Jul 20, 2009

courage is contagious

what makes people take great risks and, say, do human rights work in Colombia? Or just join a barricade to bring down the coup in Honduras? Or even just do a banner drop in front of their Congressman's office in solidarity with brave resistance in Honduras? (see photo - and here for more on citizen power in Honduras, and international solidarity with it - if you are in Miami you can protest in front of SouthCom on Saturday)

Well, here is an interesting article by Jamil Zaki about how courage is contagious. I always love it when psychologists prove the obvious. Here are some quotes:

“Why would people overlook their personal safety and join a dangerous protest, even when their individual contribution to it will be inevitably small? One possibility that's often ignored is that courage may be contagious.

Psychologists have long known that we are enormously influenced by the actions, beliefs, and attitudes of those around us. For the most part, the study of social influence has focused on negative versions of these effects, cataloging myriad ways that the presence of other people renders us thoughtless and selfish. We tip less at large tables, fail to intervene when someone needs help but other bystanders do nothing, and spiral into debt trying to keep up with our neighbors' standards of living. However, social influence is not as one-sided as its most prominent descriptions. More recent research has demonstrated at least two ways that other people can bolster our ability to face danger.

First, others serve as powerful models of what we can expect from the environment, and ways that we can respond to it. The most well-known example of this is vicarious fear conditioning. During normal fear conditioning, you see a neutral stimulus (a blue square, for example), and it is paired with something aversive, like an electric shock. Later, seeing the blue square alone is enough to become tense and anxious; you have learned to fear something perfectly innocuous by association. In vicarious conditioning, people learn fear through others: I watch you being shocked after seeing the blue square. Later, when I see that square, my brain and body react as though I had learned to fear it by being shocked myself.

However, vicarious conditioning is critically different from regular conditioning; not only the fear-evoking object, but also your reaction to it, will shape my later emotional responses. If you fear something, I will also. If you do not, I may actually be buffered from feeling fear when I have to face it. This effect is called social referencing

The presence of other people not only reduces the anticipatory quakes of facing risk; it can also lessen the suffering we feel during hardships, if we have company. An enormous and underappreciated public health risk factor is social isolation. Lonely people suffer greater anxiety, stress, and heart disease than the non-lonely -- an especially troubling idea given that more people live alone now than at any time in history. The other side to this is that the presence of people softens the blow of negative experience. People living in violent neighborhoods, for example, report less anxiety about the risks of living there as the cohesion of their community grows. Physical pain sensation is also reduced by the presence of close others, and in a recent brain imaging study, people demonstrated less neural response to pain when holding their romantic partner's hand than when alone.

Others' courage can both inspire us to face risk and support us as we experience hardships. This feedback loop between the bravery of individuals in a group and their effect on others lends people the tenacity to continue through dark conditions like the one we have witnessed in Iran in the last weeks.”

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