Archive for the ‘Individual Differences’ Category

On Materialism

It is what it is. If the shoe fits, wear it. If you’ve got it, flaunt it. A rose by any other name….

Our language is peppered with such phrases that urge authenticity. Perhaps Shakespeare said it most eloquently (Hamlet, I,3, 564-566) with

This above all--to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.

On the one hand, political correctness would have us find the least offensive words to describe one another—pleasantly plump, not fat. On the other hand, and particularly today in an era of alternative facts and fake news, critical thinking demands that we describe the world as accurately as possible, in order that we might make the most effective decisions.

shoes of markos

Imelda Marcos Shoe Museum. Manila, The Philippines.

So, I have a problem with one of our assessments—the WorkPlace Values Profile™ (for a free tryout, ask at . This profile measures the relative importance of 16 values for an individual—things like Power, Beauty, and Relationships. My problem—one of tact vs. truth—is with Materialism, one of our 16 values. Many people just don’t like being associated with that word, in spite of answering relevant questions in support of materialism:


  • Having possessions that are the envy of others
  • Having really nice things around me
  • Being able to shop at the finer stores or other venues
  • Maximizing the amount of luxury in my life
  • Being seen in settings that are fashionable

When someone’s answers endorse these items, they get a high score on Materialism. Too many clients have told me that they squirmed when they saw their high score, saying “I’m not really that materialistic!” In processing their results, we review how they answered each question, yet they wouldn’t change their answers. “Compared to others,” I then say, “you are more materialistic than the norm.” That is what these statements define—materialism is an emphasis on having nice things, shopping at finer venues, maximizing luxury, being fashionable, having possessions. While they may also have high scores on values such as Relationships, Helping, or Intellect, it is as though many people feel like the materialistic label overshadows their other values, that being seen as materialistic negates other values. You can’t be true to two, they feel. You can’t value Intellect and be Materialistic. The appellation of materialistic seems to taint its bedfellows—guilt by association.

Just as “Something there is that doesn’t like a wall” (Robert Frost, “Mending Wall”), there something that many people don’t like when they are described as “materialistic.” Materialism is both a philosophical and an everyday term. In philosophy, a materialist asserts that nothing exists beside the observable, physical world. As an everyday word, a materialistic person typically describes someone who values things, especially nice things. A materialistic person in the everyday sense could also exhibit other values, such as Relationships, Spirituality, and Intellect, that might appear to be the opposite of Materialism. The often-thought opposites of Spiritualism and Materialism were conjoined in the Rev. Jim Bakker’s dictum that “God doesn’t like junk.” Monks are examples of non-materialistic spiritualists. Bakker was a materialistic spiritualist, with his gold-plated bathroom faucets.

I should say that I do see Materialism as neither a good nor a bad value. Like any other value, it can be used for good or ill. Some materialists set standards that are motivating to others, while other materialists exhibit a greed that crushes motivation. Some of my best friends are materialistic! I had a colleague once who chided me upon hearing that I was headed for Europe one summer. “I wish I had that kind of money.” “You do,” I quipped, “but you spent it on a Cadillac. I drive a VW beetle! And, I go to Europe on the difference in price.” Desire for Status drove his Materialism to have things that made others envious. My desire for intellectual stimulation took the same money and applied to travel and books.

I have searched thesauri for synonyms that would be more neutral/less offensive—worldliness, acquisitiveness, object-orientation, possessiveness, physicalism, greediness. None quite worked. One that I did like—materiality—has a fixed meaning in auditing—small discrepancies are immaterial, while large ones are material, or show materiality. I think “materiality” is the best of the words I’ve considered—the most neutral. “Materiality” suggests that something is way out of line—an egregious mistake, intentional or otherwise. Should I not be concerned about this special meaning of a word that otherwise is the most objective way of saying “Materialism”?

What do you think? Should I/we keep using “materialism” and shrug at complaints, saying, “Hey, a rose is a rose is a rose….” Or should we replace it with “materiality”? Or something else?

Silence! I’m Composing…

March 15, 2017 2 comments

The story is told of the Beethoven fan who had exhausted the usual pursuits of musical enthusiasts—he had all the recordings, publications, pictures, anecdotes, and so forth. At his wit’s end to spend his zealous energy further, he arrived one midnight with spade in hand at Ludwig van’s grave in Vienna. He dug to the casket. Gently prying its lid, beams of light filled the excavation. Peering in, he observed the master rubbing on a manuscript with a large eraser. Beethoven, looking up, implored, “Silence and away, please, I’m decomposing.”

Well, the story/joke is perhaps marred by Beethoven’s deafness—why would he ask for silence? Which takes me to the larger question: Do all composers require silence in order to transfer their musical ideas to staff paper? Do distractions kill their train of thought? I had not asked this question until I recently read a biography of Finnish composer Jean Sibelius (Ainola: The Home of Jean and Aino Sibelius, The Finnish Literature Society, Helsinki, 2015). I was struck by the lengths to which “Sibba” went to insure silence and absence of distractions while composing. So much silence, in fact, that he even eschewed the use of a piano—normally required by composers as they pen their notes. He went from brain to paper directly. Children had to play silent games downstairs. Maintenance workers could make no noise in the course of their work. Often, when total silence was difficult, he would stay up all night with a pot of coffee and sleep til lunch. The children could not even practice their piano or other instruments while papa was penning.

Grieg's Cabin

Edward Grieg’s Cabin, Bergen, Norway. Provided by Bob Ivey

As a personality psychologist, I regard the power of concentration as what we call an “individual difference variable”—some individuals find it easier to concentrate—they get into a kind of trance and blank out the immediate environment, noises and all. Others have more difficulty concentrating, and the television, playful children, hammering carpenters, and passing motorists drive them to distraction as they lose whatever train of thought they may have contemplated. In other words, concentration varies according to the normal curve along a continuum, from those who find it easier to those who find it more difficult to concentrate, and many who are in-between, where it sort of depends on the circumstances.

I asked myself: Do all composers of music require total absence of distraction in a manner similar to Sibelius? Or do some composers pen away in total oblivion with respect to local distractions?  Put another way, is total silence a work attribute requirement for all composers, or do composers vary on their need for distraction-free environments? I haven’t known very many composers in my 75 years, so I turned to two friends who have—Bob Ivey, retired organist, bell-ringer, and conductor, and Andrew Pester, doctoral student in music history at Duke University, whose dissertation focuses on three 20th century French composers.

Bob first replied that

…the only details I know of the type you are requesting pertain to Edvard Grieg.  We have been to his home (Troldhaugen) twice in Bergen, but actually all I know is that he has a separate composing building with many windows (the size of a tool shed or a small play house for a child) that is separate from his home.  It is in a beautiful location on the side of the hill, overlooking the water. [see photo above]

Bob forwarded my question to his musician friend and Curtis Institute graduate Richard Cummins of Roanoke, Virginia. Richard responded:

I guess the most famous composers I ever knew were Samuel Barber and Roy Harris and Jean Langlais. We had a 50th birthday party for Sam when I was at Curtis and I had several nice chats with him. He took something out of his hip pocket which looked worn and tattered. Turns out it was a pocket score of Bach’s Orgelbüchlein. Sam told me he carried it with him whenever he was traveling by train or plane and constantly studied it, always gleaning something new and revealing from it. I don’t know about Sam’s requirements for actually composing but would think a reasonable quiet place would be welcome— however some composers prefer to have a piano handy to try any ideas which may appear in their minds.

Roy Harris was a truck driver in Oklahoma before he became a serious classical composer. I am guessing he also liked quiet when thinking and experimenting with notes, etc. When I knew Roy the longest he was at Inter American University in Puerto Rico. They had a new and wonderful recording studio/concert hall there and Roy and his wife would pawn the many kids they had produced off on his composition students while he and his wife, Johanna (a wonderful pianist), would work until the wee hours of the morning in the studio and then sack out until time for morning classes. However, listening to other composers’ music in real time or by recording can also prompt ideas. It’s a very personal thing and I don’t think there is any one vessel any creative person can use to approach actual composing.

I do know that Sibelius, late in the afternoon, would walk down the hill from his home to the local pub and imbibe until he could no longer make it up the hill to home, whereupon Mrs. S. and the two daughters would take an actual wheelbarrow down to collect the great man, and the three would push him home! [Sibelius’ drinking problem was legendary. With such an active mind, he likely drank to fill the void when not composing, much as the fictional Sherlock Holmes used cocaine for stimulation when not on a case—a way to slow down their racing minds. –PJH]

I also knew Jean Langlais who, as you know was blind. I remember playing themes for him on the piano and he would, in turn, play them over on the piano several times and then put a piece of paper in between a small metal grid and, with an instrument, punch holes through the grid into the paper, which captured the phrase or fragment for him.

St. John’s [in Roanoke] choir is doing my Dag Hammarskjöld piece on 2 April at the 10am service and I am conducting. I nearly always worked at the piano because I like to immediately hear the sound of any ideas I get. Some, like Mahler, would compose in a small cottage with no instrument. And then there was Beethoven–ultimately he had to write only what he could hear in his head and, my gosh, what he could hear!

Andrew added:

It’s an interesting question. To be fair, of all the information that I’ve shoved into my mind, I cannot say that I know much of this as a composer’s need for absolute silence. In fact, I know much more of composers who have been productive through extraneous noise and disruptions rather than silence. I know of other requirements: Beethoven liked to compose at the piano; Rachmaninoff preferred a certain brand of piano—Blüthner–as did Stravinsky. But absolute silence seems elusive. I imagine that this would be the most conducive environment for composition, but I don’t know of those who demanded it. I know that composers frequently sought out certain conditions [italics mine], but (somewhat strangely) I don’t know of silence being a frequent or common requirement.

Conclusion: “Sought out certain conditions”—to me, that is the key. Composers’ need for a particular ambience varies with the individual according to their personality traits, the nature of their compositional task, and the habits they’ve learned over a lifetime. In truth, all creative people tend to have their own way of setting the stage for composition:

  • William Faulkner took a jug of rye whiskey up to the hayloft of his barn to get in the mood.
  • Samuel Johnson and W. H. Auden drank tea.
  • Dame Edith Sitwell lay in a casket.
  • Friedrich von Schiller placed rotten apples in his desk drawer.
  • Hart Crane listened to Latin music.
  • Edgar Allan Poe perched his cat on his shoulder.
  • Rudyard Kipling had a fetish for the blackest of India inks.
  • (More at Topic 25.8 in my The Owner’s Manual for the Brain, 4th, William Morrow)

Et moi? I burn a big, fat, red, Christmas candle to transport me into my writing frame of mind. To each his own! There is no one right, mandatory, way to be. Silence is nice, but not the only device.

I’m Just a Churl Who Can’t Say “No”

Well, not really a churl. Or a girl, for that matter.

At the Center for Applied Cognitive Studies, we employ the Five-Factor Model to describe individual differences in personality traits. One of the traits is Accommodation, which reports how an individual typically behaves around power. Broadly described, Challengers are those low in Accommodation—as a rule they have no trouble saying “No”—i.e., standing up for themselves. Negotiators are those in the midrange—saying no is more situational, and they are as likely to negotiate to get what they need as they are to say no when their limits have been reached. People high in Accommodation are Adapters, and these are they who tend to have trouble saying no—saying no to social pressures, saying no to requests for help, or saying no in moral dilemmas when something untoward is requested of them.


Letters on Road, Dan Brady.      CC BY 2.0


As a researcher and educator, I am always looking for ways to help people understand how their traits work for or against their interests. One of my favorite resources is “poem-a-day,” a free digital poetry service of the Academy of American Poets ( I’ve subscribed to this service for several years—I get one poem on weekdays composed by contemporary poets, and one poem on weekend days composed by past poets. Today’s offering is from Poet Dana Levin, who is Distinguished Writer in Residence at Maryville University in St. Louis: “Instructions for Stopping.” It is an ode in support of saying no:

Instructions for Stopping

By Dana Levin

Say Stop.
Keep your lips pressed together
after you say the p:
(soon they’ll try
and pry
your breath out—)
Whisper it
three times in a row:
Stop Stop Stop
In a hospital bed
                           like a curled up fish, someone’s
gulping at air—
How should you apply
your breath?
List all of the people
you would like
to stop.
Who offers love,
who terror—
Write Stop.
Put a period at the end.
 Decide if it’s a kiss
or a bullet.
Copyright © 2017 Dana Levin. Used with permission of the author.


One way to evaluate the quality of literature is to look for evidence that the writer’s characters reflect the various dimensions of the Five-Factor Model. Characters who can’t be pegged as to their traits are what I would describe as flat characters. Characters whose personality traits are apparent I would describe as round characters—more fully developed characters.  In this brief gem, Ms. Levin captures the essence of the internal struggle between the two poles of the Accommodation continuum—Whether to draw the line (“bullet”) or to bend the line (“kiss”)—that is the question. Well drawn, professor!

Leaders Can Be Made, If Not Born

August 17, 2016 1 comment

One can be born to be a 7-foot NBA center, but one cannot be made into one. Or? Look at the Dutch, who have an unusually tall population and who also are known for their unusually heavy consumption of calcium (milk, cheese, and their kin). Clearly most human behavior has a largely genetic component, but there is always, well, almost always, room for the environment to play a small part.

Research reveals ideal Big Five trait levels for leadership. Across all leadership situations, followers need their leaders to be calm in a crisis (low Need for Stability), an active communicator (high Extraversion), strategically visionary (high Originality/Openness), sufficiently tough to say no when necessary (low to mid Accommodation/Agreeableness), and focused on the objective (high Consolidation/Consciousness). For short, I refer to this profile as N-E+O+A-/=C+. Tennyson’s “Ulysses” exemplifies these qualities. Here the poet summarizes the qualities of his leader:

One equal temper (N-) of heroic hearts (E+),
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will (C+)
To strive (A-), to seek (O+), to find (O+), and not to yield (A-).
Ulysses Nick Thompson CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.jpg

Ulysses, by Nick Thompson, from early Roman sarcophagus. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

But here’s the rub: Few of us are born with this temperament. Consider the odds: 1 in 3 are born N- (the bottom third of the normal distribution), 1/3 are born E+, 1/3 O+, 1/3 A-/+ (upper half of the low range of A plus the bottom half of the midrange of A), and 1/3 are born C+. The probability of being born with all five of these trait levels in one person is 1/3 x 1/3 x 1/3 x 1/3 x 1/3, or one in 243. You would be correct to infer from this that, in a company of 200+ employees, there are many leader/managers who are misfits for their role. What are they to do?

I recently discussed this dilemma with an associate in Thailand. He was wondering whether our ideal leader formula might be too stringent a criterion for leader identification. He had received pushback from his clients, questioning the validity of the formula.

Here’s my explanation. Few people are ideally suited for their roles. Everyone must compensate, or adapt, in some way that is not totally natural for them. For example, in my role as research and development officer, I must be attentive to details. However, my temperament is not detail-oriented. I prefer the big ideas. But I must attend to details if I am to do my job, just as the introverted mad scientist must adapt and act extraverted at parties in order to schmooze with deep pockets and land funding for projects. We must all adapt in some way, except for the few, the 1 in 243, who are natural fits.

Leaders who are missing one or more of the ideal trait levels have three options. All are based on 1) self-awareness of one’s strengths and weaknesses (gained through an assessment process), and 2) a willingness to find ways to compensate for one’s weaknesses.

  1. Choose the context. Not all leadership demands are equal. Some followers require more communication (E+) than others, as in sales teams needing more chat than a laboratory of research chemists. Put an E+ in a research lab and you have a bull in a china shop. The point: Find a context that needs what you offer, trait-wise. If you are prone to stress (N+), and you really want (or need) to lead, then find a context that is relatively stress-free (e.g., managing a gift shop rather than managing a hospital emergency room). The ideal leader trait levels are averages, and that means that in many situations more extreme levels—both higher and lower—can be effective.
  1. Embrace interdependence. Self-awareness is critical for this option. Interdependence means leaning on one another by acknowledging that others’ strengths can compensate for my weaknesses. My company is a team of ten. Not one of us exhibits all five of the ideal leader trait levels. However, on our leadership team of three, all five trait levels are present—distributed among the three of us. Jane has the N-, O+, and A-, Lisa has the O+,E+, A-, and C+, and I have the O+ (that’s about all, I fear—I’m not very leaderly!). In our meetings, I tend to brainstorm, while Lisa serves as evaluator. Lisa provides hard data for tough decisions, while Jane finds ways to circumvent constraints. Lisa and I both worry about doomsday, while Jane is as calm as a hibernating bear. We all value our differences and acknowledge that we each bring something necessary to the table, like proteins, fats, and carbs. You bring the tomatoes, you over there bring the mayo, and I’ll bring the white bread.
  1. Retain a coach. A coach in the leadership world is someone who can offer the leader suggestions on how to achieve one’s objectives. This could be anyone whom the leader trusts, from business or life partner to a professional psychologist or business coach. I was once engaged as a coach to the managing partner of an architecture firm of 80+ associates. The managing partner was concerned that associates complained about the quality of his meetings. The manager was quite introverted and hated meetings. I suggested he ask one of his more extraverted department heads to facilitate the meetings, and that the manager sit in the back of the room and serve as a resource throughout the meeting. Problem solved. In the case of Ulysses, his self-awareness made him aware that he lacked the steel nerves (N–) and rigid focus (C++) to resist the seductive sirens. Some coach—his #2 perhaps—may have suggested that he rope himself to the mast and plug his ears to bolster his resistance. Disaster averted. Whether a “coach” nudged him in the direction of acknowledging the weakness and using an adaptive strategy, or whether Ulysses figured it out on his own, this required self-awareness and interdependence.

Just because we are not a 1 in 243 natural leader, that does not mean we cannot lead. If we wish to lead, or find ourselves having to lead, we have these three options to be optimally responsive to our followers’ needs. People need a leader who is strong in will with an equal temper and strong in heart to strive, seek, and find, and not to yield. If all of these qualities are not in one person, adapt or look elsewhere.

Beauty, Billions, and Brains

August 10, 2016 Leave a comment

My search for summer reading led me to a first novel by Stuart Rojstaczer (ROYCE-teacher)–The Mathematician’s Shiva (Penguin, 2014). Hadn’t heard of it, but it sounded intriguing—a fictional, brilliant, female, University of Wisconsin mathematician named Rachela Karnokovitch was dead, and brainy mathematicians from around the were globe sitting shiva. Much of the story dealt with the difficulty of brainy people letting their abilities shine in public, with many, especially women, preferring to hide their smarts.

Woman Thinker-Stanley Zimny

Rachela’s son, Sasha, also a mathematician, at one point mused about what it meant to be an intellectual—someone who uses mental acuity to guide their life rather than acting only on impulses, faith, and whims. Such intellectual activity entailed asking for definitions, evidence, facts, and their ilk. Think of it as critical thinking.


One passage struck me as important to share. Sasha, given to comparing American and eastern European culture, mused about how persons with money and beauty are encouraged to go public with their gifts, while persons with brains are discouraged:

To Americans, the outward display of intelligence is considered unseemly. The Donald Trumps of the world can boast about their penthouses and Ferraris, their women can wear baubles the size of Nebraska, and no one says boo. If you have money, you’re almost always expected to flaunt it. But intellect? This is something else entirely. Women, especially, are supposed to play dumb. One of the richest men in America has said publicly that if your SAT score is too high, find a way to sell 200 points. Supposedly you don’t need them.
This inability of Americans to value intellect is, to me, maddening. If someone possesses physical beauty, they will not be cloistered or hidden in dark shadows. No, they are expected to be the source of pleasing scenery to others. We are not frightened in this country by beauty. We celebrate it, as we should. But what about beautiful brains, the kind that can create amazing worlds out of nothing but thoughts, that can find a way to intricately bond elements of our lives and our ideas that conventional wisdom tells us are inert? Why should anyone hide this intellect ever? No. F—-g boring financiers like Warren Buffett. If you have a high score on your SAT, don’t sell a single point. In fact, find a way to get smart enough to achieve a perfect score. There is no such thing as unnecessary beauty, whether it be physical or intellectual. (Kindle location 3401)

I am reminded of E. O. Wilson’s comment that the world needs more citizens who require evidence before making decisions, that it is not differences in politics and religion that entail strife, but differences in the willingness to think critically rather than to uncritically follow a leader. Said another way, we need to celebrate intellect, not hide it. Don’t be timid in asking questions and searching for evidence. It is a rich, beautiful thing.

Appearances Can Be Deceiving (6. Perfectionism)

April 27, 2016 Leave a comment

Good enough for government work—not! The government has its share of perfectionists, as well as its share of those with casual standards. Perfectionism is normally distributed throughout the world. It is neither a good nor a bad thing—rather, its value depends on the needs of a particular situation.

My wife once worked with a government department whose manager was noted for bleeding red ink over all outgoing correspondence generated by their office staff. Not once, but draft after draft. A professional might submit a draft ten times before the perfectionist manager found nothing more to perfect and finally approved the letter for sending.

What causes people to be perfectionistic? In five previous posts, I presented behaviors that are often interpreted in one way but that could have other possible causes. First, we considered how fidgeting is not always impatience. Then, how solitude is not necessarily loneliness. Third, how smiling is not always liking. Fourth, how bravery is not always prompted by courage. And then last week, how volunteering is not always altruistic. I call these multi-source behaviors. Perfectionism is sixth on my list. People engage in perfectionist behavior for diverse reasons.

Tibetan sand art

Gaden Shartse Tibetan Monks, S. C. Hargis, 2010. CC BY-ND 2.0

Swarthmore College social psychologist Barry Schwartz, in The Paradox of Choice (2004), identified two extremes of decision-making—satisficing and maximizing. A satisficer is the proverbial good-enough-for-government-work decision-maker who, for example, might go to one office equipment store, look at their desk chairs, try one or two out, and then make a decision on the spot. A maximizer, on the other hand, is the proverbial make-a mountain-out-of-molehill decision-maker who expands every decision into a do-or-die situation. The maximizer might, for example, go to ten office equipment stores, sit in over 50 chairs, comparing prices and features constantly, and finally make a decision, agonizingly, while the satisficer has used the same time to write the great American novel.

So, why do maximizers do it? Why do people need to make every decision a major event? And, on the other hand, why do some not care about zero defects, ever?

As with other multi-meaning terms, perfectionism springs from many motives. Pittsburgh psychologist Pavel Somov has identified four sources of perfectionist behavior:

  • Neuroticism: striving for perfection in hopes of receiving attention and approval—arises out of a personal sense of insecurity
  • Narcissism: striving for perfection, especially on the part of others, as a way of offsetting low sense of self-worth
  • High-principles: striving for perfection as a form of moral, even Puritanical, righteousness, which can cause a judgmental effect toward others around them
  • Hyper-attentive: striving for perfection because of an innate temperament that finds concentration natural and satisfying

I would add these possible causes:

  • Need for control: a form of micromanagement in which everything needs to be done “my way”
  • High will to achieve: a genuine desire to be expert, or even to be the best, similar to the motive that spurs people to aspire to the 10,000 hours of deliberate practice described by Florida State University psychologist Anders Ericsson
  • The consequence of mastery: the Dunning-Kruger effect asserts that the best of the best have an acute sense after every performance that they could have done better—they see flaws in their performance that second-tier performers are clueless about
  • Competitive threat: a genuine concern that unless one is focused on perfection that one will be destroyed in business by masterful competitors
  • Following a model: never knowing anything different, as the Tibetan monks who have grown up with peers who model perfection daily
  • Aesthetics: taking deep pleasure in seeing something perfectly executed

Regardless of the motive for the occasions on which we are perfectionistic, we must realize that perfection is not always called for, and is often seen as satisfying more of a personal need that is of no or minimal benefit to others. To develop a sense of when, and when not, to be perfectionist is to develop the habit of asking for feedback from those who know us, and to develop the habit of being receptive to what they suggest.

showing up

Perfection Paralysis, Neshika Bell, 2013. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Appearances Can Be Deceiving (4. Bravery)

April 13, 2016 Leave a comment

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.