The Fascinating Psychology of Bravery: What Makes Someone Brave?

Does courage live in the heart or the mind? What compels some people to turn toward danger and others to run away? Science writer Jeff Wise investigates.

Prescott Firefighters
Courtesy of Prescott Fire
Pictured: The Granite Mountain Hotshots

Understanding your surroundings and the task at hand may also figure into the ability to act bravely. The Granite Mountain Hotshots certainly had a grasp of their job on June 30, 2013. At 9 a.m., 20 members of the team clambered out of their F750 pickup trucks and set off on foot toward a 300-acre fire that had been sparked by lightning atop Yarnell Hill, some 90 miles north of Phoenix, two days before. The men were all highly trained members of the local fire department in Prescott, Arizona. But none of them could have anticipated what would happen that day.

Just six hours later, a freak thunderstorm rolled in and triggered a sudden change in wind direction, causing the fire to encircle the crew with a 3,000-degree, 40-foot-high wall of flames. Within minutes, 19 firefighters were dead.

Read more of their story »

For those of us who don’t fight fires, the courage it would take to willingly put oneself in such danger seems all but unimaginable. Psychologists have found that fear subsides when people believe that they understand a threat. The reason may be that we’re naturally afraid of the unknown: Put a person inside a brain-scanning machine and show him an unfamiliar face, and his amygdala will activate; show him a face he knows, and it won’t.

A Harvard sociologist and former wildland firefighter, Matthew Desmond writes in his book On the Fireline: Living and Dying with Wildland Firefighters that most are experienced outdoorspeople. “Courage is based on the idea that you recognize the danger in the thing you see,” Desmond says. For experienced firefighters, a sense of mastery erodes the perception of danger and with it the feeling of fear. “When you start, you’re in awe,” he says. “But once you’ve seen a hundred fires, the adrenaline goes away.”

For many of us, a feeling of intense danger is itself an unfamiliar place. The strange mental state in which we feel as though we’re watching a movie of ourselves can provoke further anxiety and leave us feeling paralyzed. The numerous witnesses to Melissa Hawkinson’s feat may have been flummoxed because they’d never been in such a situation before. For her part, Hawkinson had prior experience. Years earlier, she and her husband had come across a car accident and performed CPR on the unconscious driver until paramedics arrived. Before that encounter, she says, she didn’t know how she’d handle herself in an emergency. Since then, she’s had confidence in her ability to perform under pressure. “I can remain calm and do what I need to do,” Hawkinson says.

In other words, she’s found her own answer to the mystery of bravery.

More Profiles in Courage »

Become more interesting every week!

The Reader's Digest "Read Up" Newsletter

We will use your email address to send you this newsletter. For more information please read our privacy policy.