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‘Illusion of Courage’ Fades at Crunch Time

Illusion of Courage Fades at Crunch TimeNew research explains why people often “chicken out” of doing something risky or potentially embarrassing.

In a new paper published in the Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, researchers from the University of Colorado-Boulder and Carnegie Mellon University say this “illusion of courage” is one example of an “empathy gap,” which is an inability to imagine how we will behave in the future. According to this theory, when the actual situation — from public speaking to bungee jumping — is far off, people are out of touch with the fear they are likely to experience at the moment of truth.

In a series of three experiments, the researchers found that people overestimate their willingness to engage in potentially embarrassing public performances. The researchers also found that they could reduce this illusion of courage by inducing emotions that put people in touch with the fear they could 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. Some students were asked outright, while others were asked after watching short films that elicited mild feelings of fear and anger.

The researchers note that students who did not view the movie clips significantly overestimated their willingness to sing or dance. In contrast, students who watched the movies and experienced either fear or anger were much more accurate in predicting their own unwillingness to engage in the potentially embarrassing behavior.

“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 Dr. 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, added Dr. George Loewenstein, professor of economics and psychology at Carnegie Mellon University.

“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,” he said. “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.”

Source: Carnegie Mellon University

Embarrased woman photo by shutterstock.

‘Illusion of Courage’ Fades at Crunch Time

Janice Wood

Janice Wood is a long-time writer and editor who began working at a daily newspaper before graduating from college. She has worked at a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites, covering everything from aviation to finance to healthcare.

APA Reference
Wood, J. (2018). ‘Illusion of Courage’ Fades at Crunch Time. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 1, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 19 Jan 2012)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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