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Courage Unveiled

Courage Unveiled - Featuring Dr. Cynthia Pury
Courage Unveiled - Featuring Dr. Cynthia Pury

“From a leadership perspective, it's crucial to be aware of what others in your organization, mainly those you lead, find risky and valuable, as their perspectives on risk and value may differ. Another piece of leadership advice is to avoid being the reason someone else needs to be courageous. If your leadership style is so intimidating that employees must muster the courage to talk to you, that poses a problem. Unfortunately, such leaders do exist.” Dr. Cynthia Pury

Dr. Cynthia Pury, a psychologist specializing in emotional theory, discusses her journey from psychology to courage research, highlighting the intricate link between fear and courage. The conversation explores bravery, honesty, and the nuanced nature of courageous actions, emphasizing individual uniqueness. Dr. Pury warns against using courage for harmful ends and shares leadership insights for fostering a supportive environment.

Stephen Matini: When did you determine your professional direction?

Dr. Cynthia Pury: I entered college without a clear career path. My major was public relations, not something I loved, but I couldn't think of an alternative. 

On the first day of class, our intro teacher, John Kihlstrom, discussed hypnotism, and I was immediately intrigued. As the conversation delved into emotions, I found it so fascinating that I decided to double major in psychology.

I vividly recall a day during my junior year, sitting in a windowsill of one of the campus landmarks. Faced with two exams—one in psychology and the other in journalism—I chose the psychology book, realizing how much more captivating it was compared to my journalism classes.

In graduate school, my focus shifted to emotional theory and disorders, specifically anxiety disorders. Around the same time, the director of our honors college asked me to lead a seminar on fear and horror. I accepted the challenge and, while developing the content, felt the need to end on a positive note.

Realizing the prevalence of irrational fears, particularly anxiety disorders, I incorporated a section on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). This exploration led me to consider rational fears and the concept of courage. With limited research on the latter, I delved into courage, sparking my ongoing interest.

During my pre-doctoral internship at a veteran's hospital, I worked with individuals suffering from combat-related PTSD. Their expressions of courage caught my attention, although they didn't label them as such. Moreover, their persistent distress seemed linked to what Jonathan Shea later termed "moral injury" the year after my internship.

This combination of moral injury and a perceived lack of courage fascinated me for a long time. It became a natural fit for my interests, and I found myself deeply engaged in the subject. I've since continued exploring and researching this area.

SM: In simple terms, what connects fear and courage?

Dr. CP: The connection between fear and courage is more intricate than just saying that fear opposes courage. Many people claim, "courage is standing up to fear," but they also say things like "you were fearless and courageous," which creates a contradiction.

So, my colleagues and I have taken a step back from fear and shifted our focus to the central role of risk in courage. This approach resolves many of the issues. The risk doesn't have to be actual; it can be perceived.

We know that individuals who are highly fearful, either by disposition or in the moment, tend to perceive things as much riskier than they really are. This occurs when people fear things that pose minimal actual risk, yet they feel intensely risky in an unconventional way.

For instance, in a courage study, one participant wrote about smushing a spider in her house, considering it courageous because she worried that if she hadn't, the spider would return to harm her. She acknowledged that spiders aren't smart enough for such behavior, but it felt that way to her.

This perspective also sheds light on situations where individuals describe their actions as courageous. They might say they didn't feel much fear because they were intensely focused on their task. Alternatively, they might acknowledge feeling fear, but it's tied more to the dread of a potential negative outcome, typically for someone they care about deeply.

For example, if a beloved child wanders into the street, the fear is often more focused on the potential harm to the child rather than to oneself.

SM: Is there a distinction between bravery and courage?

Dr. CP: The disparity between bravery and courage, according to the VIA or Values and Action System, lies in the VIA's bravery component, which involves confronting fear or adversity in a specific manner. This distinction is rooted in the emotion itself, irrespective of one's intentions.

I would argue that it's conceivable for someone to possess the isolated strength of bravery but apply it in an entirely inappropriate context.

Consider two individuals equally gripped by fear, rushing into a burning house. In this scenario, both individuals suffer equal burns and face similar risks of death, ending up side by side in the burn unit. 

The person in bed A entered the burning house to rescue a baby, likely earning public acclaim for their courage. On the other hand, the person in bed B entered the burning house with the sole purpose of creating a TikTok video. People are unlikely to label this individual as courageous.

SM: What is your current definition of courage after many years of research?

Dr. CP: My current definition of courage, based on years of research, is that it involves taking a worthwhile risk. It must be a voluntary and chosen action, not something that simply happens to you. Taking a worthwhile risk means the action is both risky and worthwhile, with the level of risk proportional to the value of the goal.

For instance, risking one's life to save another is undoubtedly courageous. Similarly, risking one's life to pursue a personally valuable goal can be considered courageous, as long as the observer or rater shares the value of that goal. However, risking one's life for a trivial cause that could have been avoided does not carry the same sense of courage.

An example illustrating this is a person who ran back into a house fire to retrieve season baseball tickets, which were easily replaceable. In such cases, the act does not seem particularly courageous.

To further explore this concept, I examined recipients of the Carnegie Hero medal, a significant civilian award for bravery in the United States. In one year's worth of data, most recipients saved another person's life while remaining alive themselves. Some recipients, unfortunately, lost their lives in the process, while others died, and the person they tried to save also perished. Notably, no one received the medal when the person they attempted to save died, but they themselves survived. This suggests a hindsight bias that deems the sacrifice as worthwhile.

Additionally, our research includes scenarios where individuals make significant life changes for what initially seems like the perfect relationship or job. If the outcome is positive and enduring, the person may see themselves as courageous. However, if the relationship or job doesn't work out, the individual is less likely to perceive their actions as courageous.

SM: If I understood correctly, there appear to be cultural and contextual differences that impact people's perceptions of courage.

Dr. CP: Oh, absolutely. Without a doubt. These differences stem from both cultural values and individual values, as well as cultural threats and individual threats.

For instance, in a culture where displaying any sign of fear is severely frowned upon, choosing to speak in public becomes a more courageous act. On the other hand, in a culture that acknowledges fear as a natural emotion, the act may be less perceived as courageous.

Similarly, if one is raised in a culture where a man showing any sign of sadness is deemed negative, publicly crying as a man becomes a much greater risk in some cultures than in others. Values, of course, vary across different cultures and also on an individual level.

Recently, Charlie Starkey, Laura Olson, and I published data examining how Americans rated the courage of two women who did different things. A few summers ago, Kaitlyn Jenner publicly came out as transgender, while Kim Davis refused to issue marriage licenses to same-gender couples. 

Unsurprisingly, individuals' agreement with traditional gender norms and views on marriage influenced their ratings of whether these women were courageous or not, pushing them in opposite directions based on their perspectives.

SM: As you discuss this, various scenarios come to mind, especially regarding what's deemed socially courageous. I'm thinking about situations in organizations, like the example of Kaitlyn Jenner. For instance, there are individuals who say, "I'm openly gay, but at work, I'm not, because that's not the place for it." In your view, should one strive to be more courageous in such situations?

Dr. CP: It would depend on various factors, including how the person perceives their job. Let me give you an extreme example.

If, for instance, the person's spouse, whom they love, cannot work for some reason, and they are the sole financial provider for their family, going to work every day in a homophobic environment and wearing a metaphorical mask to earn money for a decent life with their partner could be seen as an act of courage.

On the flip side, if job opportunities are scarce, and they believe they would never find something that provides the necessary support, staying closeted might be considered courageous for them.

Similarly, in an organization explicitly proclaiming to be a proudly inclusive and WOKE workplace, where LGBTQIA+ employees are welcomed and even have support groups, the risk is evidently lower.

Moreover, if one sees themselves as dedicated to advancing the rights of others by being an example, which, based on what I've read, contributes significantly to the increased societal acceptance we experience today—a development I personally appreciate—stepping out and saying, "I'm gay, I'm still the same person, just as competent as before," and being willing to be an example, could also play a part in the courage equation.

SM: It seems to me that courage often emerges when someone is willing to go against the grain.

Dr. CP: Yes, especially in the realm of social dynamics, that certainly appears to be the case. Social risks carry immense weight, given our deeply ingrained social nature. These risks feel as tangible as physical ones, triggering the same autonomic nervous system responses, generating a profound sense of unease and dread. We experience these intense emotions in social situations as well.

Personal courage is significant, and understanding the full story behind someone's actions often sheds light on their bravery. 

Allow me to share an example from my time at the VA hospital. I had a patient whose treatment goal, even before I delved into studying courage, was to wrap a Christmas present for his child. On the surface, it may not sound like much, but when you know his backstory, everything falls into place.

For him, the worst experience of his life occurred during Christmas, leading to severe flashbacks every December. Consequently, he avoided any Christmas-related reminders to shield himself from memories of this traumatic incident. When he came in to wrap a Christmas present during a session with me, he was crying, his hands were shaking, he was sweating, and we even had a bucket nearby because he thought he might throw up. 

Despite all this, he completed the task. At the end, he apologized for being a mess and mentioned something about feeling weak. Almost a decade before I started studying courage, I told him it was truly brave because I understood the immense courage it took for him to do it.

SM: If someone isn't particularly courageous or wants to become more courageous, where do you draw the line between what I consider courageous and just being foolish?

Dr. CP: That's an excellent question. It's a delicate balance between bravery and foolishness.

The clearest illustration I've seen of this was a story about a family, possibly in California, driving along a twisty coastal road. The child tossed a teddy bear out of the car window, and it fell down a cliff. The parents stopped the car, and one of them climbed down the cliff to retrieve the teddy bear but got stuck. 

The second parent, leaving the child alone in the car, went down the cliff to rescue the first parent and the teddy bear. Both ended up stuck, requiring a helicopter rescue, and the family continued on their way. Had the first parent successfully retrieved the teddy bear, it would have been a simple story about parental love.

Ultimately, it boils down to personal values, filtered through societal values, and the level of risk involved. Is the risk solely for personal gain, or is it for the benefit of others? For instance, the second parent should have considered the risk of leaving a child alone in the car, especially a young child with a teddy bear and the potential for a tantrum.

I once had a conversation with a student who was a police officer. He expressed that confronting someone potentially unstable with a weapon is less dangerous for him than for me. I had to agree with him. The question then arises: Is it less courageous for him to do that than it would be for me? In a sense, yes, but he chose a career that involves such training and regular confrontations.

People are often inspired by reading about others' actions and hearing their stories, especially if the individuals are similar in some way or share a common cause. If you reflect on something courageous someone like you or someone with similar beliefs has done, it can be a motivating force, as your friend experienced.

SM: Based on everything we discussed, courage is not a straightforward concept.

Dr. CP: Absolutely not. It's incredibly challenging to measure because you either end up with scales that simply ask how courageous you are and how well you face fear and navigate risks, or you have scales with what we call double-barreled items in psychology. These items require alignment on two different aspects rather than just one, making it less straightforward. So measuring courage has proven to be a complex task.

I don't believe we'll discover people who are consistently brave or consistently cowardly. Everyone has their unique constellation of things they find worthwhile. Some are intensely focused on their careers, doing various things for their organization, which are distinct endeavors. Others prioritize personal growth, willingly engaging in activities that nurture their curiosity, while some do not.

Moreover, individuals may place high value on specific forms of artistic or personal expression, while others may not view them as crucial. People also vary in their perception of different types of risks. The distribution of fears is not random, and individuals have different tolerance levels for various risks.

As an example, I engage in public speaking regularly and routinely teach classes of around 300 people. If someone told me I had to give a speech to 300 people tomorrow, I'd be fine with it. But if you asked me to change the lightbulb way up above the stage I’d say no because I’m more afraid of heights than most people. So, it truly depends on the individual and the specific situation.

SM: Is there a correlation between courage and honesty? Because we're discussing values...

Dr. CP: Yes, absolutely. Many people characterize courageous actions as having high integrity, which is a component of honesty. Indeed, being honest about something may require a considerable amount of courage. In contrast, a less courageous action in a given situation might involve covering up or lying about something.

While it is somewhat contextual, for most people, honesty is likely the action they would feel prouder of most of the time. Moreover, honesty tends to be better for society. In studies we've conducted, where we ask people to describe a time they acted courageously, we receive a broad range of responses. Some of these responses undoubtedly involve honesty. 

Another common theme is people seeking necessary treatment and being honest about it. This honesty often involves being truthful with themselves and others, particularly if the situation occurred when they were younger and needed treatment for issues like an eating disorder.

SM: If I asserted that anyone willing to fight for what they believe in is courageous, would that be a fair statement?

Dr. CP: Yes, I think so. However, whether I'd want to bestow upon them the accolade of courage or be pleased to see them honored with a valor award depends on what they were fighting for. Sometimes, individuals fight for causes I find objectionable, and in such cases, I (as a human and not a researcher) wouldn't label them as courageous.

Nevertheless, I can assure you that in every instance I've come across where someone is called courageous in the public press or the peculiar semi-public realm that the Internet occupies, the person bestowing that label agrees with the pursued goal and acknowledges, in some way, that a risk is being taken.

SM: You mentioned at the beginning of our conversation that your interest in courage stemmed from a desire to focus on something more positive than just fear. After all these years of research and experience, what would you say is the main reason you are still passionate about courage?

Dr. CP: I find it continually interesting, and the stories are, for the most part, uplifting. Additionally, I've been driven to write numerous book chapters to issue a warning—courage can be employed for nefarious purposes. Individuals who commit atrocious acts often believe they are acting courageously and use the same language associated with courage.

A notable researcher, Silk, who studies terrorism, found that both incarcerated terrorists and the police officers who stop them describe their actions in similar ways, fitting the definition of courage.

I vividly remember the Virginia Tech shooting incident. I was on an overnight sleepover field trip with my middle daughter, catching glimpses of it on my phone. When she was in the shower, I watched the disturbing manifesto videotape. 

The shooter sounded like a malevolent version of my participants, who were college students at that time. Their descriptions of courageous actions paralleled the shooter's language, despite their actions being vastly different.

Hence, I feel compelled to emphasize that just because something is perceived as courageous doesn't mean it's morally right. Feeling courageous doesn't always translate to a good idea. 

There are two categories—one being "stupid courage," such as running into a burning building for TikTok fame or quitting a job impulsively. The other involves being brutally honest with a loved one, risking damage to the relationship. I distinguish this type of courage from actions objectively meant to do harm.

SM: So, we can say the end does not justify the means.

Dr. CP: No. If the end doesn't justify the means, then we shouldn't consider it courageous. However, with the caveat that one might feel courageous, and it turns out they may not have been. It's a complex picture, and we need wisdom to properly evaluate these situations.

SM: We've covered various aspects of courage in our discussion. If there's one thing you believe our listeners should focus on based on our conversation, what would it be?

Dr. CP: One of the significant insights I've gained from researching courage is appreciating the uniqueness of each individual and recognizing the distinct ways in which everyone has been courageous. I would argue that everyone has taken risks they deem worthwhile, though these risks and perceptions of value differ from person to person.

During Covid, we witnessed job-related risks emerge that people hadn't considered before, particularly in roles typically devoid of public pushback. Healthcare workers, educators, and even school board members found themselves navigating uncharted territory. 

Suddenly, almost every job involved a negotiation, revealing a mismatch in organizational goals, perceived risk tolerance, and individual employees' actual risk levels or sense of riskiness.

This discrepancy hinged on two factors: the individual's actual risk level, such as being immunocompromised or living with someone medically fragile, and their personal perception of what they find comfortable. While somewhat separable, many organizational misunderstandings during that time were a result of this shift.

From a leadership perspective, it's crucial to be aware of what others in your organization, mainly those you lead, find risky and valuable, as their perspectives on risk and value may differ. Another piece of leadership advice is to avoid being the reason someone else needs to be courageous. If your leadership style is so intimidating that employees must muster the courage to talk to you, that poses a problem. Unfortunately, such leaders do exist.

SM: And perhaps it's their way of thinking they're being courageous in a tough or strong manner, you know?

Dr. CP: Absolutely. I've definitely observed this. It's not an ideal strategy. Let them reserve their courage for more valuable contributions to the company rather than just having to approach you.

SM: Cindy, you've taught me a lot today. Thank you so much.

Dr. CP: No problem, Stephen. This was super interesting.

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