in: Behavior, Character, Podcast

• Last updated: September 29, 2021

Podcast #380: How to Increase Your Courage and Bravery

For thousands of years, philosophers and writers have debated the nature of courage. What is it? Are some people born more courageous than others? Can you learn to be courageous?

My guest today set out to answer these questions by looking at courage through a scientific lens. His name is Robert Biswas-Diener. He’s a psychologist and the author of The Courage Quotient: How Science Can Make You Braver.

Today on the show, Robert explains how he defined courage for the purpose of his research and how he went about studying and quantifying this quality. He then explains how courage manifests itself differently in cultures of dignity, honor, and face. We then discuss the genetics of courage and how people can learn to be more courageous. Robert than gives brass tacks advice on what you can do to manage fear and increase your propensity to action, including carrying lucky charms, thinking about yourself less, and avoiding self-handicapping. 

Show Highlights

  • What led Robert into researching this question of courage 
  • What are the most common ideas of what courage means?
  • The common misconceptions about courage
  • The role of fear when it comes to courage 
  • How do different cultures view courage? How does culture determine what a courageous act is?
  • Where do the values of courage and bravery come from?
  • Why not feeling fear at all isn’t really a courageous virtue 
  • Can courage be learned?
  • What you can do to manage fear
  • How to handle social anxiety and shyness
  • Increasing your willingness to act in spite of risk and fear 
  • Why you need to embrace “magical thinking” and lucky charms 
  • Is courage domain-specific? Does courage is one area of life carry over into other areas?
  • What is self-handicapping? Why do we do it?
  • What we can do to overcome the bystander effect 
  • One thing you can do today to increase your courage, and why you’re probably already more courageous than you think 

Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast

Book cover of "The Courage Quotient" by Robert Biswas-Diener.

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Robert on Twitter

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Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness Podcast. For thousands of years, philosophers and writers have debated the nature of courage. What is it? Are some people born more courageous than others? And can you learn to be courageous? My guest today set out to answer those questions by looking at courage through a scientific lens. His name is Robert Biswas-Diener. He’s a psychologist and the author of The Courage Quotient: How Science Can Make You Braver.

Today on the show, Robert explains how he defined courage for the purpose of his research and how he went about studying and quantifying this quality. He then explains how courage manifests itself differently in cultures of dignity, cultures of honor, and cultures of face. We then discuss the genetics of courage and how people can learn to be more courageous. Robert then gives brass tacks advice on what you can do to manage fear and increase your propensity to action, including carrying lucky charms, thinking about yourself less, and avoiding self-handicapping.

Robert Biswas-Diener, welcome to the show.

Robert Biswas-Diener: Thank you so much for having me.

Brett McKay: You wrote a book. You’re a psychologist, you wrote a book about courage. It’s called The Courage Quotient, where you tried to articulate what courage is and how to measure courage and how to increase courage. I’m curious, what led you down this path to research courage?

Robert Biswas-Diener: That’s an interesting question. I think it was thrust on me actually. I come from a tradition of studying happiness. That’s my primary area of expertise. I am attracted to positive topics. But along the way, I kept studying happiness in sort of unusual places — in brothels in India, in slum areas, and sometimes dangerous places like favelas in Brazil.

And people kept telling me how courageous I was, which wasn’t necessarily how I thought of myself. I definitely knew I was prone to task risks, but I certainly didn’t think of myself as a hero. But because it came up as a conversation piece more and more, I decided that I would start looking into what was published out there, what research had been done. And the deeper I went, the more fascinating it became.

Brett McKay: And what’s interesting about courage is that it’s this virtue that, it’s been written about by poets, philosophers, theologians even, and I’m sure psychologists have gotten in on this in the past few hundred years. And everyone has different conceptions of it, right? When you ask someone, “What does courage mean?,” I’m sure you get a hundred different answers, but they’re vaguely trying to hit on the same idea. In your research, what did you find are the most common ideas of what courage is?

Robert Biswas-Diener: Yeah. Again, good question. I think among laypeople, just everyday folks, one of the most common misconceptions about courage is that courage is a physical act of bravery. The stereotype is sort of the soldier in combat heroically saving his, and it’s usually a male, his comrade in arms in the midst of a firefight, something like that. And I think that that really is a myopic view of courage that people attend very narrowly to these physical and often stereotypically masculine ideas of bravery.

I think that we can expand from there and think of bravery as something far more wide-reaching. It’s somehow a mental state. It’s an attitude. Traditionally, the philosophers, as you said, said it’s a part of the spirit, if you will. And I believe that it’s really about acting in the face of fear. So it’s not the absence of fear, but it’s, as one person I interviewed very articulately put, it’s the ability to step through fear. So psychologists really define courage as going ahead and choosing to act or sometimes just acting automatically despite the presence of fear, and doing so when you’re uncertain of the outcome of your action. That is, there has to be a risk involved.

Now, philosophers would say that there should also be a moral dimension because if you think about it, someone who is a street criminal and mugs people is probably afraid, probably acting despite their sense of fear, and certainly the outcome is unknown. They’re taking a risk. So we would add to that this morally-inspired dimension. So it’s acting in a way that is positive that would help people or is for the community good or personal good and despite the fact that you’re afraid.

Brett McKay: Okay. So there’s three things going on there I guess. So the first thing, there’s a moral component to courage. We want it to be for a good cause. But it’s also the ability to control fear, but also act despite that fear that you might still have.

Robert Biswas-Diener: Absolutely. Absolutely. And I think the best way is just that idea of stepping through fear. The most courageous people, they get afraid. They aren’t people that are immune to fear. They’re just very, very good about acting even though they’re afraid and not being paralyzed by that fear.

Brett McKay: So as we mentioned earlier, courage is a sort of universal virtues and universal ideal that humans across the world experience. But how do different cultures shade the meaning of courage or what it means to be courageous?

Robert Biswas-Diener: Interesting. There are certainly different ways we can look at cultures, and most people when they think of culture they think of the most obvious aspects of culture like language or dress, food or religion, things like that. As a psychologist, I tend to think of cultures in categories in terms of how people identify, how they view the individual, and the individual’s relationship to the group.

So you can look, for example, cultures of dignity, and these are Westerners by and large, folks that are Americans, Canadians, for example. And we think that every individual is the unit of measurement of our culture, that each person has dignity or should have dignity. And you can contrast that with, for example, many Middle Eastern cultures that we would call cultures of honor. And certainly it’s not only the Middle East, other places as well, but honor cultures are those where people are very concerned about how they come across to others. They feel more on stage, and their personal and family reputation is very, very important to them.

So understanding culture in this type of way really gives us an insight into some of the mechanisms that bring courage about. You or I, if we’re from a dignity culture, might be more likely to speak up on behalf of an underdog because something has violated our culture of dignity. We really value everyone being treated with dignity, so we can’t stand a bully, so we’re going to be more courageous in that particular instance. Whereas someone from a culture of honor, if you say something bad about a family member, talk about someone’s mother or sister in a derogatory way, they are not going to let that slide because you have just insulted their very sense of honor, one of the things that their culture prizes most highly. So it’s sort what in the culture will activate our willingness to act.

Brett McKay: Besides dignity and honor, you also mentioned cultures of face, which you see in Asian countries. What is the difference between face cultures and honor cultures? Or is there one?

Robert Biswas-Diener: They’re similar. A culture of face culture, and listeners may be familiar with the idea of saving face, for example. And these are the cultures in the Pacific Rim like Taiwan, Japan, China, and so forth, Korea. And people are interested in avoiding personal embarrassment, that they think they are personally on stage. They have a more hierarchical society. They want to impress others.

And so that’s a little bit different than culture of honor, which is about reputation and family reputation. Culture of face can be a little bit more individual. If I’m going to stand up in front of my work group and give a presentation, I need to do a good job, not only so that I don’t embarrassment my colleagues, but also that I don’t embarrass myself.

Brett McKay: Okay. So what you’re saying again is culture will determine what triggers courageous or brave acts.

Robert Biswas-Diener: It’s one of many causes, but absolutely.

Brett McKay: You begin the book, which I think was interesting, with your sort of a personal experience in Africa. Can you tell us a little bit about that and what sort of culture of courage were you seeing there?

Robert Biswas-Diener: Yeah. I had gone to Africa originally to study happiness among tribal people. I was interested in working with people who had been traditionally overlooked by research psychologists, and I was focusing in particular on the Maasai in Kenya. And many people are familiar with the Maasai. They’re sort of the poster children for tribal Africa, the warriors especially. They have these long braids in their hair that are painted with red ochre paint, and they’re swaddled in these bright red cloths, and they’re known for jumping high and having spears and so forth.

So I went, and I stayed there many months, and I was conducting interviews with them principally about happiness, about the quality of their life, what makes them happy, how their relationships are, what their dreams and hopes are, those types of things. And one of the things I noticed very quickly about them is that they really prized courage as a virtue, which makes loads of sense if you live among wild animals. There are lions, for example, roving wild. And in fact, one of the people I interviewed, in fact, was attacked by a lion one time as he was walking by, and all he had to defend himself was a knife.

So you imagine yourself, that’s your morning commute, that you might be attacked by a wild animal like a lion. And you think, well, they must do something to instill bravery. They must tell their young children that bravery is one of the best possible virtues our society can have. And by and large, they consider themselves pretty brave, and in fact I think they are pretty brave, and I think that their particular brand of bravery is largely that kind of physical brand of bravery that most people default to, and it’s not so much some of the other types of bravery that we might think of like an entrepreneur opening a new business, which of course is a risky proposition and requires a little bit of courage.

Brett McKay: So let’s get into sort of the specifics of courage, what allows us to be courageous, what we can do to be more courageous. We talked about earlier some of the factors of courage is, one is the ability to manage fear when you experience fear, and then the other one is to act even though you’re afraid. Do these two factors work exclusively from each other? Or are they sort of intertwined with one another?

Robert Biswas-Diener: This really, I think, in some ways is sort of the heart of courage. If you do think of courage as being two separable processes, one is the ability to manage your fear, and the other is the willingness to act. That is essentially your courage quotient. You need your willingness to act to be greater than your fear. If your fear is greater, you’re going to be paralyzed and not do anything. If your willingness to act is even incrementally greater, then you will, as the name suggests, be willing to act.

And most people would assume that this operates like a seesaw. When one goes up, the other goes down. If I can sort of tamp down my fear, then my willingness to act will go up and vice versa. And in some ways, that’s true, but they don’t operate exactly like a seesaw. They’re a little more independent of each other, the two sides.

So for example, someone who’s afraid of flying may boost their willingness to act by, let’s say, praying and trying to fortify their attitude to say, “Hey, I can do this,” without tamping down their fear whatsoever. That is, their fear is still going to remain sky high, but they are going to be willing to act despite that.

Similarly, you could really, really tamp down your fear, and it might only incrementally increase your willingness to act, but you’ve pushed your fear down so far. So it’s sort of the relation of those two things, willingness to act and fear, that give us two separate avenues for trying to boost our own courage.

Brett McKay: This is where the debate with philosophers at least gets into what is considered a courageous act because some philosopher would say, well, if you feel no fear, maybe you have some sort of thing where you don’t feel fear at all, are you really being courageous if you don’t experience fear?

Robert Biswas-Diener: That’s right. And I actually, I think to some degree would agree with that notion. That is, really if you don’t feel any fear, you don’t have any sense that there’s a real risk, you don’t have any skin in the game. You’re really not putting up too much by way of virtuous behavior.

Now, I’ve heard many people sort of wave their hand at me and say, “But wait, wait. What about someone that just out of instinct bolts into the burning building to save the family, and they didn’t even have time to feel afraid?” Well, the truth is they’re still experiencing the physiological symptoms of fear. They have the accelerated heart rate, the blood pumping, the adrenaline, all of that. Whether or not they’re consciously sort of aware of it in the moment, that’s I think a more nuanced and subtle issue. But in general, we think that courage has to happen in the presence of fear.

Brett McKay: This raises an interesting question. In psychology there’s this idea of temperaments that you’re born with, and it makes about 50 to … I can’t remember the percentage, but sort of like, if you’re conscientious as a kid, you’re going to be conscientious as an adult. Are some people born more courageous than others out of temperament?

Robert Biswas-Diener: Yeah, it’s a really interesting question to dig into. And we know, look, there’s individual differences between people. Some folks are artistic, some are smart, some are detail-oriented, and some of that isn’t just genetic, but it also comes through practice and through their upbringing and some combination of all of those things. And exactly the same thing is true of courage. And that happens in part because of people’s emotionality.

Some folks are born just with their emotion dial set really intensely. They feel emotions strongly. When fear hits, it hits intensely. They love intensely. They get really angry when they get angry. For some of those people, fear might be overwhelming to them. They might be more likely to be paralyzed by fear. On the other hand, some of those people more likely might be motivated by anger. When they feel the outrage at an injustice or seeing someone being bullied, they might be the one to step forward.

So people who have a better sort of natural ability to control their emotional states or have more even-keeled emotional states may in some ways be better able to control fear and, therefore, be more courageous. And there are also people who are sort of just dialed a little bit more towards optimism, a little bit more towards risk-taking, and that’s that other element, the willingness to act element of bravery. For those people, they are more likely to take risks. You find this sometimes in serial entrepreneurs who’ve opened business after business despite the prospect of failure. You find it with some types of people that enjoy things like rock climbing or other dangerous hobbies.

Brett McKay: But with that said, you might have a temperament that gives you propensity to be more courageous, you argue in the book that courage can be learned. You agree with Aristotle, for example, that courage is a virtue that can be learned.

Robert Biswas-Diener: Yeah, absolutely. And courage can be learned I think in a variety of ways. One of the things that a number of scholars do is that they distinguish between what’s known as personal courage and general courage. General courage is exactly what you would think. It would be courageous if that act were performed by anyone. It would be courageous if anyone ran out into a hail of gunfire, saved someone, and pulled them back. We just get that anyone would be afraid in that situation. We would think anyone was a hero in that situation.

But personal courage is only courageous if you do it. So again, returning to the example of the person who’s afraid to fly, if they get on a plane, that is an act of personal courage because they’ve overcome a personal fear. But we wouldn’t necessarily consider that a generally courageous thing to do because people do it without a second thought all the time.

And I think that it’s in personal courage that people are more likely to make gains, that if you’re afraid of dogs, afraid of flying, afraid of public speaking, afraid of failure, afraid of intimacy, those are where you can make some incremental gains. And you don’t need to worry necessarily about having to rush into fire, sort of rush into gunfights to save strangers, although that’s certainly a nice thing to do.

Brett McKay: So let’s talk about these two processes of courage. First one is your ability to control fear. I think this is an interesting one because you as a psychologist, you’ve probably … There’s some people who are just anxious. They’re just fearful about everything. But there’s some people who just, they’re not anxious, but they experience that fear of public speaking, and they can’t get over that. So what are some things that people can do to increase their ability to control their fear?

Robert Biswas-Diener: The good news is people already have a pretty good intuitive grasp of some of the things they can do. People engage in a whole range of mental techniques naturally, and these range from praying. Whether you’re religious or very religious or not at all religious, the process of trying to tap into some force, whatever you think that is, that will help fortify you and give you strength is a very common strategy.

People, and to use the example you just raised of public speaking, a lot of that is fear of the unknown, fear of being evaluated. “What will it be like tomorrow when I have to give this huge presentation?” And if you can remove some of that unknown, for example, go to the auditorium, see what it’s like to stand onstage. You can picture now a little bit of what the audience will look like, what the seats in front of you look like, how they’re laid out. And as some of that unknown shrinks, you gain a little bit of confidence.

And because fear is also physiological, we can do a number of things to relax our muscle tension. So deep breathing exercises, tensing and loosening our muscles to feel relaxed, various mindfulness activities. Sometimes people, for example, have a glass of wine or beer. That mild consumption of alcohol can relax you. A bubble bath can relax you. Turns out there’s just a whole host of things that can help cut fear. It won’t necessarily get rid of it, but it can cut it down quite a bit.

Brett McKay: The one section I thought was really interesting is this idea of egocentrism that increases … When you think about yourself a lot, your fear goes up. So how does not thinking about yourself reduce your fear?

Robert Biswas-Diener: Yeah. This idea of ego kind of popularized by Freud is the idea that we’re our own top fans. We just like ourselves, are heavily invested in our own success, our own outcomes. And this doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re arrogant or conceded. It just means we really, really care about us because we have to live here inside our own bodies and with these identities.

But because of that, the downside risk is that we’re very protective of ourselves, of our reputations, of how others evaluate us. And sometimes, this means that people are only willing to take baby steps because they don’t want to make a mistake, they don’t want to be unfavorably evaluated, they don’t want to be ostracized from a group. And the more self-conscious a person is, oftentimes the more paralyzed they are. They just simply don’t want to act at all, let alone take a risky action.

So if you can shift some of that focus, shift some of that focus to the idea that you are just a cog in a machine, and many people might not like that idea. But at work, for example, you’re just one member of a team, and really you’re focusing on the team output, not your own output, or focus on others, that really this risky action isn’t about you, it’s in the service of other people. So really just shifting away from that kind of like I’m staring in a mirror, and there I am to I’m really looking out and focusing on the impact and the obligation responsibility to others, that can get people to sort of tamp down the brakes the ego put on.

Brett McKay: Yeah. I know when we did a series of articles a couple years ago about shyness or social anxiety, and one of the things that kept on popping up over and over again is that sort of the thing that drives that shyness or social anxiety is that you’re just thinking about constantly, “How am I looking? Am I looking like an idiot?” And then that just creates this vicious cycle, and the way you get out of that, you just try to think about the other person and make them feel comfortable and put the focus on them. That can help out a lot.

Robert Biswas-Diener: Absolutely. And one thing I would like to add to follow up on that, sometimes you’ll probably notice from your own life, the more heavily you invest in a goal, kind of the bigger the deal it is like, “Wow, I really care about this,” sometimes that can lead to more and more anxiety. It can be more and more paralyzing. What some of my colleagues have discovered is when people are heavily invested in pursuing a piece of success, some people end up being really happy, and some people end up being really anxious.

And the difference between those two groups is what they’re focusing on. The anxious group is focusing on, “Oh, no. If I fail, all this terrible stuff is going to happen.” But the happy group is focusing on progress. “Hey, I’ve made a little, tiny piece of progress. Even though there might be loads more to do, I’m still making progress, and I’m still putting one foot in front of another.” And if you can start focusing on that and making sure that your attention’s locked there, you’re more likely to continue on and then taking risks and not be paralyzed.

Brett McKay: Continuing on on that idea of reducing fear by eliminating the unknown, so if you’re public speaking, you gave the example of go to the place before your speech, walk around, get familiar. But the other idea of just eliminating the unknown is just facing the fear and then experiencing what you fear because then you realize it’s not as bad as you thought it was going to be.

Robert Biswas-Diener: Absolutely. One of the people I interviewed for the book said that they give themselves a weekly challenge to be uncomfortable, and that could be any number of things — going to a new restaurant, trying a new type of food, going to a church service for a religion that might be related to your religion but is not exactly your religion or caters to a different, I don’t know, a different demographic than yours. And then all sorts of little things, too. Just strike up a conversation with a stranger or be willing to fail today. And they would just do about 50 of these small experiments a year kind of by way of inoculating themselves. And when I asked, “Now do you not feel fear?,” I remember her saying, “Oh, no, I feel tons of fear. It’s just not so toxic.”

Brett McKay: That’s great. I love that idea. So let’s move onto that second process, which is increasing your willingness to act. So let’s say you were able to tamp down your fear using some sort of tactic. What do you do to increase your willingness to actually take action on that risk that you’re confronting?

Robert Biswas-Diener: There are a number of things you can do here. The one that tickles me, I believe, the most is the idea of magical thinking. Magical thinking is something that all humans have a capacity for. You can see this most clearly in the persistence of superstition. Don’t step on a crack or you’ll break your mother’s back, don’t spill salt, don’t walk under a ladder, no black cats should walk in front of you, those types of things.

Even though in our modern heads we know that when we knock over some salt, nothing’s going to happen, there is something very primal in our heart that gives us a little bit of an “uh oh,” and that’s because of this capacity for magical thinking. We just are willing to tap into some unknown pool of stuff that we can’t explain, we’ll call it magic, that can cause events that seem miraculous. And I don’t want to offend anyone who’s religious, but sort of religion would fall under this category as well, which is we’re not using the laws of physics to explain real-world events. We’re using something that is a different type of phenomenon.

How this relates to courage is the idea that many people have a lucky charm. I know when I present this idea to people, especially when I go into a corporate or organizational environment, people just sort of laugh at me, and they say, “Yeah, well, I don’t have a lucky charm.” But it turns out that just about everyone has a lucky charm of some sort. For men, it’s often a piece of attire, such as a power tie or a special pair of cuff links given to them on a particular occasion, maybe a pair of socks. For women who I interviewed, they often said it was a piece of jewelry or a pair of underwear.

Even though no one thinks that these items truly are magically infusing anyone with courage, they do seem to make people feel more confident. Sort of on game day, as it were, people choose these special items because it puts a little bit more spring in their step, and that somehow translates to, “I’ve got this. I’m willing to take a risk.” And it often can translate even to better performance.

Brett McKay: So yeah, find a lucky charm. That might work out for you.

Robert Biswas-Diener: Absolutely. And I would say you might already have a lucky charm. That is, if you have a piece of attire that gives you particular confidence, if you have a photograph of a loved one, a piece of jewelry. And the thing about these is that we create them. If someone gives you a gift from a trip abroad, suddenly that gift has special significance. You’ve already imbued it with a special quality. If you found that same thing on the ground, it wouldn’t be nearly as special, but because someone who’s connected to you gave it to you as a gift because it represents something larger, perhaps their trip abroad, you’re already making that item special. And because you have this ability to create magical items, you can kind of go out and do that with something that will be a little bit of a lucky charm. Maybe something you could keep in your pocket during those really, really terrifying public presentations.

Brett McKay: In your research, do you find that … Is courage domain exclusive? Say if you increase your courage in one aspect of your life, like you overcome your fear of public speaking, does that carry over to other domains, say into your family life or to some other part?

Robert Biswas-Diener: The truth is we don’t know exactly. It’s in theory that’s the case, but we don’t have the numbers for it. I will tell you this, this is I think somewhat related, and it has to do with the way that people view courage, and that is people are more likely to view a successful act as a courageous act.

So if you think about someone who sees a car fall into a pond, and they’re worried that the occupants are drowning, if a person jumps into the pond and saves the occupants of the car, everyone around says, “Wow, that was so courageous.” But if the person jumps into the pond, and they themselves drown and don’t save any of the occupants, the witnesses are far less likely to say that was courageous.

So we have this idea that courage is somehow tagged to success. A courageous action is one that works in the end. But I don’t think that’s always true, and I think we sometimes overlook acts of courage that just happened to go awry.

Brett McKay: One of your sections in the “How to increase your willingness to act” that I thought was really interesting was this idea of self-handicapping. And it’s something that people do without even thinking about it. When we self-handicap, it reduces our willingness to act. So what is self-handicapping for people who aren’t familiar with the concept?

Robert Biswas-Diener: Self-handicapping is the idea that we don’t like to be evaluated. So a classic example is you get a smart college student, and they’ve got a huge final exam coming up. Now, they’re smart, they’re bright, they’ve attended class, they in all likelihood can pass that final exam. And yet, they don’t want to have to go through the burden of being evaluated, and they’re afraid that they might fail. So what they would do, if they were to self-handicap, is they would create some type of circumstance that might actually lead to their failure.

So let’s say they stay up all night the night before studying, and then they go in dead tired to the exam first thing in the morning. They end up doing terribly on it. The upside for them psychologically speaking is that they now get to say, “Oh, well, it wasn’t because I’m not smart. I failed because I stayed up all night, because of something more circumstantial, something more external to me. If I would’ve gotten good sleep, I would’ve aced the test, but because of this really terrible sleep, I ended up doing poorly.” And many of us do this in a variety of ways, and we tend to even kind of do it a bit subconsciously.

Brett McKay: It sounds like passive aggression but directed at the self.

Robert Biswas-Diener: That’s a decent way to look at it.

Brett McKay: Right. So how do you reduce that tendency to self-handicap? You said we do it without even thinking about it and not even … How do you check yourself to make sure you’re not doing that?

Robert Biswas-Diener: Well, it’s difficult because it can come so naturally to us. One of the things I think is interesting, though, about self-handicapping is that people are still willing to do whatever the action is. So think about the example I just gave you. That person is in essence afraid of the final exam, but you’ll notice in this case they were acting, if we can make the case, bravely. That is, they still took the final exam. That is, they didn’t stay home and just shrink in the corner terrified of the final exam. They were still willing to do it. But what we want is for them to do it in a way that doesn’t involve them sort of cutting their own legs off.

I think it has to do with a minor but powerful shift in mindset wherein you are not being evaluated on success or failure but rather on your own sense of growth. And even if you underperform, the student in this case getting a C rather than an A, they use that as important feedback to identify areas that they’re weaker in or that they’re stronger in. It will help them redouble their efforts, and it’s just part of an overall personal narrative of, “I’m getting better. I’m learning more even if there’s a few stumbling blocks along the way.” So you have to be less focused on the individual momentary failure and have a grander sense of, “In general, I’m still developing and growing all the time.”

Brett McKay: Another thing that prevents us or keeps us from taking action is social cues. We might not be afraid, the fear might not be there, but when we look around at other people and we see them not taking action, it tends to cause us not to take action. This is called the bystander effect. So what can we do to overcome those biases that we have towards inaction when no one else is taking action?

Robert Biswas-Diener: Yeah, absolutely. To remind the listeners what the bystander effect is, it’s the idea that if five people witness someone fall down and have a seizure, for example, that in some cases they’re less likely to render aid to that person. And this goes a little bit against how we would think because you’d be like, “Wow, there’s five people. There should be five times the amount of help given.” One of the problems is that each individual sees the others as being equally responsible, and so no one’s wiling to step forward because they assume that others will step forward.

And so you can sidestep this by nominating yourself, and you can even do this ahead of time. Just right now in your head, say, “When I see someone in trouble, a car on the side of the road that’s disabled, someone that’s fallen down, fainted, had a seizure, someone that’s obviously injured, anything like that, I’m the person. I am the person that is going to rush to their aid.” So you sidestep that bystander effect.

In part, one of the things that will help empower you to do that is sort of knowing what to do. If you’re an EMT or a first responder, and you have loads of medical training, you’re far more likely to rush to the aid of someone having a seizure because it’s not weird to you, it’s not frightening to you, you know exactly what’s happening and exactly what to do. So if you can in some ways review in your head the types of skills you have, you can better nominate yourself to act in the types of scenarios that can use those skills.

Brett McKay: So it sounds like you’re using implementation intensions like, “If I see someone in need of help, then I will help.” I mean, that’s what you’re kind of doing.

Robert Biswas-Diener: Absolutely. If I see a car go off the road on the freeway, I am absolutely going to stop my car, even I have an appointment, even if I have a long drive ahead of me, and render aid however I can. That is me.

Brett McKay: Robert, there’s a lot of tips that we haven’t covered in this conversation, but if you were to talk to the people who are listening to this show, and if there’s one thing that they can do today to start increasing their courage quotient, what would that one thing be you think?

Robert Biswas-Diener: I’m actually going to cheat a little bit on this one and bring sort of the finish line of the race a little closer to people rather than trying to get people to run faster to the finish line. And that is there’s a concept I describe in the book called courage blindness, which is you’re just often unaware of how much courage you yourself have under your belt.

And I think that once you start appreciating all the courageous things you’ve done, maybe chosen to get married or chosen to get divorced, chosen to have a kid, moved jobs, moved to another state, gone away to college, switched your majors, dropped out of college, all of those things are frightening to say the least. They’re all uncertain. They all require you overcoming a sense of apprehension and taking a risk. And the list goes on and on. Opening businesses, all sorts of things.

And I would say that once you start considering that those are brands of courage, that resilience is a type of courage, perseverance is a type of courage, physical bravery is a type of courage, risk-taking like being an entrepreneur is a type of courage. When you start thinking of all of these, every time you’ve stuck up for an underdog, every time you’ve been party to a politically incorrect conversation and said, “You know what, I’m just going to bow out, I’m not comfortable with this,” every single one of those instances is a brand of courage.

And I would have people review that in their heads so that they can see that they’re not a zero out of 100 on courage but that they have a huge history of personal courage and that that’s what they should be building on going forward.

Brett McKay: So Robert, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about your book and your work?

Robert Biswas-Diener: Well, certainly they can get a copy of The Courage Quotient or any of my books at online retailers. And they can find out more about me by going to

Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well, Robert, thank you so much for your time. It’s been a pleasure.

Robert Biswas-Diener: Thank you, Brett.

Brett McKay: My guest today was Robert Biswas-Diener. He’s the author of the book The Courage Quotient. It’s available on You can also find out more information about his work at That’s D-I-E-N-E-R .com. Also, check out our show notes at, where you can find links to resources, where you can delve deeper into this topic.

Well, that wraps up another edition of The Art of Manliness Podcast. For more manly tips and advice, make sure to check out The Art of Manliness website at Also, check out our podcast archives. We’ve got over 300 episodes there at And if you enjoy the podcast, if you got something out of it, I’d appreciate if you take one minute to give us a review on iTunes or Stitcher. It helps out a lot. And if you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member or someone who you think would get a lot out of it.

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