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Lead Your Team Personal Growth

Cold Feet Can Keep You Out of Hot Water

Cold Feet Can Keep You Out of Hot Water Credit: Dmitrijs Gerciks | Dreamstime.com

Have you ever announced risky plans for your business that would have paved the way to the poorhouse and then backed out at the last minute? If so, new research suggests, you can thank your “illusion of courage” for putting the brakes on your grandiosity and saving your bacon.  It's baked into our human nature.

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"—our inability to imagine how we will behave in future emotional situations. According to the empathy gap theory, when the moment of truth is far off you aren’t feeling, and therefore are out of touch with, the fear you are likely to experience when push comes to shove.

In a series of experiments with college students, the researchers found that people overestimate their willingness to engage in psychologically distant embarrassing public performances. But they also discovered that they could reduce the effect of the illusion of courage by subjecting the students to negative emotions that put them in touch with the fear they would experience if they went through with the performances.

"Because social anxiety associated with the prospect of facing an embarrassing situation is such a common and powerful emotion in everyday life, we might think that we know ourselves well enough to predict our own behavior in such situations," said Leaf Van Boven, associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Colorado Boulder. "But 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, said George Loewenstein, the Herbert A. Simon University Professor of Economics and Psychology within Carnegie Mellon's Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences.

 "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," Loewenstein said.  "Knowing that, 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."