Talking courage with a Professor

(4 minute read)

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The second interview in our series, “Leading with Courage,” is with Thought Leader, Cynthia Pury.  Cynthia is Professor of Psychology at Clemson University, in Clemson, South Carolina, USA.  She is trained as a clinical psychologist specialising in anxiety disorders.  Since the early 2000s she has focused her research and career on positive psychology, with a focus on courage and other virtues.   I had the great fortune of meeting Cynthia at the 5th World Congress of Positive Psychology in Montreal in July 2017.  In this short time that I have known Cindy she has provided much guidance in my thinking and my work with courage.

How would you describe courage?

I define courage as taking a worthwhile risk.

This definition encompasses what psychologist Christopher Rate and colleagues have found are the three essential features of courage:

  1. Firstly, a courageous action is a voluntary action – the person is taking the risk not simply in the way of it. If I accidentally trip and fall during a natural disaster thus shielding you from harm, that’s a lucky break for you but is not courageous on my part.  For it to be courage, I need to have made a voluntary choice to have behaved the way that I did.
  2. Second, a courageous action is taken in pursuit of a worthwhile or noble goal. Imagine two people recovering in a burn unit from equal, serious injuries from a house fire. Furthermore, imagine that we have perfect knowledge and know that each was equally afraid before entering the burning structure.  The patient in bed A ran into the burning house to save a baby.  The person in bed B ran into the burning house to take a selfie while surrounded by flames.  Anecdotally, I’ve observed that no one finds the person in bed B courageous.  Taking on fear (see below) or taking a risk just for the sake of doing so or for other trivial reasons isn’t courage.
  3. Third, a courageous action involves taking on risk, but not necessarily fear. While many people retrospectively describe experiencing fear while taking a courageous action, not all do.  Moreover, of those who do describe being afraid, frequently this fear involves fear for others if the action isn’t successful more than fear for one’s own safety.

An additional wrinkle is the distinction that philosopher Charles Starkey and I make between process courage – the process of taking a courageous action – and accolade courage – calling a particular action (taken by yourself or by others) courageous.  Both rely on subjective judgment of the risks present and the value of the goals being pursued.  A judgment that a lot of risk is present makes process courage less likely but makes accolade courage more likely.  These risks can be quite specific to individuals.  For example, phobias and other specific fears make certain harmless objects or situations feel extraordinarily risky. For someone with blood-injection-injury phobia, donating blood may take extraordinary courage.  Someone with a very strong fear of negative evaluation may need quite a bit of courage to ask for a raise.

courage_pury_lopezAlthough only the expected outcome matters for process courage, for accolade courage we have evidence that actions that succeed in reaching their goal (a life saved, a policy changed, a life goal met) are more likely to be called courageous than actions that fail to meet their goal.  This is true even when the failure is not at all due to the person who tried to be courageous.  The take-away from this, I think, is that we need to be aware of this hindsight bias and recognise courage in ourselves when we take a worthwhile risk but don’t end up with the outcome we hoped for.  There might be many reasons for this, but at least by taking the risk you were brave.

What does courage look like in your workplace?

I work at a university, so I see students being courageous in many ways that involve stepping outside their comfort zone.  This might involve taking more difficult courses, coming to a school far from home, or even asking questions in class if they are shy.  For faculty and graduate students, sending off scholarly work for peer review can take courage; there’s a very good chance it will come back with not only a “no thank you” but with some rather demoralising comments as well.  And, like all workplaces, courage is present at all levels when people speak up against wrong, particularly when speaking up might cost someone their job or status at an organisation.

Please describe 1or 2 examples in which you have been courageous.  What did you do?  Who/what enabled you to be courageous?  What was the outcome?  

Interestingly, I hardly ever get asked this question!  I think I was most courageous after my mother died when I was 21.  She was my only family and I handled her medical decisions, funeral plans, and the estate on my own.  I also pulled myself back together and got on with my life.  I think this is a good example of the subjective nature of the risks involved – for a middle-aged person, going through all of this is tough but not that far outside of ordinary adult life.  But for me at 21, it felt very risky.  I got a lot of good advice from people around me at the time, and I thought a good deal about what I’d think about my decisions 20 years in the future.  Now it’s 30 years later, and I approve!

What led to your interest in exploring courage?

I’ve always liked stories of people doing courageous things, either to help themselves or to help others.  The moment that the protagonist of any story decides that they will take a risk for something better has always been inspiring to me.

I started my research career studying anxiety and cognition, but was getting a bit tired of it when I was asked to teach a seminar on fear and horror.  I had lots of material, but thought we should end on a more positive note.  So, I planned readings and a class discussion based on cognitive behavioural therapy and other treatments for phobias, or how to reduce excessive fears to irrational threats.  I planned readings and a class discussion based on psychology’s contribution to safety, or how to reduce the incidence and impact of more severe threats.  Finally, I wanted to develop a class on how to deal with severe threats that can’t be mitigated, so I thought I’d look up the research on courage.  At the time, there were only a few preliminary articles and chapters.  This was a problem for me as a teacher, but a wonderful opportunity for me as a researcher. I haven’t looked back.


Some of the work of Cindy and colleagues:

Selected overviews:

  • Pury, C. L. S., & Saylors, S. (2017). Courage, courageous acts, and positive psychology. In D. S. Dunn (Ed.), Positive Psychology: Established and Emerging Issues (pp. 153-168). New York: Routledge.
  • Pury, Cynthia L. S. (2017). Courage. In Oxford Bibliographies in Psychology. Ed. Dana S. Dunn. New York: Oxford University Press, from http://www.oxfordbibliographies.com/view/document/obo-9780199828340/obo-9780199828340-0198.xml.
  • Pury, C. L. S., & Lopez, S. J., Eds. (2010). The psychology of courage: Modern research on an ancient virtue. Washington DC, American Psychological Association.

Selected empirical research:

  • Pury, C. L. S., Starkey, C. B., Kulik, R. E., Skjerning, K. L., & Sullivan, E. A. (2015). Is courage always a virtue? Suicide, killing, and bad courage. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 1-6. doi: 10.1080/17439760.2015.1004552.
  • Pury, C. L. S., Britt, T. W., Zinzow, H. M., & Raymond, M. A. (2014). Blended courage: Moral and psychological courage elements in mental health treatment seeking by active duty military personnel. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 9, 30-41, doi 10.1080/17439760.2013.831466
  • Pury, C. L. S, & Hensel, A.D. (2010).  Are courageous actions successful actions? Journal of Positive Psychology, 5, 62 – 72.
  • Pury, C. L. S., & Kowalski, R. (2007).  Human strengths, courageous actions, and general and personal courage. Journal of Positive Psychology, 2, 120 – 128.
  • Pury, C.L.S., Kowalski, R.M., & Spearman, M.J. (2007). Distinctions between general and personal courage.  Journal of Positive Psychology, 2, 99 – 114.

Cindy can be contacted at cpury@clemson.edu


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