Can a Person Have Too Much Bravery?

Certainly. I believe that the emotion of fear has evolved to help us survive dangerous or threatening situations. It keeps us alive, and we would do well to heed fear when it raises its head. Of course, fear can also hold us back from doing things we value, such as starting a new business, moving to a new city, or asking someone out on a date. It is because our physiological experience of fear is pretty much the same whether it is a case of anxiety over changing careers or real survival fear related to falling off a wobbly ladder.

So the process of courage, itself, is about managing fear, about being willing to act even in the face of fear. The real issue, where courage is concerned, is knowing when to listen to fear and when to overcome it. One group of researchers gauged the confidence of paratroopers before they made a jump, and then assessed a variety of physical symptoms after the jump. Most of these soldiers experienced some form of fear, whether it was in the form of nausea, sweating, or a rapid heartbeat. But some small number (about 10 percent) were overconfident, in that they did not expect to feel any distress, but then did experience intense fear. This group—which you might consider “too brave”—set themselves up for failure because they don’t truly understand the risks and could place themselves in danger. Evolutionarily speaking, these folks are more likely to be removed from the gene pool through taking extreme risks. Interestingly, when conducting research for The Courage Quotient, I also discovered a surprising way in which people can have too little courage.

I interviewed 50 highly courageous people ranging from polar explorers to business executives. In many cases, these people could not understand their heroic actions or clear risk-taking as being brave. Often, their action came so naturally and so automatically—as in the case of a woman who jumped into a river to save a drowning friend—that it did not appear to be a choice. Time and again I heard the mantra, “I just did what anyone would have done.” But real-life experience proves otherwise: Many people do not act or are unwilling or uncertain how to act. I call this phenomenon of treating the extraordinary as if it is ordinary “courage blindness.”

Robert Biswas-Diener is a positive psychologist, the managing director of Positive Acorn, and the author of the new book The Courage Quotient.

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