Profiles in (Everyday) Courage

How to be socially courageous.

Posted May 17, 2019

When we think of stories of courage, we picture acts of bold heroism, like Mamoudou Gassama, a migrant from Mali, speedily scaling five balconied stories of a Paris apartment building last May to save a dangling infant.

However, in daily life, opportunities to be physically courageous like this are rare. And frankly, unlike Gassama, nicknamed by media “The Spiderman of Paris,” most of us would be at a loss to scale more than a few flights of stairs when the elevator goes kaput.

The thing is, every day, we’re presented with opportunities to show social courage—to stand up for ourselves and our interests at work and in our personal lives. Unfortunately, if you’re like many of us, you let fear take over, and you treat many of these challenges not as the opportunities they often are, but as social deathtraps you must avoid at all costs.

In fact, as I write in my "science-help" book "Unf*ckology: A Field Guide to Living with Guts and Confidence," you don’t have to let fear be the boss of you. To put it another way, the fact that you feel fear should not be considered a good enough reason to listen to it and let it dictate your behavior.

 Ryan McGuire, Gratisography
Source: Ryan McGuire, Gratisography

In fairness to fear, it has been our faithful guide and physical protector throughout human history—rising up to get us to rethink taking that shortcut through the dark woods or a sketchy alley.

Socially, fear’s had a long history of protecting our standing with other humans, like by talking our ancestors out of sneaky, uncooperative behaviors that might have gotten them kicked out of their hunter-gatherer band—forcing them to go it alone in an environment not exactly rife with Airbnbs and 7-Elevens.

However, there are many times in modern life when it’s in our best interest to override our fears, and especially our social fears, instead of obediently complying. Our fears mean well—really they do. But they often overreact in harmfully overprotective ways, because they’re operating on outdated information.

The psychological operating system still driving human behavior is calibrated (that is, “adapted”) for solving mating and survival problems in the ancestral environment, which means it’s often ill-suited for the 21st-century situations we find ourselves in. And we can’t just point to our Apple watch and be all “Yoohoo, Evolution... get with the program!” As evolutionary psychologists Leda Cosmides and John Tooby note, “Even relatively simple changes” in human psychology “can take tens of thousands of years” to evolve.

This means that we need to be vigilant in looking at what we’re afraid of, so we can keep fear from overprotecting us out of opportunities. Borrowing the London subway platform warning, we need to “Mind the gap!”—the mismatch between the ancestral world in which our psychology evolved and the world we’re now living in. This tells us when we should listen to our fears and stand down and when we should flip them the bird, take a deep breath, and do the thing that scares us.

For example, say you’re a guy, and you hit on a girl in a bar, and it goes badly. “Badly,” as in she blows you off in a publicly humiliating way. Your evolved emotions, protecting you like it’s, oh, minus 200,000 years ago, make you want to go crawl under a table and die. Their motivating you to retreat would have been in your ancestral-era best interest—as ancestral humans typically spent much of their lives with the same band of 25 to 50 people.

In that environment, if you got publicly shamed by a woman you were hitting on, that could become how you’d be known in your community—forever. (Think Native American-style names like “He Who Wears Ladies’ Drinks” or “Penis Carried Off By Eagle.”)

However, in situations today, taking into account the evolutionary mismatch could get you to the important realization: “Oh, wait—all these witnesses in the bar are strangers. I could walk out of here and never see them again. Plus, there are six more bars within a two-block radius, and nobody in them saw me get owned by that rotten woman I hit on.”

Applying “mind the gap” thinking to all of your social challenges can be transformative. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that “Action is character.” Modern neuroscience and social science research find that action also becomes character:

In other words, the more you make yourself engage in these small acts of everyday heroism, the more natural—the more automatic—behaving that way becomes. I call it the “fear is not the boss of me” way of living. Make it your practice, and in time, it should become clear that the secret to being brave isn’t being fearless; it’s refusing to listen to fear when it tells you to shut up about your latte being made wrong, lest the barista chase you out of Starbucks with a broom.

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LeDoux, J. E. (2012). Evolution of human emotion: a view through fear. In Progress in Brain Research (Vol. 195, pp. 431-442). Elsevier.

Sznycer, D., Tooby, J., Cosmides, L., Porat, R., Shalvi, S., & Halperin, E. (2016). Shame closely tracks the threat of devaluation by others, even across cultures. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 113(10), 2625-2630.

Sznycer, D., Xygalatas, D., Agey, E., Alami, S., An, X. F., Ananyeva, K. I., ... & Fukushima, S. (2018). Cross-cultural invariances in the architecture of shame. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 115(39), 9702-9707.

Li, N. P., van Vugt, M., & Colarelli, S. M. (2018). The evolutionary mismatch hypothesis: Implications for psychological science. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 27(1), 38-44.

Hebb, D. O. (1949). The Organization of Behavior: a neuropsychological theory. A Wiley Book in Clinical Psychology, 62-78.

Alkon, A. (2018). Unf*ckology: A Field Guide to Living with Guts and Confidence. St. Martin's Press.