Imagine that you want to convince someone that she or possesses a particular virtue. You might point out ways you see her demonstrating the virtue. For example, you might remind a friend who worries that she is unkind about her kind words to others or her donations to charity. You might remind a child who thinks he's not intelligent that he's taught himself how to play piano, knows about scores of dinosaurs, and is earning an "A" in English.

Can pointing out someone's courage cause him or her to chicken out?

But in light of courage, reminding others of some aspect of virtue can backfire. In the cult movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail, a somewhat timid knight named Sir Robin is followed by a band of minstrels who sing his praises. Unfortunately, the only aspect of courage they choose to sing about is his lack of fear in the face of hideous physical risks. By the time he actually encounters a foe to fight, he runs away. Why?

Certainly facing real danger is a part of courage. Chris Rate and his colleagues conducted a series of studies designed to find the core aspects of courage. First, they asked participants to describe the behaviors of an ideally courageous person (Study 1). Then, they asked a different group of participants to rate the extent to which an ideally courageous person would engage in the responses generated by the participants in Study 1 (Study 2). A third group sorted the most prototypic behaviors from Study 2 based on similarity (Study 3). Finally, Rate and colleagues wrote vignettes based on the clusters found in Study 3 and had participants rate each on the extent to which it exemplified courage (Study 4). Based on their findings, they concluded that courage consists of four necessary components:

(a) A willful, intentional act
(b) Executed after mindful deliberation
(c) Involving objective substantial risk to the actor
(d) Primarily motivated to bring about a noble good or worthy end (Rate, Clarke, Lindsay, & Sternberg, 2007)

Sir Robin's minstrels make at least two mistakes. First, they make assumptions about Sir Robin's inner emotional state in response to risk. While he has information about his subjective feelings, they do not; hence he is the credible expert on his actual fear level rather than the minstrels, and typically, less credible sources are less persuasive (e.g., Pornpitakpan, 2004).

More important, though, by exploring the risks Sir Robin is supposedly unafraid of, the minstrels seem to actually alert him to the possibilities of new dangers he had not considered. This is where their whole enterprise goes horribly (and comically) wrong: highlighting the risks to Sir Robin actually decreases his courageous behavior.

In our research, we've asked people to describe a time they acted courageously and then asked them if they did anything to make themselves feel more courageous. Answers typically fall into three categories:
1. Reminding themselves of the importance of the goal they are pursuing
2. Planning or even practicing the action they will take
3. Minimizing (never maximizing) the risks they will face (see Pury & Starkey, 2010).

Thus, in self-regulating their own courage people minimize their subjective sense of risk.

And yet, research such as Rate's suggests that when maximizing the perceived riskiness of an action we increase the extent to which we call it courageous. Indeed, a quick perusal of awards for heroism (see and for two examples of awards in the United States) shows us that citations for courage contain descriptions of the extreme and frequently fatal risks faced by awardees.

This disconnect -- between factors that promote courageous action and factors that lead us to call an action courageous -- is the distinction between what my colleague Charlie Starkey and I call process courage and accolade courage. Both process and accolade courage include Rate's other features of intentionality and commitment to a worthy goal, and at this point research suggests that reminding someone he has those qualities should increase both. However, while accolade courage is increased by risk, process courage is diminished by it. So, reminding someone of the risks of an action may make her see it as more courageous, but make her less likely to take it.

Pornpitakpan, C. (2004). The persuasiveness of source credibility: A critical review of five decades' evidence. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 34, 243-281. doi: 10.1111/j.1559-1816.2004.tb02547.x

Pury, C. L. S. & Starkey, C. (2010). Is courage an accolade or a process? A fundamental question for courage research. In C. Pury & S. Lopez (Eds.) The psychology of courage: Modern research on an ancient virtue. Washington DC, American Psychological Association, pp. 67-87. (Psychology-Courage-Modern-Research-Ancient)
Rate, C., Clarke, J., Lindsay, D., & Sternberg, R. (2007). Implicit theories of courage. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 2, 80-98.doi:10.1080/17439760701228755

About the Author

Cynthia Pury

Cynthia Pury, Ph.D., is on the faculty of the department of psychology at Clemson University.

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