The illusion of courage: Why people mispredict their behavior in embarrassing situations

January 17, 2012

Whether it's investing in stocks, bungee jumping or public speaking, why do we often plan to take risks but then "chicken out" when the moment of truth arrives?

In a new paper in the Journal of Making, scientists from the University of Colorado Boulder and Carnegie Mellon University argue that this " of courage" is one example of an " gap"— that is, our inability to imagine how we will behave in future emotional situations. According to the empathy gap theory, when the moment of truth is far off you aren't feeling, and therefore are out of touch with, the fear you are likely to experience when push comes to shove. The research team also included Cornell University's David Dunning and former CMU graduate student Ned Welch, currently a consultant for McKinsey.

In a series of three experiments, the researchers found that people overestimate their willingness to engage in psychologically distant embarrassing public performances, and also found that they could reduce this illusion of courage by inducing immediate emotions that effectively put them in touch with the fear they would experience.

In the first two experiments, college students were asked if they would be willing to engage in a future embarrassing situation — telling a funny story to their class in one study, and dancing to James Brown's "Sex Machine" in front of the class in the other — in exchange for a few dollars. Students were either asked outright or after being exposed to short films that aroused mild experiences of fear and anger. Students who did not view movie clips significantly overestimated their willingness to sing or dance. When they experienced negative emotions — fear and anger — as a result of watching the movie clips, students were much more accurate in predicting their own future lack of interest in performing.

"Because social anxiety associated with the prospect of facing an embarrassing situation is such a common and powerful emotion in everyday life, we might think that we know ourselves well enough to predict our own behavior in such situations," said Leaf Van Boven, associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Colorado Boulder. "But the ample experience most of us should have gained with predicting our own future behavior isn't sufficient to overcome the empathy gap — our inability to anticipate the impact of emotional states we aren't currently experiencing."

The illusion of courage has practical consequences. "People frequently face potential embarrassing situations in everyday life, and the illusion of courage is likely to cause us to expose ourselves to risks that, when the moment of truth arrives, we wish we hadn't taken," said George Loewenstein, the Herbert A. Simon University Professor of Economics and Psychology within CMU's Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences. "Knowing that, we might choose to be more cautious, or we might use the illusion of courage to help us take risks we think are worth it, knowing full well that we are likely to regret the decision when the moment of truth arrives."

Explore further: Crossing the line: What constitutes torture?

Related Stories

Crossing the line: What constitutes torture?

April 13, 2011

Torture. The United Nations defines it as the “infliction of severe physical or mental pain or suffering.” But how severe is severe? That judgment determines whether or not the law classifies an interrogation practice ...

Who takes risks?

July 26, 2011

(Medical Xpress) -- It’s a common belief that women take fewer risks than men, and that adolescents always plunge in headlong without considering the consequences. But the reality of who takes risks when is actually ...

Depression study reveals two sides to illusion of control

September 9, 2011

(Medical Xpress) -- A study into depression is shedding new light on a fascinating facet of human psychology - that we can readily delude ourselves into thinking we control events, even when we know we do not.

Recommended for you

Serious research into what makes us laugh

November 24, 2015

More complex jokes tend to be funnier but only up to a point, Oxford researchers have found. Jokes that are too complicated tend to lose the audience.

Psychologists dispute continuum theory of sexual orientation

November 19, 2015

Washington State University researchers have established a categorical distinction between people who are heterosexual and those who are not. By analyzing the reported sexual behavior, identity and attraction of more than ...

Babies have logical reasoning before age one, study finds

November 18, 2015

Human infants are capable of deductive problem solving as early as 10 months of age, a new study by psychologists at Emory University and Bucknell finds. The journal Developmental Science is publishing the research, showing ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.