Study of the Day: Why We Often Chicken Out at the Last Minute

Researchers say people may wrongly predict their behavior in embarrassing situations because of an "empathy gap" with their future selves.

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PROBLEM: Why do we often plan to take risks like skydiving and singing onstage but back out when the moment of truth arrives?

METHODOLOGY: Scientists led by University of Colorado Boulder psychology and neuroscience professor Leaf Van Boven hypothesized that this illusion of courage is the result of an empathy gap, or our inability to forecast how we will behave in emotional situations. In two of the experiments, they asked college students if they would be willing to engage in a future embarrassing situation, such as telling a funny story or dancing to James Brown's "Sex Machine" in front of their class, in exchange for a few dollars. Some of the students were asked outright, while others were first exposed to short films that aroused feelings of fear and anger.

RESULTS: The students who were primed with negative emotions were much more accurate in predicting their true willingness to perform in public. The undergraduates who did not view movie clips were less empathetic to their future selves and significantly overestimated their interest.

CONCLUSION: People overestimate their ability to engage in embarrassing situations. They may be able to persevere, however, if they call to mind instances that could put them in better touch with the fear they would likely experience.

SOURCE: The full study, "The Illusion of Courage in Self-Predictions: Mispredicting One's Own Behavior in Embarrassing Situations," is published in the Journal of Behavioral Decision Making.

Image: Warren Goldswain/Shutterstock.

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Hans Villarica writes for and produces The Atlantic's Health channel. His work has appeared in TIME, People Asia, and Fast Company.

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