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date: 26 June 2022

Psychology of Physical Bravery

Abstract and Keywords

Research indicates that the presence of physical courage or bravery is linked to increased resilience, decreased PTSD-related symptomatology, and greater feelings of personal competence. Seligman identifies courage as a factor of strength in his positive psychology model, and courage is widely identified as a healing component in clinical psychology. Recent data collected from the Physical Courage Survey (PCS), analyzing acts of physical courage, demographic variables, and personality characteristics indicate that bravery and courage are probably impacted by both nature and nurture. More specifically, individuals who performed acts of heroism and bravery are more likely to be self-confident, be an older child, have a tendency to take risk and seek sensation, be less cautious, be resilient, have a greater sense of humor, be a leader, have a deep sense of empathy for others, and attribute their success on the battlefield to training and modeling of others.

Keywords: bravery, heroism, physical courage, positive psychology, personality, characteristic

Psychology of Physical Bravery

On October 3, 1993, in the battle of Mogadishu, two US Delta Force members, Master Sergeant Gary I. Gordon and Sergeant First Class Randall D. Shughart, requested to be inserted at a crash site of a down Black Hawk helicopter to protect the lives of the helicopter’s crew. Despite having their request denied twice, they were eventually inserted into the fighting zone and proceeded to protect the sole survivor, pilot Chief Warrant Officer Michael Durrant. Gordon and Shughart defended Durant from the attacks of the Somalis but were eventually killed while Durant was taken captive. For their actions, Gordon and Shughart were presented with the Medal of Honor posthumously (Congressional Medal of Honor Society, 1994a, 1994b).

This story represents a small fraction of accounts of bravery and heroism in American history. A common theme from these reports involves individuals putting their safety at risk to protect others from imminent harm. Despite the ubiquity of this theme, these stories also demonstrate various differences such as the circumstances, historical context, group adherence, age, personality and characteristics of the actor, the decision-making process, the time frame in which the action was performed, and many other variables. Despite the widespread interest of researchers in the area of courage throughout human history, not much empirical data has been gathered to shed light on this form of distinguished human behavior (Jayawickreme & Di Stefano, 2012).

Documentation of this interest in bravery and heroism begins as early as 420 BCE with Socrates, Plato (trans. 1997), and Aristotle (trans. 1987) and continues to the modern age with some prominent psychologists such as Rachman (1990) and Zimbardo (2011).


While we have many words, including “bravery,” “courage,” or “heroism,” to describe it, physical bravery remains a widely elusive phenomenon. This notion is illustrated in the differing operational definitions used by researchers within the field, along with variations among occurrences and experiences of heroism. For example, bravery is often described as “overcoming fears for no purpose other than the act itself” (Harrison, 2012, p. 24). Thus, crossing a rope bridge over a deep gorge is considered to be a brave behavior, but it does not have any additional components that are commonly inherent in courage and heroism. The definition of courage appears to be more elusive: Plato points out at the end of Laches, “We have not discovered what courage is” (1997, p. 686), and Miller, in his book The Mystery of Courage, writes, “No single theory, for none I have seen, nor none I can come up with, will work” (2000, p. 14). The difficulty in defining these concepts stems from the various intertwined layers that construct courageous and brave behavior. For example, Aristotle tied courage to the serving of an honorable and morally just cause (trans. 1987). However, to the professional soldier, who chose a lifestyle that demands courage, it is irrelevant whether he fights for spreading freedom and democracy, to protect oil and resources, or for the fame, adventure, or money (Olsthoorn, 2007). Furthermore, culture and society have a dynamic and ever-changing influence on the definition of courageous behavior. Thus, an individual might be perceived as a coward and traitor in a certain time and place and as a courageous individual in another. For example, Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson Jr., an American helicopter pilot who protected Vietnamese women and children during the massacre of My Lai was first perceived as a traitor immediately following the event but was later awarded with the Distinguished Flying Cross (Goldstein, 2006). Another example of such a paradox is the perception of suicide terrorists as heroes in certain segments of Islamic societies (Hassan, 2008). In an attempt to overcome these conflicting paradoxes, various types of courage and bravery have been proposed. For instance, “physical courage” involves acts that carry the risk of death or physical harm (Putman, 2004).

Heroism has been proposed as a special case of bravery. Franco, Blau, and Zimbardo (2011) offer a simple, straightforward definition: “to act in a prosocial manner despite personal risk” (p. 99). However, as with bravery, psychologists find the study of heroism problematic due to several inherent paradoxes. First, heroism is not a personal attribution but an effect that an individual has on society or others. For example, one is not typically considered constantly heroic, but rather heroic in a given situation. Second, heroes of one era might prove to be evil individuals in another epoch when further evidence emerges (e.g., Stalin was first perceived as a hero by Soviet citizens, but as his atrocities became known, his public image was dramatically stained). Last, certain acts are considered to be heroic to some groups and totally distasteful to other groups (e.g., suicide terrorism).

Franco and colleagues (2011) conducted a study on the public perception of heroism in which more than 3,000 participants responded to a survey designed to assess the differences between perception of heroism and altruism, various types of heroism, and several predictors of heroic behavior. One of the key findings suggested that individuals ascribe more heroic value to actions that are taken when no specific duty to serve exists. Thus, civilian fire rescue was viewed as the most “purely” heroic, with 96% of participants ascribing the heroism category in comparison with one of the most archetypal forms of military heroism—a solider laying down his life to allow others to escape, which was seen by 88% of respondents as heroic. Furthermore, Franco and colleagues (2011) found support for the existence of public perception of the three types of archetypical heroic situations suggested by Zimbardo (2007): martial, civil, and social heroism. However, physical risk was considered to be the most prototypical factor perceived to be associated with heroic behavior. In addition, participants significantly rated actions in which the actor took an irrational level of risk to be more heroic compared with actions that involved a rational level of risk. The last important finding by Franco and colleagues was that participants significantly perceived heroic behavior and altruistic behavior in general as very different phenomena. For example, fire rescue was perceived as a heroic action but not an altruistic one. Thus, it appears that these heroic and altruistic behaviors are perceived as fundamentally different from one another by the general population.

Heroism has also been the focus of research by Kinsella, Ritchie, and Igou (2015). In a series of qualitative and quantitative analyses, these researchers identified several factors that laypersons identified as central and peripheral in discussing heroes. Central categories included bravery, morality, courage, and honesty. Peripheral, or less important categories, included strength, leadership, compassion, and exceptionalism. Participants showed quicker reaction time and greater memory associated with identifying central factors compared with peripheral factors (Kinsella et al., 2015).

For the purpose of this chapter and in an attempt to focus future research in this area, the writers propose to define “physical bravery” as an act in which an individual takes action to save others from death or imminent harm despite the presence of a physical threat.

The Importance of Physical Bravery

One might assume that the capacity to demonstrate brave behavior is already evaluated among military personnel who are expected to demonstrate high levels of such behavior (e.g., pilots, Special Forces, Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD)). However, even the Special Forces Assessment and Selection course (SFAS), which evaluates candidates for Special Forces assignments in the US Army, does not assess candidates for indicators of bravery and courage. The SFAS includes measures of psychopathology (MMPI-2), intelligence (Wonderlic Personnel Test), and personal history and observation by staff and a clinical team. The evaluation protocol does not assess for decision-making processes or for indicators of brave behavior as outlined above. Rather, the selection focuses on weeding out potentially mentally weak candidates. Therefore, this process does not focus on identifying strengths and individuals who might be successful in passing the course (Banks, 2006).

Research indicates that acts of bravery are linked to better resilience and a longer life span. Neria, Solomon, Ginzburg, and Dekel (2000) conducted a study on the link between brave behavior and resilience from PTSD among Israel Defense Force (IDF) soldiers who participated in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. They point to a continuum of human reactions to war-related traumatic events. While most soldiers cope adequately with war, about 10%–30% develop a psychological dysfunction known as combat stress reaction (CSR), which is an acute form of posttraumatic stress and can consist of restlessness, psychomotor deficiencies, withdrawal, increased sympathetic nervous system activity, stuttering, confusion, nausea, vomiting, and paranoid responses. Ultimately, a soldier with CSR ceases to function militarily, and acts in a manner that endangers himself and his fellow soldiers. The other end of this continuum consists of soldiers who, due to exceptional actions in battle, are recognized as war heroes. Neria and colleagues (2000) found that decorated war heroes experienced less PTSD-related symptomatology 25 years post-war. Gal (1995) corroborated this finding in his study and additionally found that heroic actions are often characterized by self-sacrifice, persistence, and leadership. Finally, a VA study showed that World War II and Korean War veterans who earned a Purple Heart decoration showed decreased mortality compared with those who had not earned the medal. These awarded veterans were also less likely to develop PTSD (Kimbrell et al., 2011).

Why soldiers fall in various points along this continuum is still a mystery. Taylor, Kemeny, Reed, Bower, and Gruenewald (2000) suggested that unrealistically optimistic beliefs about the future can protect people from illness. As such, optimism may differentiate some individuals along the aforementioned continuum. Service members may benefit from a certain degree of optimism to go into the fire and believe he or she can make a difference. Over the last few decades, the importance of optimism has been demonstrated in various areas such as coping with decision threat (Wilson, & Darke, 2012), improving false recall in memory of older adults (Emery, Hess, & Elliot, 2012), and positively affecting cardiovascular functions (Why & Huang, 2011). However, if used incorrectly, positive illusions can lead to bad consequences such as low social adaptability (Toyama, 2008) and compulsive gambling (Parke, Griffiths, & Parke, 2007).

In 2000, Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi predicted that “positive psychology in this new century will allow psychologists to understand and build those factors that allow individuals, communities, and societies to flourish” (p. 13). Such factors include courage and heroism, as they were demonstrated to be successfully used in clinical psychology in facilitating resilience, competence, and growth (Hutchinson & Lema, 2009).

Zimbardo (2011) puts these ideas in the best light:

The time has come for us all to help create and enjoy a new “psychology of liberation.” It is a compassionate call to arms in opposing all those forces both within and without each individual that diminish the potential for human perfection. It is an invitation to join in a global community that supports those forces that will strengthen the bonds of the human condition—starting with justice, peace, and love. In the end, I believe that each of us has the ability to make a difference in improving the human condition. (p. 406)

In summary, furthering research about the phenomena of bravery and heroism appears to be a crucial key factor of positive psychology, a field that can assist not only in healing people but also more importantly in improving humanity and helping it reach great new heights.

Factors Correlated with Physical Bravery and Heroic Behavior

Even ordinary people can become heroes (Franco et al., 2011; Zimbardo, 2011). While some empirical findings indicate that both personality and situational factors are implicated in heroic behavior (Jayawickreme & Di Stefano, 2012), actual predictors of brave behavior have not been found (Cougle, 2009). Thus, the fact is that we know almost nothing about the actual people who risk their lives in order to save others. Any light that could be shed on the interaction of personal characteristics and situational demands of brave and heroic acts is much needed. What follows is a summary of previous findings regarding characteristics associated with bravery and heroism.

Rachman’s Studies

A pioneer in the study of courage and heroism who attempted to define the factors involved in the creation of a hero is Rachman (1990). Because of the lack of empirical data, even Rachman dedicates only two chapters out of 22 in his book to this issue (as the rest focuses on the subject of fear). Although Rachman primarily focuses on the training of military professionals such as paratroopers and bomb-disposal technicians, his findings could be also generalized to other professionals such as firefighters, policemen, and high-risk professionals. In a series of meta-analyses, literature reviews, and surveys, Rachman (1990) found the following factors to be crucial in the development of brave individuals.


Rachman found a strong correlation between self-confidence and fear: The more self-confident you are, the less fear you will experience in combat. This correlation was observed in combat troops in World War II, participants in a parachuting course, and bomb-disposal crews. In addition, possession of a skill relevant to dealing with a dangerous situation was also found to be directly related to self-confidence and subsequently contributing to courage.


One can be trained to be more courageous by boosting self-confidence in one’s capacity. This in turn would reduce fear and enable such an individual to enter situations that are risky and to act in a courageous manner that sometimes might include putting his or her safety at risk in order to save another from imminent harm.

Modeling of Others

In the battlefield it was found that both fear and courage can be acquired through modeling by others. In World War II, it was found that 40% of the troops reported an increase in fear after seeing a fellow soldier panicking in battle. Similarly, the presence of a brave leader was found to be one of the most significant factors in solders’ capacity to cope in combat conditions.

Emotional and Cognitive Resources

Rachman also highlights the importance of cognition and emotional resilience. The physician Lord Moran was convinced that courage was a capital spent every time it was drawn on (Olsthoorn, 2007). Additionally, it was found that fresh troops on the battlefield demonstrated more courage than experienced veterans (Miller 2000).

Situational Demands

Rachman found that several situational factors such as a sense of responsibility to self and others, powerful effects of group membership, group morale, and the need to avoid disapproval, are all implicated in certain individuals’ tendency to act in brave manners. For example, a soldier might experience group pressure to take some risks in battle that cause him to act in a way that could become brave and heroic.

Empathy and Modeling

Jayawickreme and Di Stefano (2012) focused on the actions of rescuers as opposed to bystanders during times of genocide such as those that happened in World War II and Rwanda. They identified three main characteristics of rescuers in genocide studies: (1) a deep sense of empathy, (2) a universalistic worldview, and (3) prior exposure to models of moral behavior.

Monroe (1994) points to the fact that many heroes do not view themselves as heroes but rather explain their actions as stemming from a lack of choice. In most cases, this is of course far from the truth, as many situations that gave birth to heroes also included a multitude of bystanders who did not act (Fagin-Jones & Midlarsky, 2007). However, it is possible that heroes feel they do not have a choice but to act in a heroic fashion because their psychology does not allow immoral options to contaminate their behavior. Thus, they do not even see the option of not protecting another human being from imminent harm (Fein, 1993). This type of psychology entails a deep sense of empathy, but empathy alone is insufficient to explain the behavior, as even empathetic people can choose to escape the situation rather than directly face it.

In addition to empathy, it was found that early learning and modeling of parents played a crucial role for heroes who protected people during times of genocide such as the holocaust (Oliner, 2003) and Rwandan genocide (Di Stefano, 2010). Many heroes had memories of their parents saving others or acting in an altruistic fashion during their childhood. Oliner (2003) actually compared rescuers to nonrescuers and found that compared to nonrescuers, rescuers perceived their parents as “benevolent figures, modeling values conducive to forming close, caring attachments to other people, including diverse groups of people who might be different by virtue of status, ethnicity, or religion” (p. 44). Such a process of modeling can teach potential heroes how to better channel their empathy and exhibit heroic behavior. In summary, it appears that an interaction between having a deep sense of empathy and being exposed to positive models of moral behavior is very important in the development of brave figures.

Fagin-Jones and Midlarsky (2007) conducted a study that assessed the differences between non-Jewish individuals who rescued Jews during the Holocaust and other non-Jewish individuals who did not provide help to Jews during the Holocaust. The findings clearly indicated that personality characteristics were highly correlated to group membership in comparison with demographic and situational variables. Fagin-Jones and Midlarsky (2007) found that personality characteristics such as social responsibility, altruistic moral reasoning, empathic concern, and risk-taking tendency significantly discriminated the rescuers from the nonrescuers.


A broader construct of empathetic behavior and one that must be examined when speaking about heroism and physical bravery is the concept of “altruism.” This term has been defined previously as “a motivational state with the ultimate goal of increasing another’s welfare” (Batson, 1991, p. 6). Heroism has been formerly identified within the extensive theoretical framework that explains altruistic prosocial behaviors (Becker & Eagly, 2004). However, heroism is different from general altruism by the fact that it includes risk and thus calls for courage. The difference between these theoretical constructs has been demonstrated by Franco and colleagues (2011). However, it is still unknown what role altruism plays as a motivational force in heroic behavior.


Wansink, Payne, and Ittersum (2008) regard heroism as leadership at time of crisis. In examining the role of leadership among decorated IDF soldiers in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Gal (1983) found that 88% of the awards were given to commissioned officers and noncommissioned officers. Comparing these decorated individuals with their peers showed higher scores in leadership, devotion to duty, decisiveness, and resilience to stress (Gal, 1995).

Wansink and colleagues (2008) examined the link between leadership dimensions and heroism among World War II combat-decorated veterans. They surveyed and compared a group of decorated war heroes to World War II nondecorated veterans. In contrast with the nondecorated soldiers, the heroes exhibited significant levels of personality characteristics associated with leadership, loyalty, and risk taking. In particular, leadership-related traits included self-report statements such as, “I was a strong leader; I was self-disciplined; I was resourceful; and I had high self-worth”; loyalty was assessed by self-report statements such as, “I was loyal; I worked well with others”; risk taking was assessed using self-report statements such as, “I was spontaneous; I felt adventurous; and I was adaptable to change.” Furthermore, traits associated with heroes were significantly more related to transformative leadership rather than to transactional leadership.

Transactional leaders exchange tangible rewards and punishments for the work and loyalty of followers. They tend to be passive and responsive to events and to work within the organizational culture. They commonly motivate followers by appealing to their own self-interest and attempt to maintain the status quo, while improving performance of their followers. In contrast, transformational leaders are proactive, providing a sense of mission to their followers and engaging them while focusing on higher ideals and morals. Transformative leaders attempt to change the organizational culture, implement new ideas, and think outside of the box. Essentially, they motivate followers by emphasizing the interests of the group first (Bass & Riggio, 2006).

In summary, it appears that both leadership positions and personal qualities correlated with leadership, such as emotional stability, self-confidence and high motivation to attain a goal, may contribute to brave behavior (Neria et al., 2000). This could be explained by the fact that a leadership position can significantly increase one’s chances of being involved in dangerous circumstances.

Attributional Style

There has not been much research done on the relationship between brave behavior and attributional style. Jobe, Holgate, and Sorapansky (1983) reviewed results of several studies regarding the correlation between locus of control and the tendency of soldiers to volunteer for dangerous actions. They found mixed results regarding this correlation and could not draw significant conclusions. In addition, another study by Karni, Solomon, Dekel, and Neria (2003) on decorated IDF soldiers from the 1973 Yom Kippur War did not find any correlation between attributional style and bravery.

Being Married or a Parent

One might expect that with age, risk-taking behavior would decrease, in particular if the instigator is married or has children and thus has responsibilities to others. Arnett (1998), who studied risk behavior among people between the ages of 21 and 28, found that being married and having had one or more children was significantly correlated with a decrease in risk-taking behaviors. Similarly, being married or a parent was found to be related to a decrease in alcohol use for both men and women (Bachman, Wadsworth, O’Malley, Johnston, & Schulenberg, 1997). In a preliminary analysis of public data regarding recipients of the Medal of Honor during the Vietnam War, Kugel (2015) cross-checked information from the Congressional Medal of Honor Society and entries in newspapers (New York Times and MSNBC) and other online testimonials. Results indicated that at the time of the decorated action, out of 248 recipients of the award, 45 were married (18.1%) and 29 had children (11.6%). Despite the fact that these numbers do not constitute an empirical finding, they do point to an interesting question, that is, whether individuals who act in a heroic way tend to take fewer risks due to their familial responsibilities.

Birth Order

There is strong evidence that children and adolescents with older siblings are significantly more likely than their firstborn counterparts to use substances (i.e., tobacco, alcohol, and illegal drugs) and to engage in sexual intercourse (Argys, Rees, Averett, & Witoonchart, 2006; Averett, Argys, & Rees, 2011). Being a younger sibling is also associated with small increases in the likelihood of driving without permission, selling drugs, and stealing (Averett et al., 2011). Furthermore, in a study on birth order and risk taking in athletes it was found that younger brothers were 10.6 times more likely to attempt the high-risk activity of base stealing and 3.2 times more likely to steal bases successfully (Sulloway & Zweigenhaft, 2010). As base stealing involves an instinctual level of decision-making, this might be related to the split-second decision-making often seen in actions of courage and heroism. Therefore, it is possible that brave individuals might be higher risk-takers and possibly be last born or younger than their other siblings.

Risk-Taking Behavior and Sensation Seeking

Sensation seeking has been defined by Zuckerman (1994) as “seeking varied, novel, complex and intense sensations and experiences and the willingness to take physical, social, legal, and financial risks for the sake of such experience” (Zuckerman, 1994, p. 27). Individuals vary in their need for arousal and stimulation and as such could be classified as high and low sensation seekers. High sensation seekers often require novel and nonconventional experiences. They tend to be nonconformists, and to need autonomy and independence. High sensation seeking is also correlated with risk-taking behaviors (e.g., high-risk sports, risky driving, and gambling), extraversion, impulsivity, psychopathy, cognitive preference for complexity, creativity, and flexibility. Last, as a personality dimension, sensation seeking has been found to be a motivational force (Zuckerman, 1994). There is some evidence that physical bravery is connected to lower physical distress tolerance, greater sensation-seeking, greater risk-taking behavior, and greater self-reported physical bravery (Cougle, 2009).

Levenson (1990) studied the difference in sensation seeking and other motivational factors between drug-unit residents, rock-climbers, and heroes (i.e., decorated policemen and firefighters). Interestingly, the heroes were different from the two other groups in their low scores on the sensation-seeking scales, which suggest that their motives for risk taking were not based on thrill seeking. In contrast, Neria and colleagues (2000) studied sensation seeking among IDF soldiers who fought in the Yom Kippur War in 1973. They compared decorated IDF soldiers to nondecorated soldiers (controls) as well as to a group of soldiers who developed CSR during the war. Their findings showed a significant difference between decorated war veterans who were higher-sensation seekers than CSR casualties and controls. The difference between Levenson’s (1990) and Neria’s and colleagues’ (2000) results might be due to the use of different assessment measures of sensation seeking employed in the two studies.

Jobe and colleagues (1983) assessed the difference between US Army volunteers for hazardous combat task and nonvolunteers. Several significant predictors for membership in the volunteer group were found: high risk taking, low anxiety, being a later born, and high arousal seeking. Risk takers were characterized as being younger to start drinking, smoking, and having sexual intercourse. In general, risk takers were more involved in physical fights, participated in extreme sports, were socially competitive and aggressive, and engaged in dangerous activities such as motorcycling and car racing. Interestingly, Rachman (1990) found boredom to be a major motivating factor for some soldiers in the battlefield to go out of their way and find themselves in extremely risky situations that would often require a heroic act in order to save another comrade in arms.

Decision-Making and Impulsivity

It appears that brave individuals often act instantaneously, perhaps skipping conscious decision-making and thus acting on their impulse to interfere in certain situations (Jayawickreme & Di Stefano, 2012). Therefore, there seems to be some element of impulsivity associated in at least some fraction of heroic actions. Próchniak (2012) compared fearless and brave policemen on a variety of personality factors. His findings indicated that the brave group was significantly more impulsive and aggressive.

Carl Jung and Isabel Briggs-Myers believed that individuals are born with preferences and are bound to stick with them for life, whereas traits are often learned and changeable (Myers, 1995). Jung postulated in his theory of psychological types that there are two dichotomous pairs of cognitive functions with which people view the world. These consist of the rational (judging) functions: thinking and feeling; and the irrational (perceiving) functions: sensation and intuition. These dimensions are important in their influence on the process of decision-making. But most relevant to the topic of physical bravery are the preferences of intuition and feeling. Intuition corresponds to the general trend of heroes to explain their behavior at the time of the event as an impulse or simply trusting their gut instincts, whereas feeling corresponds to the factor of empathy.

Intuition and feeling were found to be preferred personality characteristics relative to sensing and thinking by nurses, a profession that often requires a quick decision-making process (Pretz & Folse, 2011). These results were even more significant as the nurses’ expertise and experience increased. Additionally, there is some evidence for a correlation between PTSD and several Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) profiles with preference for sensing and thinking rather than intuition and feeling among Vietnam War veterans (Dalton, Auchubon, Tom, Pederson, & McFarland, 1993) and other US veterans (Otis, 2005). Overall, it is possible that some individuals who tend to rely more on their intuition or perhaps instincts might perform better on the battlefield. This notion was further supported be Rand and Epstein (2014) who provided findings indicating that people who perform acts of bravery explain their decision-making cognitive processes as “overwhelming intuitive, automatic and fast.”


Although physical bravery could not be simply explained by humor, it is an important factor to include in any analysis of characteristics among individuals who demonstrate physical bravery. Humor has been previously identified by Madigan (2013) as an ideal component of bravery among British soldiers and civilians during World War II. Madigan (2013) proposes that humor acts as a method of “robust rejection of victimhood and an emphasis on perseverance” (p. 1). Other researchers have theorized that there may be a link between humor and the characteristic of curiosity, which in turn is associated with seeking aspects such as novelty and complexity (Langevin & Day, 1972). Also, research suggests that certain leadership styles centered around inspiring innovation and creativity may particularly benefit from the use of humor (Holmes & Marra, 2006). This information supports the idea that humor may be associated with some of the qualities implicated in research on physical bravery. Finally, in her book about 12 Jewish boys and girls who survived the Holocaust in Europe, Bluglass (2003) suggests that humor, among other adaptive defense mechanisms (altruism, suppression, and sublimation), had a prominent positive impact on these children’s chances of surviving the horrific reality they experienced. Thus, it appears that humor may play an important adaptive role in the lives of those who experience danger and risk to themselves.

Recent Findings

In response to the lack of empirical data regarding the topic of physical bravery and heroism, two pilot studies were designed by Kugel (2015) and Black (2015). The purpose of these studies was to analyze acts of physical bravery, demographic variables, and personality characteristics to examine the following questions: (1) Is physical bravery an innate capacity or is it a set of qualities that one learns through modeling and training?; (2) What qualities or characteristics are required in order to demonstrate physical bravery?; and (3) Are there reasons why some people choose “duty-bound” careers that may help us better understand those who would willingly engage in dangerous situations in order to save others?

Both studies relied on the same dataset but used different methodological approaches. The dataset consisted of 181 participants who were actively serving or served in the United States military. They were 32.8% active duty military personnel and 67.2% veterans. The mean age was 54, and about 94% were male.

Participants were surveyed with the Physical Courage Survey (PCS), which comprises 46 multiple-choice, Likert-scale, and short-answer items and takes approximately 30 minutes to complete. The questionnaire was designed in consultation with a panel of subject experts and is aimed to collect both quantitative and qualitative data. This is one of the first datasets in the topic of physical bravery that includes qualitative data.

Kugel (2015) investigated whether there were differences between individuals who performed more than two acts of bravery and those who performed fewer. The rationale for this comparison was that it is plausible that individuals who have performed more than two acts of bravery deliberately (consciously or not) place themselves in situations where they can act bravely. In contrast, Black (2015) compared three subgroups: (1) decorated individuals who endorsed heroic acts; (2) undecorated individuals who endorsed heroic acts; and (3) those who did not endorse a heroic act. The advantage of analyzing “decorated” heroes is that this distinct population’s heroic acts have been substantiated by another person or authority rather than based solely on self-report.

Nature Versus Nurture

Kugel (2015) predicted that the ability to demonstrate physical bravery would be identified by participants as a learned quality rather than an innate quality. Findings from his study support the notion that people who perform acts of physical bravery generally attribute their behavior to environmental, societal, and situational factors. Such factors include upbringing, modeling, training, altruism, a sense of duty, life experiences, and personal choice. Thus, such individuals believe that bravery is mostly a learned quality. This finding has a strong implication to the importance of education, modeling, and upbringing in childhood. In addition, it provides a strong corroboration to the importance of training in the Armed Forces and to the attempt to shape individuals’ characters and abilities that will enable them to demonstrate physical bravery. However, interestingly, while explaining their own brave behavior as resulting from nurture, the participants in Kugel’s (2015) study explained the brave behavior of others as resulting from nature, genetics, and combination of nature and nurture. This discrepancy can be understood in terms of the fundamental attribution error (Ross, 1977). That is, people have a tendency to emphasize internal characteristics in explaining others’ behavior while discounting situational and environmental factors. In contrast to Kugel’s (2015) findings, Black (2015) who compared participants with heroic acts to those without heroic acts found no significant differences between the groups regarding the question of nature versus nurture.

Training and Beliefs

Kugel’s (2015) results indicated that in comparison with participants who performed two or fewer acts of bravery, participants who performed more than two acts were significantly more likely to attribute their behavior to training and to having a sense of duty. Furthermore, participants who performed more than two acts of bravery were significantly more likely to explain their bravery by factors of instinct, training, altruism, and having a sense of duty. In summary, considering a combination of nature and nurture variables in explaining bravery, there may be actual differences between people who have performed more acts of bravery than those who have performed fewer. Furthermore, those reporting fewer than two acts of bravery were less likely to say that their success was due to training.

Another prediction in Kugel’s (2015) study was that the number of acts of bravery could predict the degree of training and a score on a composite variable reasons (which consisted of the sum of the variables instinct, training, altruism, and having a sense of duty) while employing several covariates: recognition (by decoration or medal), specific training, luck, and training experience. In this study, luck was found to be a significant covariate, affecting how people view their acts of bravery and explain their behavior in specific brave events. This finding suggests that individuals who have performed a greater number of brave acts strongly believe that luck has something to do with their success in either staying alive or in their attempts to save others from imminent harm. When luck is included in the statistical analysis, such individuals believe more strongly that training and a combination of reasons such as instinct, training, altruism, and having a sense of duty all have a part in the success of their brave acts. For the participants in this study, luck may be a crucial interactive factor with their training, innate and learned qualities, and their success in their acts of physical bravery. Furthermore, there have been prior ideas that bravery and heroism require being lucky in addition to other important qualities such as practical wisdom, sense of courage, and altruism (Savulescu, 2004). Kulisek (2009) suggested that “luck is the product of continuous trying until the desired outcome is achieved … people who never try because they are afraid of failing will never succeed” (p. 54). This view fits nicely with the notion that individuals who performed many acts of physical bravery are not readily deterred by chances of failure. Such individuals are willing to try repeatedly until they achieve what they seek—a desire to help and protect others.

Background and Childhood Factors

As previously mentioned, there are theoretical reasons to suspect that being a younger sibling enhances heroic predisposition and in particular for risk-taking behavior. However, preliminary results from Kugel (2015) and Black (2015) refute this notion.

Kugel (2015) did not find significant results regarding upbringing and childhood factors when comparing participants who performed two or fewer acts of bravery to participants who performed more than two acts of physical bravery. However, Black (2015), who compared those with any number of acts of bravery to those without, revealed significant findings that support the notion that birth order might have some influence on whether individuals end up prone to heroic behavior: First, heroic individuals (both decorated and undecorated) are more likely to be the oldest sibling. Second, those reporting no heroic action are more likely to be an only child or the youngest sibling. This indicates that the main differences in character may lie between those who have performed any acts of courage and those who have not. One possible explanation to why birth order may be related to heroism is that older siblings may be protective of their younger siblings, and discourage them from engaging in risk-taking behaviors. In a recent study on sibling structures and levels of attainment, Bu (2014) determined that firstborn children have higher aspirations, which tend to influence later levels of attainment. Higher attainment in firstborns might be attributed to having received greater parental investment than their siblings. Parents often become more flexible in their child-rearing behaviors, such as discipline and attentiveness, with the addition of more children.

Personality Characteristics

Similarly to the previous domain, Kugel (2015) did not find significant results whereas Black (2015) did. More specifically, Black (2015) found four personality characteristics that were significantly associated with brave behavior. Both decorated and undecorated heroic individuals reported that they were significantly less cautious, more resilient, more self-confident, and had a greater sense of humor, compared to those with no brave acts.

Reasons for Joining the Military

Black (2015) found a significant difference in the reasons why people join the military—with decorated heroic individuals ranking their number one reason as “seeking adventure/to challenge myself” much more than both undecorated heroes and those with no brave act. Interestingly, the findings indicated that those who identified as decorated heroes were not necessarily encouraged to take risks nor had role models who exhibited brave behavior. Nevertheless, they appear less adverse to risk taking. In contrast, nonheroes were significantly more likely to rank their number one reason for joining as financial reasons, compared to both undecorated and decorated heroes.

Given an opportunity to rank family tradition or patriotism as their first reason for joining, decorated heroes do endorse both as top reasons (22% for family tradition; 33% for patriotism)—but not in proportion to the other two subgroups when compared to ranking adventure first. Therefore, while decorated heroes do seem to join for reasons of patriotism or family tradition, compared to undecorated heroes and the nonheroic, they join significantly more for the reason of adventure and challenge. These findings are consistent with research by Barrett (2011), who found that Medal of Honor recipients possessed a particular enthusiasm to take on risks and challenge themselves.

Qualitative Findings

In addition to the significant quantitative results of the study, some very interesting qualitative information was gathered by Kugel (2015) that could shed light on why people engage in acts of physical bravery. What follow are several thought-provoking responses:

  • “The more time you have to think, the more likely you are to fear, and the less likely you are to act and do something courageous.”

  • “Most of all, I wouldn’t want someone to be alone even if I can’t really help when they are in a dire situation.”

  • “Not letting them die alone is a noble, righteous, and sensible thing to me.”

The first response indicates the connection between decision-making and acts of courage. The opinion here argues that acts of bravery rely on instinct rather than an active thought process. There is some support for this belief in the literature (Jayawickreme & Di Stefano, 2012; Próchniak 2012). However, there is a need for a model describing in more detail the role of decision-making in acts of bravery and specifically finding the intricate components involved in the process. In other words, it could be asked how decision-making processes affect the probability of physical bravery taking place and being successful. Another important aspect of such model will be the part of training in shaping one’s decision-making process particularly in combat and life-threatening situations. Thus, instinct is partially a learned phenomenon rather than solely an innate quality.

Additionally, when people are faced with the possibility of death, often the greatest fear is to “die alone” (Fenwick, & Brayne, 2011). This notion is supported in the present study. Many of the participants who experienced the danger of death in a military setting endorsed willingness to risk their own personal safety because they knew that someone else was facing the same basic fear they had—“to die alone.” Further exploration of this aspect as a major motivational factor for individuals demonstrating physical bravery is warranted.


There were of course several limitation to Kugel’s (2015) and Blacks’ (2015) findings. First, all data was based solely on a single self-report measure. Time passed since these brave acts likely affects participants’ memories of the events and the accounting for behaviors, thoughts, and feelings associated with the events. Second, participants were recruited using social media listings (Facebook groups) and direct contacting of nongovernmental veteran organizations and chapters throughout the United States. This led to a nonrandom sampling of particularly the veteran population. Third, stronger results would also have been gained from a larger sample with more diversity to improve generalizability of findings to courage among civilian populations. Fourth, both studies suffered from lack of a comparable control group matched in demographics or war theater characteristics, which limits the strength of the present conclusions. Fifth, a problem with studying heroism in general is the impossibility that every respondent will have had an equal amount of opportunities to act heroically. It is therefore unfeasible to predict the likelihood that people would engage in heroic behavior if a situation called for it.

A final difficulty with the PCS involving subjectivity was how respondents might have interpreted the main question that separated participants into subgroups for study: “Have you ever risked your own physical safety to save someone else from harm or possible death?” For example, some respondents might not have perceived themselves at great physical risk and thus might not endorse a heroic act, yet they might have acted in a way that most people would consider heroic. Individuals who commit heroic acts typically do not label or promote themselves as such; they see themselves as ordinary people who had no choice but to act the way they did.

Future Research

There are several pertinent areas to expand on this research. First, examining samples aside from the military will be very important and beneficial. As previously suggested, such samples might include firefighters, policemen, Emergency Medical Services (EMS), and other civilians. Second, as the average age of participants in this study was 54, examining younger individuals who participated in more recent armed conflicts might shed a different light on the present findings. Third, the data collected using the PCS is vast and encompasses many areas of life, personal characteristics, and beliefs. An important contribution to the field of positive psychology would be to examine the interaction between acts of physical bravery and effects on the attitude to life. A fourth area of further research stems from the fact that many participants in this study reported suffering trauma effects following their involvement in experiences that involved acts of physical bravery. There are prior findings of Neria and colleagues (2000) that support the hypothesis that acts of physical bravery facilitate or mediate resilience to PTSD and mental health problems among combatants. Thus, it is relevant to examine the relationship between physical bravery and PTSD or trauma. Fifth, a detailed assessment of external variables or situational factors in which heroic acts take place would help in explaining the motivations and triggers behind such exceptional acts of human behavior, thus enhancing an overall conceptualization of heroism. Sixth, as previously mentioned, there is a need for a model inspecting the components involved in the process of decision-making. The interaction between training and instinct will be particularly interesting in such a model. Seventh, the link between humor and physical bravery could be examined further to explore what it is about humor that leads to bravery (i.e., if humor is associated with certain leadership qualities and thus to physical bravery). Finally, while some findings suggest that physical bravery is associated with leadership and success, this link must be considered with caution. Researchers indicate that the fact that military officers and others in positions of power tend to be responsible for the records of events of battles may bias the data on heroic acts to appear more linked to leader roles than occurs in reality (Franco et al., 2011). Further, research has suggested that laypersons’ concepts of leaders and role models did not necessarily correspond to those of heroes (Kinsella et al., 2015). Thus, future studies are needed to better understand the relationship between leadership and physical bravery.

It is conceivable that future research may derive empirical conclusions applicable to recruitment and training methods for occupations requiring physical risk and bravery. Bravery and heroism research may also help inform clinical work with patients who suffer from fear, anxiety, and avoidance. In addition, future studies may expand the current research for more socially constructive purposes, encouraging positive action on larger global issues and inspiring individuals to help others in crisis.


Physical bravery is a difficult construct to study. This difficulty results from several challenges, such as the definition of the concept, the multiple variables associated with this phenomenon, and the methodology required to conduct research in this area. Nevertheless, the study of physical bravery and heroism is increasingly important as it has many implications for training of military personal and emergency professionals. In addition, there are strong indications that elements of bravery are associated with protective factors of PTSD. Last, courage and bravery are hallmarked as some of the factors of positive psychology that can assist in not only healing people, but more importantly improving humanity.

Previous and current studies indicate that bravery and courage are probably impacted by both nature and nurture. More specifically, individuals who performed acts of heroism and bravery are more likely to be self-confident, be an older child, have a tendency to take risks and seek sensation, be less cautious, be more resilient, have a greater sense of humor, be a leader, have a deep sense of empathy for others, and attribute their success on the battlefield to training and modeling of others.


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