- Courage is a complex trait that is influenced by a variety of factors, including risk propensity.
- Courageous behavior seems to go hand-in-hand with extraversion, agreeableness, and resilience.
- Courage also seems to be a strong marker of altruism.
Picture this: Suppose you work for a company whose mission is to create products that put the environment first. You find out that one of the main, manufactured products is harming local water resources and affecting populations of various local species of wildlife.
This is all based on an internal research project that is intentionally not being publicized. How likely are you to do each of the following:
- Speak with a supervisor or high-level administrator about this.
- Generally, ignore the situation.
- Talk with others outside your organization about this situation to make them aware.
- Talk with others outside your organization to solicit guidance on how to proceed.
- Do whatever it takes within your power to rectify this situation.
Based on a recent study conducted by my research team (see Garcia, Lopez, Longo, & Geher, 2023), people actually vary quite a bit on the above questions. Some admit readily that they would simply ignore the situation, while others are adamant that they would blow the whistle relentlessly.
The scenario presented was designed to address what we call “Courage in Action.” While it is not an index of actual behavior, it is what we might refer to as a “behavioroid” measure as it approximates at least what people believe they would be likely to do when faced with such a situation. Would they act courageously, in spite of the obvious risks that would go along with such behavior (such as possibly losing one’s job, etc.)? Or would they, rather, turn a blind eye and mind their own business (arguably displaying less courage in action)?
The study described here focused very much on the psychological correlates of courage. Courage seems to be one of these universally valued attributes. Simply, we tend to hold courage in higher regard than cowardice in general.
With this all in mind, we sought to design a study that could allow us to examine the correlates of courage. In other words, we designed a study to see what attributes in people are likely to predict courageous acts—and which attributes seem to do quite the opposite.
Based on an online survey that was distributed internationally (with a sample size of over 1,000 adults from various walks of life), we were able to discern predictors of two basic kinds of courage.
One measure we had of courage was the "Courage in Action" measure, which included three total scenarios in which participants were faced with moral work-related quandaries that allowed for variable degrees of courageous action.
Further, partly based on ideas on courage inspired by the model of courage that Kyle Hermans has articulated for the company BeCourageous, as well as a summary of empirical work on resilience and courage presented by Bruce Smith (Smith et al., 2008), we developed eight brief scales of personality facets, which we may think of as critical to understanding the substrates of courage.
These concepts include:
- reputation as a courageous individual
- moral courage (focusing on “doing the right thing”)
- self-efficacy in courage (or the tendency to think that you are capable of engaging in courageous behaviors)
- physical courage (or the tendency to actually take physical actions to effect courageous outcomes)
- everyday courage (or the tendency to be courageous simply in everyday life)
- reactive courage (characterized by taking courageous actions in response to external events)
- proactive courage (which exists when someone goes out of their way to take courageous actions to ward off future problems)
- consciousness regarding courage (or whether people tend to report having courage in mind as they navigate through life)
So we had two basic kinds of courage measures: the "behavioroid" and "Courage in Action" items, as well as the self-reported trait measures of the eight facets of courage presented.
In a personality study of this kind, it is typical to have what is often referred to as “predictor variables,” or variables that you, the researcher, think may significantly predict scores on the outcome measures of interest. In this study, our primary predictor variables included the Big Five personality traits (open-mindedness, extraversion, emotional stability, agreeableness, and conscientiousness; Gosling et al., 2003), as well as measures of risk propensity (i.e., tendencies toward riskiness in behavior—Wilke et al., 2014) and resilience (Smith et al., 2008).
What Traits Correlate With Courageous Actions and Traits?
For the most part (with one important exception), we found that the same personality traits that predicted courage conceptualized as "Courage in Action" were the same traits that predicted the self-reported indices of the facets of courage (as described above).
In sum, our analyses suggested that the following personality attributes tend to go with courageous actions and traits: extraversion, conscientiousness, open-mindedness, agreeableness, emotional stability, and resilience. These traits, in fact positively predicted scores on both the Courage in Action indices as well as the trait indices of courage.
That said, there was a critical variable that, in fact, played out very differently between the Courage in Action measures and the trait measures of courage. That variable pertained to risk propensity, or the tendency to engage in risky behavior.
Interestingly, we found that risk propensity seems to be negatively related to self-reported courage. People who see themselves as risky scored relatively low on our measures of trait courage.
However, when it came to Courage in Action, risk propensity behaved quite differently. People who scored relatively high on risk propensity tended to score relatively high on our Courage in Action items.
This pattern of findings, taken together, has some interesting implications regarding the relationship between risk propensity and courage. Maybe when it comes to describing one’s own risk tendencies, people who are measured and low in risk propensity tend to shy away from describing themselves as highly courageous.
However, when it comes to situations that demand actual action (such as calling out a supervisor for an ethical breach), it is actually the risky folks among us who are most likely to step up and take courageous actions that may well come along with adverse consequences.
Courage as Altruism
From an evolutionary perspective (Geher & Wedberg, 2022), we might see courage in a slightly different light. Perhaps courage and the tendency to engage in courageous acts evolved to motivate people to take measured risks in ways that benefit not only themselves but also their particular tribes or groups. Sometimes a courageous act may incur costs for an individual while, concurrently, leading to benefits for those close to the individual (such as kin members and long-standing allies, etc.). From this vantage point, courage starts to look a lot like our evolved altruistic psychology.
Courage. It’s one of these traits that seems desirable across the board. But what exactly is it? And what factors predict it?
In our study on this topic (see Garcia et al., 2023), we found that courage seems to go with a broad suite of positively valenced personality attributes, such as agreeableness, conscientiousness, and resilience.
Importantly, we also found that risk proclivity seems to be a critical factor when it comes to different kinds of courage. When it comes to simply self-reporting courage, riskiness seems to go with relatively low levels of courage. On the other hand, when it comes to actual courageous acts, it seems that courage and risk tendencies go hand-in-hand.
And let’s face it: At the end of the day, when it comes to an attribute such as courage, what you do speaks volumes more than how you describe yourself. From this angle, perhaps measuring courage in relatively action-oriented ways is simply a best practice.
So if you want to harness your inner courageous hero, I’d say to nurture your outgoing, open-minded, and resilient self and don’t be afraid to take risks. You’re likely to benefit along with those around you. If it weren’t for courageous risk-takers in our past, we might not even be here at all right now. Think about that.
Garcia, S., Lopez, S., Longo, K., & Geher, G. (2023). Are we evolved to be courageous? A study of the psychological correlates of courage. Presentation given at annual meeting of the NorthEastern Evolutionary Psychology Society. April, New Paltz, NY.
Geher, G. & Wedberg, N. (2022). Positive Evolutionary Psychology: Darwin’s Guide to Living a Richer Life. New York: Oxford University Press.
Gosling, S. D., Rentfrow, P. J., & Swann, W. B., Jr. (2003). A Very Brief Measure of the Big Five Personality Domains. Journal of Research in Personality, 37, 504-528.
Smith, B. W., Dalen, J., Wiggins, K., Tooley, E., Christopher, P., & Bernard, J. (2008). The brief resilience scale: assessing the ability to bounce back. International journal of behavioral medicine, 15(3), 194-200.
Wilke, A., Sherman, A., Curdt, B., Mondal, S., Fitzgerald, C., & Kruger, D. J. (2014). An evolutionary domain-specific risk scale. Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences, 8(3), 123–141. https://doi.org/10.1037/ebs0000011
Note: This study was inspired by conversations with Kyle Hermans and Shannon Geher of BeCourageous and we very much appreciate their supportive nature across the duration of this project.
Also, note that I wrote this piece with extensive consultation with several members of my research team—particularly Sarai Garcia, Julia Lombard, Sergio Lopez, and Kaitlyn Longo. An academic manuscript regarding these data is currently in preparation.