many creative achievements in the real world show increased levels of attentional perseveration (Zabelina and Beeman 2013), demonstrating that real-world creative acts relate to increased levels of attentional persistence, even if it comes with the cost of perseveration in certain circumstances.
Both the good and bad aspects of perseveration are clearly and amply supported by empirical research, and so moving forward, researchers should turn greater attention to the moderators that determine the role perseveration might have on goals and goal pursuit. They should focus empirical attention on the conditions that determine when perseveration is good and when it is bad, more clearly explicate the specific forms that are more typically good versus bad, and they should draw greater attention to both the precursors and consequences of these different forms of perseveration. Perhaps in the process of explicating the dual nature of this one construct, the term “perseveration” itself will begin to lose meaning and yield to more informative terms – terms that more clearly distinguish the undesired forms and qualities (e.g., “sticking”) versus desired (e.g., “enduring”). At this point, however, there is greater parsimony in studying this one construct, provided greater attention is given to both its good and bad qualities.
Funded by: RFP-15-04 from the Imagination Institute, funded by the John Templeton Foundation (DLZ). Special thanks to Hart Blanton, Ph.D., for his helpful feedback on the original draft of this chapter.
- Luria, A. R. (1969). Frontal lobe syndromes. In P. Vinken & G. Bruyn (Eds.), Handbook of clinical neurology (pp. 725–757). Amsterdam: North Holland Publishing Co..Google Scholar
- Müller, G. E., & Pilzecker, A. (1900). Experimentalle beitrage zur lehre vom gedachtnis. Zeitschrift für Psychologie, 1, 1–288.Google Scholar
- Simonton, D. K. (1999). Origins of genius: Darwinian perspectives on creativity. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar