Jump or not jump: Why we chicken out

CARNEGIE MELLON (US) — Whether it’s investing in stocks, bungee jumping, or speaking in public, why do we often plan to take risks but then back down when the moment of truth arrives?

This “illusion of courage” is one example of an “empathy gap”—that is, our inability to imagine how we will behave in future emotional situations, argue researchers in a new paper in the Journal of Behavioral Decision Making.

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.

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In a series of three experiments, scientists from Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Colorado at Boulder, and Cornell University found that people overestimate their willingness to engage in psychologically distant embarrassing public performances. People could reduce this illusion of courage by inducing immediate emotions that effectively put them in touch with the fear they would experience, the study shows.

In the first two experiments, college students were asked if they would be willing to engage in a future embarrassing situation—telling a funny story to their class in one study, and dancing to James Brown’s “Sex Machine” in front of the class in the other—in exchange for a few dollars. Students were either asked outright or after being exposed to short films that aroused mild experiences of fear and anger.

Students who did not view movie clips significantly overestimated their willingness to sing or dance. When they experienced negative emotions—fear and anger—as a result of watching the movie clips, students were much more accurate in predicting their own future lack of interest in performing.

“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,” says Leaf Van Boven, associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Colorado at 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.

“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,” says George Loewenstein, a professor of economics and psychology at Carnegie Mellon.

“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.”

The study was funded by the National Science Foundation, Center for Integrated Study of the Human Dimensions for Global Change at Carnegie Mellon, and the National Institute for Mental Health.

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