The guy who jumps onto subway tracks to save a stranger as a train approaches, the clerk who chases down a robber, a passerby who stops at an accident site to help save victims: When you hear stories of incredible acts of courage, you probably wonder, would I do the same?
For many of us, the answer is no. To do something heroic often involves a threat to self, explains Thomas Kolditz, PhD, retired Brigadier General and director of the Leadership Development Program at Yale School of Management. Human instinct is to flee danger—it’s about self-preservation, he says. Fear may stand in the way of bravery, as may uncertainty. There’s also the “bystander effect,” a social psychological phenomenon where individuals are less likely to help someone in need when there’s a crowd—each person assumes someone else will intervene, resulting in no one doing anything.
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So what makes a person risk her life to save a stranger? Why do some people choose to be fire fighters or police officers, or to serve in the military, where bravery is tested every day? And where do others find the moral courage to blow the whistle on an injustice or stand up to a bully boss and risk losing their jobs?
Some experts say those people are wired differently, pointing to studies that show genetics play a significant role in the willingness to take risk; but recent research finds environmental factors and emotions greatly influence risk-taking behavior too. Other scientists look to brain mechanisms for answers: A few years ago, researchers in Israel—using fMRI scans, a live snake and people who were really (really) scared of it—identified the region of the brain that lights up when a person acts despite a natural fear. For study participants who squelched terror and chose to shorten the distance between themselves and the snake, the subgenual anterior cingulate cortex (sgACC, for short) was triggered—the stronger the refusal to succumb to fear, the more active that bundle of nerves. When emotions got the best of the subjects, another region came into play: the amygdala, long known as the brain’s headquarters of fear. The study seems to indicate that when the sgACC is activated, it can quiet activity of the amygdala.
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Scientists don’t know for sure if courage is something you’re born with; they also don’t know whether we can target the parts of the brain active in overcoming certain fears. What experts do know is that many different behaviors and traits define a courageous act, some of which can be learned. If you find ways to decrease fear or risk or other components that hinder courage, and increase the ones that facilitate it, like confidence, you can learn to be more courageous, says Cynthia Pury, PhD, a professor of psychology at Clemson University. Start with these research-based, expert-suggested strategies:
Focus out, not in. When Kolditz asked military personnel deployed overseas and people on American soil with dangerous jobs how they remain steadfast and courageous, he often got this response: my training took over. Having practiced skills helps reduce risk and boost confidence. It also gives you the ability to focus energy outward—on the tasks, the gear, and whatever is needed to get the job done—instead of inward, on emotions, explains Kolditz, who studies leadership in extreme situations. “If you put your attention on a task, it activates parts of the brain not centered on fear, which helps you act more courageously,” he says.
Practice positive thinking. The basics of cognitive behavioral therapy, a type of counseling used to treat anxiety disorders and depression, can help boost courage, says Elizabeth Phelps, PhD, psychologist and director of the Phelps Lab at New York University. If you have social phobias, for example, going to a party requires courage. Instead of thinking this is going to be a disaster, why bother going? reframe it as: I can go, but if I don’t like it, I can leave or I can go, and this might be fun. “How you approach a situation is going to affect how you feel,” says Phelps. “Our attitudes determine our emotional response.”
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Do what scares you. Quieting your fear of a situation sometimes requires putting yourself in the thick of it, says Phelps. Plus, by intentionally choosing to engage in that action, it gives you a feeling of control and self-efficacy, which is defined as the belief in your own ability to achieve a goal and a component of courageous acts.
Plan to be brave. If you’re going to the doctor, for example, expecting bad news, think about how you’ll react ahead of time—what you’ll say, what you’ll focus on, what questions you want to ask, suggests Kolditz: “Being prepared may help you draw on that reservoir of courage; the moment of indecisiveness is when your emotions come in.”
Remember the why. “Courage is more than just facing fear; it involves taking risks for a noble or good cause,” says Pury. “If acting despite fear is your only measure of courage, then the person who runs into a burning building to see what it feels like would be just as courageous as the person who runs into the same building to save a baby, provided they were equally afraid to begin with.” In her research, Pury asked participants to think about a time when they acted courageously, and if they did anything to increase their bravery. Most said they focused on the reason they wanted to take an action (such as it was the right thing to do or I had to save him!); and when that reason is important or morally good, it may be the most encouraging of all.