Psychology Courage
by
Cynthia L. S. Pury
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 October 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199828340-0198

Introduction

Courage is praised as a virtue in many contemporary and historic cultures. While psychological definitions of courage vary, they nearly all include elements of risk (a perception of an external or sometimes internal threat) or fear (a common emotional response to perceived risk). Choice or voluntary action is also a common defining feature. Some, but not all, theories of courage also require that the action be taken for a noble or worthwhile reason. Currently, the main theoretical distinctions are between defining courage in purely emotional terms (acting despite fear) and defining it in terms of both risk and goals (taking a worthwhile risk). Historically, courage has been subdivided into two, then three, separate types based on the types of risks faced, the types of goals pursued, or the context for the courageous action. The most commonly made distinction is between physical courage, or taking action despite the risk of great bodily harm, and moral courage, or taking action in the cause of larger moral or social justice principles. More recently, scholars have specified other types of courage. Vital courage involves transcending a serious medical threat to live a meaningful life. Psychological courage, a related construct, focuses on overcoming extreme psychological or emotional distress for personally meaningful goals.

General Overviews

There are two general overviews of courage as a construct in positive psychology (see the separate Oxford Bibliographies in Psychology article “Positive Psychology”). Lopez 2007, an early special issue of the Journal of Positive Psychology, presents early empirical research on courage. An edited book, Pury and Lopez 2010, contains expanded versions of theoretical and empirical talks given at a special summit on courage cosponsored by the American Psychological Association and the Gallup Organization. Allison, et al. 2017 presents a similar approach to research on the closely related construct of heroism, which overlaps with the extreme end of courage, typically with actions taken despite extreme risk to benefit others.

  • Allison, S. T., G. R. Goethals, and R. M. Kramer, eds. 2017. Handbook of heroism and heroic leadership. New York: Routledge.

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    Edited book exploring heroism from multiple theoretical and research perspectives.

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    • Lopez, S. J., ed. 2007. Special issue: Courage. Journal of Positive Psychology 2.2.

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      Special issue presenting psychological research on courage as a virtue in positive psychology.

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      • Pury, C. L. S., and S. J. Lopez, eds. 2010. The psychology of courage: Modern research on an ancient virtue. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

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        Edited book exploring psychological research on courage from multiple theoretical and research perspectives.

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        Psychological Definitions of Courage

        There are two primary competing definitions of courage within psychology. The first defines courage solely as acting despite fear. This definition examines courage as an atypical response to the emotional state of fear with no mention of the purpose of the action. The second defines courage as taking a worthwhile risk, or a voluntary action taken despite risk in pursuit of a worthwhile goal. Theories, studies, and measures using the “acting despite fear” definition may concentrate on the psychological states and traits that help one to act despite fear in a broad sense, with limited attention paid to the reason for the action. Those using the “taking a worthwhile risk” definition will place attention on the risks and goals of the action, with emotional response to risk a secondary concern.

        Acting Despite Fear

        Rachman 1990 is written by one of the primary developers of behavior therapy (see the separate Oxford Bibliographies in Psychology article “Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy”) and the developer of a tripartite model of fear. In this model, a fear response consists of subjective changes such as feeling afraid, psychophysiological changes such as increased autonomic responses, and action tendencies associated with flight or freezing. Courage, Rachman argues, occurs when someone experiences the subjective and/or physiological responses of fear, but rather than fleeing or becoming frozen, the person approaches the feared stimulus instead. The authors of Norton and Weiss 2009 created an individual difference measure of courage as acting despite fear, and found that it predicted higher scores on a behavioral approach test in those fearful of spiders, but only when administered just before the test. Muris 2009 adapts this measure for children.

        • Muris, P. 2009. Fear and courage in children: Two sides of the same coin? Journal of Child and Family Studies 18.4: 486–490.

          DOI: 10.1007/s10826-009-9271-0Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

          Tests the Courage Measure for Children (CM-C)—an adaptation of Norton and Weiss’sCourage Measure (see Norton and Weiss 2009)—and finds a moderate positive correlation with sensation-seeking.

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          • Norton, P. J., and B. J. Weiss. 2009. The role of courage on behavioral approach in a fear-eliciting situation: A proof-of-concept pilot study. Journal of Anxiety Disorders 23.2: 212–217.

            DOI: 10.1016/j.janxdis.2008.07.002Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

            Presents the Courage Measure (CM), a self-report scale for adults defining courage as acting despite fear. Scores on the CM predict performance on a behavioral approach test for individuals high in spider fear, but only when the CM was administered just before the approach test.

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            • Rachman, S. J. 1990. Fear and courage. 2d ed. New York: W. H. Freeman.

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              The bulk of this book presents an overview of Rachman’s theory of fear and its application in behavior therapy. The final chapters review Rachman’s theory of courage as acting despite the physiological and subjective experience of fear, along with his research on that theory.

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              Taking a Worthwhile Risk

              Using the construct of “sentiments” popular in the early 1900s, Lord 1918 proposes that courage is the process of the base sentiment of fear being overcome by a more noble sentiment. The author then describes a variety of sentiments, or motivations for courageous action, and ranks them in order of nobility, ending with a highly partisan treatise on the superior sentiments, and thus the superior courage, of US and British troops compared to German troops in the then-current World War I. Rate, et al. 2007 finds that, in a US sample, courage is defined by four, possibly five, features: (1) intentionality of the actor; (2) deliberation by the actor; (3) objective, substantial risk to the actor; (4) noble or worthy goal of the action; and (5) the actor might perhaps feel fear. Rate 2010 subsequently narrows this to three essential components: (1) intentionality of the actor; (2) danger, difficulty, or risk to the actor; and (3) noble or worthy goal of the action. Cheng and Huang 2017 finds that, for a Chinese sample, courage requires persistence, breakthrough, and responsibility. The authors propose that persistence is a continued state of intentionality, breakthrough describes overcoming difficulty or risk, and responsibility may be the collectivist version of the individualistic noble goal.

              • Cheng, C., and X. Huang. 2017. An exploration of courage in Chinese individuals. Journal of Positive Psychology 12.2: 141–150.

                DOI: 10.1080/17439760.2016.1163406Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                Two empirical studies of the definition of courage in Chinese samples, finding that persistence, breakthrough, and responsibility are the core features of courageous action.

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                • Lord, H. G. 1918. The psychology of courage. Boston: John W. Luce.

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                  A largely philosophical monograph presenting courage as the sentiment of fear being overcome by a more noble sentiment. Can be ordered from online booksellers as a historical reprint if a used copy cannot be located.

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                  • Rate, C. R. 2010. Defining the features of courage: A search for meaning. In The psychology of courage: Modern research on an ancient virtue. Edited by C. L. S. Pury and S. J. Lopez, 47–66. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

                    DOI: 10.1037/12168-003Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                    Additional analysis of implicit theory data: narrows defining features to three: (1) intentionality of the actor; (2) danger, difficulty, or risk to the actor; and (3) noble or worthy goal of the action.

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                    • Rate, C. R., J. A. Clarke, D. R. Lindsay, and R. J. Sternberg. 2007. Implicit theories of courage. Journal of Positive Psychology 2.2: 80–98.

                      DOI: 10.1080/17439760701228755Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                      Four implicit theory studies of courage in US samples, concluding with four (possibly 5) defining features of courageous acts: (1) intentionality of the actor; (2) deliberation by the actor; (3) objective, substantial risk to the actor; (4) noble or worthy goal of the action; and (5) the actor might perhaps feel fear.

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                      Types of Courageous Actions

                      Types of courage have been researched in a variety of ways. The Overall Typologies subsection presents research and scholarship dividing courage into multiple types of action. The remaining subsections—Physical Courage, Moral Courage, Vital or Psychological Courage, and Blended Courage—present specific research grouped by the most common breakdown of types of courageous action.

                      Overall Typologies

                      Scholars interested in courage have long noted that there are different types of actions that we call courageous. The Socratic dialogue presented by Plato 1961 presents a variety of different types of courage recognized in Plato’s time. One of the first chapters to address courage as a topic in positive psychology (see the separate Oxford Bibliographies in Psychology article “Positive Psychology”), Lopez, et al. 2003 presents a summary of scholarship on three main types of courage: physical, moral, and vital courage. Here, physical courage is defined as taking a physically risky action, moral courage as taking a risky action for the sake of one’s principles or moral beliefs, and the more recently added vital courage as fighting for one’s life or well-being in the face of illness or adversity. Pury, et al. 2007, examining the types of risk and difficulty encountered during a past courageous action taken by participants, found that narratives were split into physical courage, moral courage, and psychological courage—a similar construct to vital courage. Specific actions mentioned by participants asked to recall a courageous action are categorized in Pury, et al. 2007; Muris 2009; and Cheng and Huang 2017. While the categories emerging from these studies do not perfectly overlap (see Woodard and Pury 2007 for a related taxonomy), there are common themes, including risking one’s safety to save another from similar risk (the prototypical act of physical courage), standing up for one’s beliefs (the prototypical act of moral courage), and acting outside one’s comfort zone (the prototypic act of psychological courage).

                      • Cheng, C., and X. Huang. 2017. An exploration of courage in Chinese individuals. Journal of Positive Psychology 12.2: 141–150.

                        DOI: 10.1080/17439760.2016.1163406Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                        Adult Chinese participants were asked to describe their most courageous action. Their responses fell into three main categories: trying something difficult, helping others in danger, and persisting in one’s purpose.

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                        • Lopez, S. J., K. K. O’Byrne, and S. Petersen. 2003. Profiling courage. In Positive psychological assessment: A handbook of models and measures. Edited by S. J. Lopez and C. R. Snyder, 185–197. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

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                          Review of scholarship on physical courage (taking a physically risky action), moral courage (taking a risky action for the sake of one’s principles or moral beliefs), and the more recently added vital courage (fighting for one’s life or well-being in the face of illness or adversity).

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                          • Muris, P. 2009. Fear and courage in children: Two sides of the same coin? Journal of Child and Family Studies 18.4: 486–490.

                            DOI: 10.1007/s10826-009-9271-0Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                            Children in Holland, ages 8–13, were given the “acting despite fear” definition of courage, then asked to describe their most courageous act. Responses were grouped as performing physically risky actions, riding a roller coaster, dealing with feared animals, dealing with dangerous environments, doing scary things in the dark, dealing with scary people, enduring medical procedures, helping others, public performance, and performing well during sports.

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                            • Plato. 1961. Laches. In The collected dialogues of Plato, including the letters. Edited by E. Hamilton and H. Cairns, 123–144. Translated by B. Jowett. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

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                              A foundational dialogue establishing different contexts for courageous action.

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                              • Pury, C. L. S., R. M. Kowalski, and J. Spearman. 2007. Distinctions between general and personal courage. Journal of Positive Psychology 2.2: 99–114.

                                DOI: 10.1080/17439760701237962Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                US college student participants were asked to describe a time they acted courageously, then asked a variety of follow-up questions. Responses fell into three broad categories: physical courage, moral courage, and psychological courage, which corresponded to types of risks and difficulties encountered. Common subtypes within each group are described.

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                                • Woodard, C. R., and C. L. S. Pury. 2007. The construct of courage: Categorization and measurement. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research 59.2: 135–147.

                                  DOI: 10.1037/1065-9293.59.2.135Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                  Development of a measure of courage, the Woodard-Pury Courage Scale-23 (WPCS-23). US college student participants were asked how likely they would be to take a variety of courageous actions. Factor analysis found four main factors, based on the type of goal being pursued: work/employment, patriotic/religion-based belief system, specific social-moral, and independent courage or family based.

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                                  Physical Courage

                                  Studies of physical courage have primarily focused on those in physically dangerous professions, such as bomb disposal operators in Cox, et al. 1983, and paratroopers in McMillan and Rachman 1988. Rachman 1990 reviews this program of research, which defines courage as acting despite fear (see the subsection Acting Despite Fear under Psychological Definitions of Courage). These studies have typically found lower levels of subjective and physiological reactivity to stress in those who are seen by others as more courageous.

                                  • Cox, D., R. Hallam, K. O’Connor, and S. Rachman. 1983. An experimental analysis of fearlessness and courage. British Journal of Psychology 74.1: 107–117.

                                    DOI: 10.1111/j.2044-8295.1983.tb01847.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                    Subjective, behavioral, and psychophysiological responses to a laboratory stress task were measured in bomb disposal operators who had been decorated for courage, bomb disposal operators who had not been decorated for courage, and a control group. Those decorated for bravery showed reduced cardiac reactivity compared to the other groups, while both samples of bomb disposal operators showed lower subjective reactivity than controls.

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                                    • McMillan, T. M., and S. J. Rachman. 1988. Fearlessness and courage in paratroopers undergoing training. Personality and Individual Differences 9.2: 373–378.

                                      DOI: 10.1016/0191-8869(88)90100-6Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                      Finds that trainee paratroopers can be divided into three groups based on questionnaires administered before and after training: courageous (expecting fear before training and experiencing fear during training), fearless (not expecting fear and not experiencing it), and overconfident (not expecting fear but experiencing it).

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                                      • Rachman, S. J. 1990. Fear and courage. 2d ed. New York: W. H. Freeman.

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                                        The final chapters review studies on those in physically courageous occupations, and concludes that those who excel at occupations with a high amount of physical risk might best be thought of as fearless rather than courageous.

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                                        Moral Courage

                                        Alternatively called civil courage and social courage, moral courage involves taking a personal risk to prevent or right a moral wrong. Research in this area has typically followed the “taking a worthwhile risk” definition of courage (see the subsection Taking a Worthwhile Risk under Psychological Definitions of Courage), with the action seen as worthwhile because of its moral component. Brandstätter, et al. 2016 finds that different individual differences predict the perception of risk compared to the perception of need for action in moral courage scenarios. Morally courageous actions have been compared to less risky prosocial behavior (see the separate Oxford Bibliographies in Psychology article “Prosocial Behavior”) in Greitemeyer, et al. 2006. Hannah, et al. 2011 finds that moral courage is a moderator between authentic leadership and follower ethical and prosocial behavior. Howard, et al. 2016 proposes a workplace-relevant type of moral courage called social courage, which is intentional, deliberate altruistic behavior that might damage the actor’s social standing. The authors develop and validate a measure of social courage specific to workplace settings. Koerner 2014 examines narratives of courage on the job, interpreting them in terms of a process of identity tension and resolution. Finally, Schilpzand, et al. 2015 proposes a two-step process model of courageous action in the workplace, in which the actor first feels a sense of responsibility to respond to a challenging situation, and then assesses the social risk of taking action.

                                        • Brandstätter, V., K. J. Jonas, S. H. Koletzko, and P. Fischer. 2016. Self-regulatory processes in the appraisal of moral courage situations. Social Psychology 47.4: 201–213.

                                          DOI: 10.1027/1864-9335/a000274Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                          Empirical study using a variety of European samples demonstrating that different individual differences predict perceived social risk and perceived norm violations in moral courage scenarios.

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                                          • Greitemeyer, T., P. Fischer, A. Kastenmüller, and D. Frey. 2006. Civil courage and helping behavior: Differences and similarities. European Psychologist 11.2: 90–98.

                                            DOI: 10.1027/1016-9040.11.2.90Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                            In a variety of German samples, morally good helping behavior was compared to morally good courageous (i.e., more personally dangerous) behavior. Situations demanding moral courage were perceived more quickly, and participants reported greater perceived responsibility, less need for high skill, more negative and fewer positive social consequences, more salient societal norms, more evaluation apprehension, anger, and more empathy.

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                                            • Hannah, S. T., B. J. Avolio, and F. O. Walumbwa. 2011. Relationships between authentic leadership, moral courage, and ethical and pro-social behaviors. Business Ethics Quarterly 21.4: 555–578.

                                              DOI: 10.5840/beq201121436Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                              In a military sample, authentic leadership predicts follower moral courage, which in turn predicts both follower ethical behavior and follower prosocial behavior.

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                                              • Howard, M. C., J. L. Farr, A. A. Grandey, and M. B. Gutworth. 2016. The creation of the workplace social courage scale (WSCS): An investigation of internal consistency, psychometric properties, validity, and utility. Journal of Business and Psychology, Online First (18 July).

                                                DOI: 10.1007/s10869-016-9463-8Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                Presents items and validation data for the Workplace Social Courage Scale (WSCS). The WSCS measures the likelihood that someone is willing to take deliberate, intentional prosocial action at work even though taking the action might jeopardize the actor’s social standing in the organization.

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                                                • Koerner, M. M. 2014. Courage as identity work: Accounts of workplace courage. Academy of Management Journal 57.1: 63–93.

                                                  DOI: 10.5465/amj.2010.0641Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                  Examines working adults’ narratives about courage on the job. Four main types of courageous actions—endurance, reaction, opposition, and creation—are described, with each interpreted based on the identity work involved (e.g., strengthening or reaffirming identity by confronting powerful others, repairing an identity following a crisis).

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                                                  • Schilpzand, P., D. R. Hekman, and T. R. Mitchell. 2015. An inductively generated typology and process model of workplace courage. Organization Science 26.1: 52–77.

                                                    DOI: 10.1287/orsc.2014.0928Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                    Qualitative analysis of interviews about a courageous action experienced at work. Results are interpreted as supporting a process model of courageous action, in which a precipitating challenging event leads to felt responsibility to act, followed by an assessment of the social risk of acting.

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                                                    Vital or Psychological Courage

                                                    While prototypic actions that are morally or physically courageous are taken to help others, both vital and psychologically courageous actions are typically taken for more personal goals. Vital courage is the courageous response to having a long-term serious illness or other threat to one’s well-being. To respond courageously, Finfgeld 1999 argues, the individual needs to accept the reality of the threat, use realistic problem-solving, and, most importantly, push beyond that struggle to the end of personal thriving and integrity. Psychological courage, proposed by Putman 2004, involves risking one’s current emotional well-being for long-term personal goals. While initially developed to describe the courage someone needs to face distress in psychological treatment, the term can also be applied to actions such as emigration to a new country or selecting a challenging program of study when one is unsure of one’s ability to succeed.

                                                    • Finfgeld, D. L. 1999. Courage as a process of pushing beyond the struggle. Qualitative Health Research 9.6: 803–814.

                                                      DOI: 10.1177/104973299129122298Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                      Integration of six qualitative studies of individuals facing serious medical conditions or who had been sexually assaulted. Sustaining forces, being courageous, and sustaining forces for being courageous were the main interdependent components found.

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                                                      • Putman, D. 2004. Psychological courage. Lanham, MD: Univ. Press of America.

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                                                        Philosophical monograph making a case for psychological courage.

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                                                        Blended Courage

                                                        Not all courageous actions can be neatly categorized as physical courage, moral courage, or vital/psychological courage. If these types are represented by type-specific goals and risks, blends of different types of courage should also be possible. For example, civil rights protesters might be pursuing the goals of moral courage but facing the physical risks of physical courage. Pury, et al. 2014 finds that active duty military personnel seeking treatment for a needed mental health problem faced the social risks of moral courage for goals that were more similar to psychological or vital courage.

                                                        • Pury, C. L. S., T. W. Britt, H. M. Zinzow, and M. A. Raymond. 2014. Blended courage: Moral and psychological courage elements in mental health treatment seeking by active duty military personnel. Journal of Positive Psychology 9:30–41.

                                                          DOI: 10.1080/17439760.2013.831466Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                          Qualitative study of US active-duty soldiers seeing mental health treatment. Soldiers reported that their primary motivation for treatment was wellness, typical of psychological courage, but the risks they faced in seeking treatment were primarily social rejection, typical of moral courage.

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                                                          Levels of Courage and the Observer of Courageous Actions

                                                          Calling an action or a person courageous (or cowardly) has rich connotations. Within the definition of courage as taking a worthwhile risk (see the subsection Taking a Worthwhile Risk under Psychological Definitions of Courage), Pury and Starkey 2010 argues that calling something courageous serves as a code for saying that one endorses the goal being pursued and understands that the action poses a (perceived or real) threat to the actor. Pury and Starkey label the process by which an observer comes to call an action courageous as accolade courage. Some actions are obviously high in accolade courage—at the extreme end and including a very strongly prosocial goal is heroism. While heroism is traditionally assumed to be predominantly a male domain, Becker and Eagly 2004 finds that some types of heroic actions are more commonly carried out by women then by men. Experiencing accolade courage, or witnessing an action that you view as courageous, can lead to positive interpersonal and organizational effects, according to Worline 2010. See also Allison, et al. 2017 (cited under General Overviews). Other actions are lower in accolade courage and may only seem courageous to the person taking them or to others who know the person well. Pury, et al. 2007 argues that these actions are likely to be ones in which the actor has a greater fear of the risk than is typical for most other people. A prototypic example is someone facing a phobic fear. Given more recent findings on the importance of goals for courageous action, it might also be that actions with more idiosyncratically valued goals might fall into the personal courage category as well.

                                                          • Becker, S. W., and A. H. Eagly. 2004. The heroism of women and men. American Psychologist 59.3: 163–178.

                                                            DOI: 10.1037/0003-066x.59.3.163Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                            Empirical test for gender differences in multiple heroic groups: Carnegie Hero Medal winners, Holocaust rescuers, living kidney donors, and volunteers for two different agencies that provide international relief. While Carnegie Hero Medal winners were overwhelmingly male, there was a smaller predominance of women in the other categories.

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                                                            • Pury, C. L. S., R. M. Kowalski, and J. Spearman. 2007. Distinctions between general and personal courage. Journal of Positive Psychology 2.2: 99–114.

                                                              DOI: 10.1080/17439760701237962Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                              US college student participants described a time they acted courageously, and were then asked a variety of follow-up questions. Authors found evidence for the existence of personal courage, or actions that are seen as courageous just for the individual taking them, and general courage, or actions that are likely to seem courageous to naive observers.

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                                                              • Pury, C. L. S., and C. B. Starkey. 2010. Is courage an accolade or a process? A fundamental question for courage research. In The psychology of courage: Modern research on an ancient virtue. Edited by C. L. S. Pury and S. J. Lopez, 67–87. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

                                                                DOI: 10.1037/12168-004Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                Chapter arguing that courage can be studied as both a process (Will the person take action despite risk?) and an accolade (Will others call the action courageous?).

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                                                                • Worline, M. C. 2010. Understanding the role of courage in social life. In The psychology of courage: Modern research on an ancient virtue. Edited by C. L. S. Pury and S. J. Lopez, 209–226. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

                                                                  DOI: 10.1037/12168-011Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                  Book chapter presenting evidence from the author’s dissertation that courage within the workplace is a protective response to threats to the collective, and that observation of courage in others is a positive force in an organization.

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