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

More

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

main Warren Goldswain shutterstock_67756114.jpg

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.

Jump to comments
Presented by

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

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

In Online Dating, Everyone's a Little Bit Racist

The co-founder of OKCupid shares findings from his analysis of millions of users' data.


Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

In Online Dating, Everyone's a Little Bit Racist

The co-founder of OKCupid shares findings from his analysis of millions of users' data.

Video

What Is a Sandwich?

We're overthinking sandwiches, so you don't have to.

Video

How Will Climate Change Affect Cities?

Urban planners and environmentalists predict the future of city life.

Video

The Inner Life of a Drag Queen

A short documentary about cross-dressing, masculinity, identity, and performance

Video

Let's Talk About Not Smoking

Why does smoking maintain its allure? James Hamblin seeks the wisdom of a cool person.

Writers

Up
Down

More in Health

Just In