Some Profiles of Courage

Shane J. Lopez | Posted on 01/01/09

My opportunity to practice what I had heretofore only researched occurred on a flight from Lafayette, Louisiana, to Houston, the first leg of a trip back to Kansas City. I had just spent a week in New Iberia helping my mother, displaced by a hurricane, move into a new house. I was exhausted and more than ready to be reunited with my wife and son. Before boarding the flight, I recognized an acquaintance from my hometown. I must admit, I avoided him because I remembered him as being somewhat caustic. As it turned out, this man’s seat was right behind mine, and I was surrounded by four of his friends, who were joining him on a hunting trip. I buried my nose in a newspaper and repeatedly thought of being greeted by my family in the Missouri airport. Despite my attempt to ignore the jocular banter of the five men, I overheard first one, then another, then another racist remark made about African American hurricane evacuees, politicians, and athletes. There were five racist comments in all, most of which were initiated by my hometown acquaintance.

After each comment, my resolve to express my disapproval grew and grew, as did the fear that made me lightheaded and nauseated. (I reconciled that I would have to wait until the plane landed, because the five men had been drinking and I was concerned that their reaction to my confrontation would lead to great discomfort among other passengers.) When we landed and the seatbelt sign went off, I took a deep breath. I turned to the acquaintance and said, “I don’t approve of the racist comments you shared with your friends during this flight. It is that kind of ignorance that makes people feel unwelcome in our hometown.” To my great astonishment, my momentary euphoria was shattered by this man, who tried to justify his racist diatribe, and by his friends, who chimed in with a few expletives. As I parted company from the group, I was surprised to realize that the response to my courageous action, which was less than ideal, really was not associated with the new confidence I was feeling. I had practiced courage...and I knew I could do it again if I needed to. Over the last two years I have thought about this experience hundreds of times, looking for clues about the exact nature of courage.

We have grappled with the meaning of courage for thousands of years, making headway now and again. Describing the profile of courage, or unpacking a cardinal virtue, is a task that warrants considerable attention. In time, we might better understand this virtue by asking and answering different questions: “What are the many profiles of courage?” or “What are the types of courage?”

Through empirical examination of popular conceptualization of courage, my colleagues and I identified the three types of courage as physical, moral, and vital courage. These types of courage lend themselves to definition, measurement, and study more so than generalized courage. Physical courage involves the attempted maintenance of societal good by the expression of physical behavior grounded in the pursuit of socially valued goals (e.g., a firefighter saving a child from a burning building). Moral courage is the behavioral expression of authenticity in the face of the discomfort of dissension, disapproval, or rejection (e.g., a politician invested in a “greater good” places an unpopular vote in a meeting). Vital courage refers to the perseverance through a disease or disability, even when the outcome is ambiguous (e.g., a child with a heart transplant maintaining her intensive treatment regimen even though her prognosis is uncertain). There is a distinct literature associated with each of these types of courage.

Physical courage slowly has evolved from andreia, or the military courage of the “brave soldier” in ancient Greece. Finding the rugged path between cowardice and foolhardiness distinguished a Greek soldier as courageous. From ancient to present times, this disposition to act appropriately in situations involving fear and confidence in the face of physical danger seems to be universally valued. For example, Ernest Hemingway had a fascination with physical courage in a variety of areas, such as the battlefield, open sea, and the bullfighting arena, that seemed to mirror his fascination with staring danger in the face and persevering. In fact, the “Hemingway code” of living a life characterized by strength, knowledge, and courage provided a code of conduct for some Americans.

Jack Rachman, an expert in the processing of emotions and a former member of the psychology department at the University of British Columbia, and the dean of courage research, considers courage to be the mirror image of fear. In his observations of people in high-risk professions, he noticed that when faced with physical jeopardy, some people dealt with the perceived danger better than others. Rachman studied paratroopers, decorated soldiers, and bomb squad members in order to gather information on the nature of fear and courage. In a series of studies, bomb operators who had received decorations for gallantry were compared to undecorated operators with comparable training and years of service. The decoration served as a method of identifying individuals with experiences of courageous acts. Performance under stress was determined by various subjective, behavioral, and psychophysiological measures. Results showed distinctive physiological responses under stress for the decorated as compared to non-decorated bomb operators. Relative to other research participants, the identified courageous actors (i.e., decorated bomb operators) reported similar bodily sensations under stress. Specifically, decorated operators relative to comparison persons maintained a lower cardiac rate under stress.

Rachman also found that paratroopers reported a moderate amount of fear at the beginning of their program, but this fear subsided within their initial five jumps. More work with paratroopers revealed that execution of a jump despite the presence of fear (i.e., courage) resulted in a reduction of fear.

Throughout his scholarship, Rachman suggested that courageous acts are not necessarily confined to a special few, nor do they always take place in public. In regard to this latter point, he continues to be intrigued by the inner battles and private courage displayed by his psychotherapy clients. From his work, he concludes that there clearly is more to courage than andreia and the related physical conquests over danger.

Moral courage involves the preservation of justice and service for the common good. Fascinated by moral courage, John F. Kennedy spent years gathering stories of statesmen who followed their hearts and principles when determining what was “best” for the American people — even when constituents did not agree with their decisions or give value to their representation. Although Kennedy himself was a military hero, in his Profiles in Courage he seemed to give more attention and reverence to moral rather than physical courage.

Authenticity and integrity are closely associated with the expression of personal views and values in the face of dissension and rejection. Exactly when should one take a stand? In one example, Rosa Parks said that she took a seat at the front of a bus because it was time to do so. Doctors and nurses, when facing difficult situations with patients and families, must be truthful and straightforward even when sugar-coating diagnoses and prognoses would be easier emotionally. Not only does it take courage to speak the truth, but it also takes courage to hear the truth. Moral courage can take yet another form when an individual stands up for the rights of the underprivileged and disadvantaged and confronts someone with power over him or her (e.g., a boss).

Moral courage shares characteristics with helping behavior, civility, heroism, and social control, yet fundamentally differs from these prosocial constructs. One important difference between moral courage and other prosocial intentions involves the negative social consequences a person has to fear. Furthermore, determinants of helping behavior, like mood or bystanders, do not affect moral courage, whereas factors like moral outrage play a role. On this point, my German colleagues, including Silvia Osswald and Tobias Greitemeyer of Ludwig-Maximilians-University Munich, Germany, examined whether a passive bystander inhibited helping behavior but not moral courage. Research participants who were blind to the purposes of the study were assigned to different groups, or conditions. Each participant, one by one, observed a live broadcast of confederates, a woman and a man (allegedly in a room adjacent to the lab), who chatted casually during the first minutes. As time progressed, the man became intrusive, touched the woman, and started to harass her sexually; the woman clearly rejected the sexual advances. She tried to escape by leaving the room, but the man blocked the exit, and a physical altercation ensued. The picture then went black. Given the situation that all participants were exposed to, when and how would you try to intervene? Now, consider that some of the research participants were in what Osswald and Greitemeyer called the helping condition, where the perpetrator was skinny and of small stature, whereas in the moral courage condition he was strongly built. Does this affect your approach to the situation? In addition, some participants were in the presence of one additional passive bystander, whereas they were alone in the solitary condition. Does this added information affect your decision to provide aid?

In the helping condition, more help was given when there was no third party in the room than when a bystander was present. In the moral courage condition, where threat and fear were ratcheted up because the man was bigger, participants were equally likely to show moral courage in the solitary condition and in the presence of a bystander. Thus, while the probability of showing helping behavior decreased with an increasing number of bystanders, the number of bystanders does not affect the probability of showing moral courage. In short, diffusion of responsibility does not seem to affect helping behavior and courage equally.

A person’s response in a moral courage situation is stronger than in a helping situation, and he is more likely to intervene, as he is less susceptible to a bystander effect. The cost to the victim in the case of a non-intervention is higher in a dangerous moral courage situation than in a helping situation. These moral courage situations, experienced in the presence of bystanders, are recognized faster and less ambiguously as real emergency situations than harmless (helping) situations. Given these findings, moral courage should be examined as an independent subtype of prosocial behavior; it should not be subsumed under prosocial behaviors like civility or helping behavior. Furthermore, these findings suggest that moral courage may function differently from other types of courage and that more research is warranted.

Moral courage might be considered the equal-opportunity form of the virtue; we all experience situations in which a morally courageous response is provoked. Indeed, we may encounter discomfort or dissension and are challenged by the task of maintaining authenticity and integrity in those situations. Moral courage is what I tried to manifest when I attempted to let the racist traveler know that his views were not shared by all people on the plane. Physical courage, on the other hand, is sparked only in special circumstances, and often those who engage in physically courageous behavior have received training that helps them overcome fear. (Fortunately, most of us, excepting soldiers and first responders, are not called upon every day to put our lives at risk to protect the common good.) Similarly, vital courage is not needed unless we encounter disease or disability and, often, professionals teach us how to battle the infirmity. So how does an ordinary person respond to situations that challenge our core assumptions about the world and about people?

When discomfort or dissension is experienced, and prudence suggests that a stand needs to be taken, we have the opportunity to engage in behavior consistent with moral courage. Unfortunately, we encounter many situations in which a person or a group is not getting a fair shake because of someone’s prejudice or mistakes. Watch and listen for examples of courage; I happen upon them every day. Today I heard about a colleague’s cousin who was putting her job on the line by trying to do the right thing in the workplace. This example of moral courage comes as a result of the current economic downturn. As a controller of a manufacturer, this courageous actor is privy to financial data that shines light on a bad economic decision recently made by her boss. She has made him aware of the data and given him options for resolving the mistake. He has chosen to downplay the significance of the data even though it has implications for the jobs of hundreds of people. After much internal struggle, the controller has decided to put her job on the line by reporting her boss’s error to his superior. She is choosing to act despite the risk to her own well-being.

Vital courage is at work as the patient battles illness through surgery and treatment regimens. Physicians, nurses, and other health professionals use their expertise to save human life or to improve the quality of life. Many researchers have examined vital courage (though not calling it such), and their work has captured the phenomenon that captivates us when we hear about someone facing chronic illness. Joan Haase sought to answer the question, “How do chronically ill adolescents demonstrate courage?” and she found that courage involves developing a deep personal awareness of the potential short-term and long-term effects of one’s illness.

In interviews about courage with middle-aged adults suffering from various physical illnesses, Deborah Finfgeld determined that courage involves becoming aware of and accepting the threat of a long-term health condition, solving any related problems through the use of insight, and developing enhanced sensitivities to oneself and others. Finfgeld also interviewed older adults who were demonstrating courage in the face of chronic illnesses and concluded that being courageous is a lifelong process that entails factors such as significant others, values, and hope. Regarding the courage of physicians, Earl Shelp found that this virtue, along with competence and compassion, are very desirable characteristics of health care providers. Moreover, instilling courage via “encouragement” is required of anyone in a profession that exemplifies care and concern. Furthermore, Shelp states that necessary components of courage are freedom of choice, fear of a situation, and the willingness to take risks in a situation with an uncertain but morally worthy end. We believe that vital courage frequently is exhibited by people who are suffering, by the health care providers who treat them, and by the many significant others who care for loved ones during hard times.

Daniel Putman’s take on vital courage, which he refers to as psychological courage, is strength in facing one’s destructive habits. This form of vital courage may be quite common, in that we all struggle with psychological challenges in the forms of stress, sadness, and dysfunctional or unhealthy relationships. In light of these threats to our psychological stabilities, we stand up to our dysfunctions by restructuring our beliefs or systematically desensitizing ourselves to the fears. One striking argument that Putman advanced about courage is that there is a paucity of training for vital courage as compared to physical and moral courage. Putman goes on to say that, in pop culture, we have many physically and morally courageous icons presented in literary works and movies, but that the exemplars of courageous individuals battling illness or their own demons are rare. Perhaps this is due to the negative stigma surrounding mental health problems and destructive behaviors. It is also possible, however, that the language surrounding vital courage is new relative to that for moral and physical courage.

A postscript: In September 1986, the television news anchor Dan Rather surprised everyone by ending a national broadcast with “Courage.” When asked why he ended the report in this way, Rather stated, “... I want to hear the word. I want to hear it praised, and the men and women who have courage elevated.”

As courage research and related media shed light on the best in people, it will be interesting to note if segments of society come to expect courage from the many rather than from the few.