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


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.

    Edited book exploring heroism from multiple theoretical and research perspectives.

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

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

  • 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.

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

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