Appearances Can Be Deceiving (4. Bravery)

Think twice—what you see may not be what you think.

In three previous posts, we explored situations in which a single behavior might have multiple meanings and interpretations. First, we considered how fidgeting is not always impatience. Then, how solitude is not necessarily loneliness. Last week, how smiling is not always liking. I call these multi-source behaviors.

Every behavior has a source—a set of conditions that explains why the behavior occurred. 20th century German-American psychologist Kurt Lewin described this in an equation: B = f(P, E). Or, behavior is a function of the interaction of personality in an environment. Just as no person is an island, no personality trait is an island acting independently of its context. A person whose traits include a strong comfort in thinking through complex issues is likely to yawn when conversing one day with gossipers, but then look animated another day when conversing with theorizers. Whether yawning or animation happens is a function of their personality (complexity) and environment (simplistic or complex conversation).

Similarly, today’s subject—bravery—is a function of personality and

Bravery by de la Cruz

Bravery, by Richard dela Cruz, 2011. CC BY-ND 2.0


environment. Personality traits that could account for acts of bravery include nerves of steel, optimism, anger, high activity level, a preference for taking charge, low trust in others, imagination, competitiveness, pride, selflessness, ambition, or just plain rational thinking about what needs to be done. And of course a major factor that leads to acts of bravery is skill—it is more likely that a strong swimmer will jump off a boat to rescue a non-swimmer than would a weak swimmer. But whether each of these traits might activate and cause a brave behavior is a function of the environment—the situation surrounding the person/animal/etc. in distress. Are they a relative, a loved relative, a hated relative, a friend, an enemy, a family heirloom, one’s life savings, a helpless person, known or unknown, or are they important to realizing one’s ambition?

Acts of bravery could range from a skilled fighter chasing away a bully from an unknown, defenseless person (low personal risk and high chance of success with no obvious potential for personal reward—just doing the right thing) to an unskilled swimmer charging into the surf to rescue their drowning child (high personal risk and moderate chance of success with high personal reward). One more selfless, the other more self-serving. Not all bravery stems from a common motive. Make no assumptions. Before ascribing an act of bravery to a cause, to a bravery mindset, have a dialog with the brave person or those who know them, and determine what it was about the brave person’s personality, in combination with the context of the event, that most likely led to the brave response in a desperate situation.

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