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Emotion, Personality and self

People who see themselves as more courageous do better in fear-inducing situations

Study suggests people accurately perceive their own courageousness, and this measure is useful for predicting behaviour.

31 October 2022

By Emily Reynolds

We frequently come across situations that require courage, big and small: job interviews, dates, public speaking. Unlike fearlessness, where we're not afraid of what we're about to do, courage necessitates feeling fear and pushing through, sometimes in an act of great resilience.

In a new study in Motivation and Emotion, a team explores how courage affects our ability to participate in fear-inducing tasks. And they find that the more courageous we believe ourselves to be, the better we perform when faced with a situation we find particularly scary.

In a screening phase, participants rated their own levels of courage, answering questions such as "If something scares me, I try to get away from it", and "I tend to face my fears", and completed a scale measuring their fear of public speaking. To hide the purpose of the study, participants also completed measures related to fear of spiders, meaning they did not know they would be asked to engage in public speaking.

If they were particularly fearful of public speaking, participants were then invited to the second phase which took place in person. These participants were told that they would have to take part in a public speaking task later in the experiment. They then completed the same measures of courageousness and fear of public speaking. Next, they were given five minutes to prepare a speech on a topic of their choice, which they could deliver for as long as they felt comfortable or until five minutes had elapsed.

Participants believed they were being filmed, and that a set of judges was watching from another room. A video monitor was also set up in front of them so they could see their own performance. As expected, participants' self-reported level of courage predicted how long they spoke for: those who felt they were more courageous spoke for longer. Interestingly, participants' self-reported courage from the screening phase – before they even knew they were going to do a public speaking task - was just as good a predictor of length of time spent speaking as that in the second phase, once they had found out the nature of the task.

This result suggests that courage is partly a stable construct that exists as an innate part of somebody's character. However, other studies have suggested that courage is a context-dependent state, occurring in specific situations (such as when public speaking-fearful participants have to speak for several minutes). The authors suggest that courage is not fully state-like or trait-like, but a combination of the two.

The presence of a camera may have influenced the results: the team notes that during debriefing, some participants mentioned that speaking on camera was not as frightening as doing it in front of a live audience, meaning that results may have differed based on participants' specific fears. Participants were also made aware of the nature of the task when invited to participate in the second phase of the experiment, meaning those with significant fears of public speaking may have chosen not to take part, changing the results overall. Indeed, many chose not to participate or did not respond.

What does seem to be clear from the results is that we can fairly accurately report our own sense of courage. An interesting piece of further research could be to see if we can increase courage: could making people feel more courageous, despite their existing fears, improve how they perform in certain tasks? Fear during the public speaking task was also left unmeasured, which future research could look at in more detail: looking at how scared participants were during their speech and then asking them how they persisted despite their discomfort could provide ways to develop interventions.