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Can you learn to be courageous?

 

In his book The Courage Quotient: How Science Can Make You Braver, Robert Biswas-Diener shows how we can use science and research to be more brave.

He explains that there are two factors to courage:

  • Fear
  • Willingness to act

They can both go up or down. Courage = “Willingness to act” divided by “Fear.”

To increase bravery you must either:

  • Reduce fear.
  • Boost willingness to act.
  • Do both of the above.

What steps can we take in the moment to be more courageous?

1) Reduce uncertainty. The more we understand about a situation, what could realistically occur, and our position in it, the more able we are to think clearly. We are consumed by worry and fear when we don’t understand what is going on, don’t know what to do and or how to get control:

In many cases, just filling in the mental question marks with basic information is all it takes to move you forward… Reducing fear by reducing uncertainty, then, can be a matter as simple as asking some questions or visualizing the future.

2) Relax. You need something to calm your body so you don’t panic. Interestingly, this was also one of the techniques the Navy SEALS used to increase passing rates: teaching “arousal control.”

Yoga, prayer, meditation — anything that helped people keep calm proves valuable:

Rather than trying to talk yourself out of fear, you can confront it head on by getting control of your heart rate, blood pressure, and muscle tension. Members of the Courage 50 frequently pointed to mental practices related to self-soothing. Some exercised or practiced yoga on a regular basis. Others meditated or prayed when they found themselves in fearful situations. Many of them had developed personal breathing rituals through which they could slow their heart rate and relax.

3) Get angry. I’ve posted before how anger focuses attention on rewards, increases persistence, makes us feel in control and more optimistic about achieving our goals. When we want to be courageous, that’s exactly what we need:

If fear is the emotion that holds us back from action, then it makes sense that a stronger emotional reaction can overpower that fear and lead us to swift action… It turns out that angry people were far more likely to see themselves as having control of situations, more likely to see outcomes as certain, and more likely to be optimistic that risks would pay off…

Anger

4) Alternately, accept the possibility of failure. If it’s life or death, anger might be great. If it’s just public speaking, rage may not be an option. So we must shift from a defensive “prevention focus” to a reward-oriented “promotion focus.” And that means accepting the possibility of failure and seeing life as a learning opportunity:

People with a high courage quotient understand that failure is a risk much of the time and unavoidable some of the time. Rather than trying to tiptoe around failure, they simply accept it as part of the process of success. Failure is a fantastic learning opportunity.

People performed best at public speaking not when they feared making mistakes or even when they were willing to forgive their own mistakes. They felt great and were rated most highly when they took a “novelty” perspective: deliberately making mistakes and then incorporating them into the presentation:

The first was a “mistakes are bad” condition, in which participants were warned not to make a mistake during their presentations. The second was a “forgiveness” condition, in which they were instructed to purposefully make a mistake and reassured that such mistakes were OK. The final condition was a “novelty” condition, in which the participants were instructed to purposefully make a mistake and then incorporate such mistakes into the presentation itself. After completing their public presentations the participants in the novelty condition reported being more comfortable while on stage and gave their own performances a better rating than members of the other two conditions did. Not only that, but the audience judged the presenters in the novelty condition as being more intelligent and effective.

Can these types of strategy really work? 82% of the people surveyed who had committed acts of bravery said they used some sort of courage-enhancing strategy before their big moment.

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About Eric Barker