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1/24/12

Hero is Okay but Wimp is Better: Future Prediction and The Illusion of Courage

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Throwing yourself on a grenade to shield your buddies. Slugging an assailant with a purse to protect your child. Wing-walking atop a biplane at 10,000 feet. Jumping a motorcycle over three parked cars. Some people would say they could do one or all of these actions.

All of that is rather extreme. Most of us say we would not do it. On the other hand, many people predict they would engage in actions relatively mild compared to extreme behavior. These are situations like investing in an agressive stock, or giving a speech in front of two hundred people, or standing up to an intimidating boss. Would you do it?

For people who say yes, recent research indicates that many are wrong.
They mistake the present situation of their brain as they way it would be when confronted with the risk. They further assume that they, not their brain, are in control. The brain has behaviors, though, that the rational mind does not know. It is called the "empathy gap," a lack of how you will feel in a clutch situation. The distant future is something the forebrain thinks about. When you stand at the edge of a bungee jump, the mid-brain overrides any calmness the forebrain had experienced. The forebrain imagines; the mid-brain emotes.

"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."

It worked this way. One group of students was asked outright if they would do it. Another group was "exposed to short films that aroused mild experiences of fear and anger."

You guessed it. The first group "overestimated their willingness to sing or dance" despite negative emotions of, say, fear and anger they knew they would experience. The second group was "much more accurate." They predicted their "lack of interest in performing."

~"In a new paper in the Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, scientists from the University of Colorado Boulder and Carnegie Mellon University argue that this "illusion of courage" is one example of an "empathy gap" -- that is, our inability to imagine how we will behave in future emotional situations."

~"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. "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."

~On the other hand, "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." More Bookmark and Share
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