Home All What is a Unit of Courage? Interview with Robert Biswas-Diener

What is a Unit of Courage? Interview with Robert Biswas-Diener

written by Lisa Sansom 16 April 2012

Lisa Sansom, MAPP '10, is the owner of LVS Consulting, an independent consulting firm that helps to build positive organizations. Lisa provide services such as individual and leadership coaching, team facilitation, effective communications training, Appreciative Inquiry and change management consulting. Full Bio.

Articles by Lisa are here.

I recently interviewed Robert Biswas-Diener, author of the new book book, The Courage Quotient. We explored courage, strengths, self-doubt, and the future of positive psychology.

Lisa: To prepare for our interview, I asked my children for their questions about courage. My 10-year-old wanted to know, “How do you measure courage? What would be a unit of courage?”

Robert Biswas-Diener

Robert: That’s an awesome question. Kids always ask the best questions. I’d say we could call it a will power like a candle power is a unit of light. A will power would be a unit of courage, because in large part, courage is the will to action despite fear. The strengths constellation of self-regulation and willpower is really the crux of courage.

Lisa: The VIA strengths assessment includes courage. How does your definition differ?

Robert: One of the six universal virtues in the VIA assessment is Bravery, and it has been subdivided into smaller pieces, like authenticity. But when I was looking at the work that others have done on courage, I realized that there were certain hallmark features of courage: there has to be perceived personal risk, the presence of fear, and an uncertain outcome. Those are the three critical components. That’s a very psychological definition which is different from what the VIA might say. Courage is an action that takes place despite the fear, the risk, and the uncertainty.

Lisa: Your initial examples of courage are what people might expect, typical stories about physical courage. What was the most unusual example you came across in writing your book?

Alex Linley - after cold swim
to raise money for hospital
that saved daughter's life

Robert: We do think first about the most physical acts of courage. They seem to be the easiest to understand. Yet, one executive said that the most courageous thing he does is to hire people. When you hire people, you invest money in them, you change your team dynamics, you change your culture. It takes quite a bit of courage to hire someone. Firing someone is more straightforward, and the outcome is much more known. You might worry in the very short-term about an emotional backlash, but that’s pretty tame because six months down the road, there isn’t much consequence. When you hire someone, there could be enormous consequences six months down the road.

Starting a new family

Another example that I came up with was the idea of beginning new things: going to school, getting a new job, marrying someone, moving to a new city. These are very everyday occurrences, but they are acts of optimism and bravery.

Lisa: Are there ranges also within the day-to-day?

Robert: This starts to get to one of my favorite topics about courage, which is the notion of courage blindness. We tend to write off our own history of bravery by saying, “Oh I just did what anyone would have done,” or “If I were really brave, I would have…” But these comparisons belittle valid acts of bravery.

Lisa: What benefit would people get from honoring their own courageous stories?

Robert: Essentially, the same benefits that they would derive from understanding their strengths in general: self-regard, self-esteem, more energy, and perseverance towards difficult tasks. This helps people see themselves in their own best light.

Lisa: What would you say is really important about courage overall?

Robert: When I inscribe the book for people, I’ve been writing, “Courage is the shortest route to the good life.” I think courage is synonymous with the good life. Fears are all very normal and rational, but fear holds us back from actions that would make life rich and rewarding. People who live a fully engaged life are exhibiting some measure of courage. Courage indicates a willingness to try.

However fear is also a gift, and self-doubt is a gift with enormous signaling value. Sometimes we are doubtful because it’s healthy to question ourselves. That sort of reflection is important in coaching and a great process to engage in. But you don’t want that fear to hold you back, unless it should. There is definitely a balancing act. Courage is also wisdom: knowing when to act and when not to act.

Lisa: Some people say that courage only emerges when you need it. Is it an actual character trait that exemplifies people over time?

   Into the fire

Robert: This echoes my general thinking about character traits. I think of them as potentials. They are dormant, but not equally dormant in each person. Someone who is creative is more prone to creativity. The person who is courageous is more prone to courage.

It doesn’t mean that you will be courageous in every situation all of the time. Even a minor situational change, like a few more seconds to think and act, could make a big difference. Think of the person who won the courage prize. If any one of several things had been different, she might have acted in a different way.

Lisa: Would you offer the courage prize again?

Robert: Well as you saw it wasn’t a great success! I had very few nominations. The winner exhibited courage blindness, and some people were highly critical of me for it!

Lisa: Would you encourage people to increase their courage quotients?

Robert: I do. If you recognize that your willingness to act has to outweigh your fear, and that life is a series of actions, then yes, people should increase their courage quotients. Unless you think you’re already optimally courageous, but most of us are not optimally courageous across all domains all of the time. Some people are over-confident, or too courageous.

Lisa: What is the most misunderstood aspect of courage?

Robert: It’s a common misconception that courage is only physical. Also, people believe that courage is a trait and can’t be learned. People also wrongly believe that courage is something that other people have, and they don’t. I defy you to show me someone who hasn’t shown courage at some point.

Lisa: Were most nominees in your courage prize for physical courage?

Robert: No, they weren’t. And this is a sticky question that I haven’t been able to resolve. There is an American notion that facing a chronic illness is courageous. Yet a European told me that’s crazy: there is no act of heroism in facing illness. What else could you do? That’s not a politically correct thing to say around here, but there may be something to it. If we say that people facing chronic illness are brave, we need to substantiate it. Most of the nominees for the courage prize were people facing chronic pain or illness. Yet is it fair to saddle the mantle of courage on these patients? It might make for interesting research. If you present a fictitious cancer patient to people, but manipulate the data to change her age, for example, would that change how courageous they thought she was? Having cancer does not automatically qualify you as being brave.

I also make the argument in the book that kids aren’t brave, and people freak out about that. But Chris Peterson did studies asking parents what character strengths they think their children have, and only a few selected Courage. Kids are generally fearful. When I wrote this, I thought that it was pretty uncontroversial. Courage is about self-regulation, and so children won’t be as self-regulated as adults – duh! But it hit such a button in people.

Lisa: But if we say children are more fearful, are they being courageous by children standards, where it might not be courageous by adult standards?

Robert: Well sure, but kids are generally held back by fears: new foods, going into the basement, jumping into the pool. Of course kids can be brave, but it’s not their defining characteristic.

Lisa: Who is the most courageous person you know?

Robert:That’s a great question. Among intellectual pioneers, I know a number of very courageous people, including my father. But that’s an easy answer.

   Jon Haidt

I’ll give you a better answer from positive psychology: Jon Haidt. I think he’s extraordinary. He has really taken intellectual risks in ways that I have not seen many other people take. He has a paper out that essentially asks if academia is skewed towards liberalism and he says, yes, it’s liberal. He’s speaking out against his own in-group. In some ways, he’s an intellectual academic whistle-blower, about hypocrisy and ideas that we have about our own rightness. I think it’s amazing that he is willing to take that risk and he’s come under huge attack for it. It has probably changed him as a person. He has tremendous resolve in this idea, and his ideas don’t always land well with people, especially as he’s often speaking with liberal audiences.

Lisa: When Seligman started the field of positive psychology, he said he didn’t want to see a journal of positive psychology, but we now have that and more. Would you ever want to see a journal dedicated to courage?

Robert: I’ve never been asked that before. What a great question. Do I think that courage is a broad enough umbrella that it would merit continued research and assessment? Yes, I do. But it’s interesting how little there is on courage. If you do a PsycInfo search, there isn’t much out there. Everyone has a book on happiness, and there is lots of research on happiness. There are a gazillion books on every possible slant on happiness. It’s a concern that touches us all, of course. And I think that courage is every bit as important as happiness. Without courage, you can’t have a good or full life. Courage is a topic that deserves not just my book, but twenty best-selling books.

Editor’s note: Lisa’s interview with Robert Biswas Diener appears in the chapter on Bravery in Character Strengths Matter.



Biswas-Diener, R. (2012). The Courage Quotient. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Haidt, J. (2012). The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. Pantheon Press.

Haidt, J. & Graham, J. (2007). When Morality Opposes Justice: Conservatives Have Moral Intuitions that Liberals may not Recognize. Social Justice Research, 20(1), 98-116.

Professor Alex Linley, picture from report of his swim across Britain’s coldest lake to raise £12,000 for Birmingham Children’s Hospital, which saved his daughter’s life.
Getting married and starting a new family courtesy of Sally Crossthwaite
Into the fire! courtesy of James Hernandez
Your tile matters – tiles by cancer patients, adult and children courtesy of William Hutton
Jon Haidt picture from Ethical Systems

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Judy Krings 16 April 2012 - 3:54 pm

Great questions, Lisa, and super, concise answers, Robert.
This is a book that fascinates everyone, not just positive psychology lovers. It is great to dive into courage and get to see the depths of research and all the brilliant colors of bravery. I was especially curious about so many people thinking coping with a chronic illness was brave. I had always thought of courage as going beyond what you thought you could do. Also, the idea of taking your own “courage history” was engaging. I think it will help us chronicle our well-being and strengths stretching as we get older. Kudos to you both.

Scott 16 April 2012 - 5:41 pm

Lisa and Robert,
Kudos to you both. Excellent interview that has made me order the book. There are so many things I could comment on, but I’ll just focus on “courage blindness.” Brilliant! Most of us can see courage in others, but not in ourselves. I run into it all the time studying great individuals. We just assume we do what we have to do and we move on. The courage to try new things, to risk failure, to risk rejection are powerful examples that most of us have at some point experienced. Yet, we don’t think about them. I wonder if this gets in the way of developing courage? Similar to an unacknowledged talent, does courage need to be acknowledged in order to be developed?
On a selfish note, the concept of courage to try new things and risk failure is paramount to personal greatness. So, I’m very grateful to you both. Thank you.

Dan Bowling 16 April 2012 - 6:29 pm

This is really a great piece, Lisa and Robert. Direct, honest, and dare I say, “courageous?” in the way the issues were posed and addressed. Very fresh and useful.

oz 17 April 2012 - 3:58 am

Lisa – a couple of observations

It’s interesting I asked Roberts people about the difference between courage and self regulation and got a very vague response. It appears here that Rob is basically agreeing.

I’m also interested to know how in one breath Rob can acknowledge that there is very little research out there and then go on to say “Courage is the shortest route to the good life. I think courage is synonymous with the good life.” It would be good if you could point to the research that supports his claim. Again his people were unable to help me with this research when I asked.

By the way I nominated myself for Rob’s Bravery prize – the basis being my willingness to challenge PP paradigms in PP forums – unfortunatley he didn’t appreciate my Australian sense of humour.

Kimberley Seitz 17 April 2012 - 9:51 am

This is another great article showcasing the importance of powerful questions. Starting from the beginning when you included your child’s provocative question all the way through to the end, you asked questions that engaged us as readers and encouraged us to learn and want more.

Robert’s new book will be a must-have for all those who help organizations and people make positive change, and your article helped bring courage to the forefront.

Cheers to you both!

Editor K.H.B. 18 April 2012 - 3:32 pm

Let’s see if I can pull the questions out of Oz’s comment, but phrase them in a way that indicates curiosity and a willingness to be changed by what I hear, two qualities that are essential for good online discussion.

Robert said that “courage is the will to action despite fear. The strengths constellation of self-regulation and willpower is really the crux of courage.” But we don’t normally think of self-regulation and courage as being synonymous. What does the research tell us about the connection between the two? [That also made me wonder: Is there research that shows that ego depletion affects courage?]

If I were getting Robert to sign my book, I’d first appreciate the statement, “Courage is the shortest route to the good life.” But then I’d wonder about the research basis for this memory-sticky statement. What are some of the major research findings that examine the connection between courage and well-being?


Lisa Sansom 18 April 2012 - 5:49 pm

Thank you all for your kind and generous comments. RBD is always a great person to talk with, and he was very generous with his time and energy and thinking. I appreciate how he pushes the boundaries of PP and pushes us all to higher standards. Definitely, as the field of PP grows, we are learning more and more about strengths and applications. It is very exciting and I’m thrilled to be part of it.

Kathryn – thank you especially for your pulling curiosity out of potential antagonism. I think that everyone has raised great questions and, of course, we should probably all read the book as some of these issues are addressed in those pages, and I didn’t have time to get into every little bit and detail in our interview.

I wish for us all the courage to keep moving this fine field forward – through whatever supportive and effective means that we can.

Thanks again,

Oz 18 April 2012 - 7:46 pm

Lisa – and we also need to have the courage to question the gurus. Otherwise PP is no different from most of the guff on self help books My hunch based on the research is that there is minimal if any reserach supporting Roberts assertions ie its a theory yet to be tested. {[Edited]… If he can} provide evidence to the contrary then I’m am quite prepared to chage my perspectives.

I believe I am curious – my business philosophy focuses on what works and why? And if it doesn’t work then why didn’t it work and what can we learn from it?

Dr. Robert Biswas-Diener 19 April 2012 - 10:41 am

Several months ago Oz mused about the possible relationship between courage and self-regulation and I think his intuition is good. To the extent that courage is about controlling fear and harnessing values to motivate behavior then it makes sense to think that self-regulation is an important mechanism related to courage. Self-regulation, like many topics in psychology, is really an umbrella term referring to emotional regulation, effortful cognitive willpower, behavioral regulation and sometimes even mindfulness. So unpacking the term a bit is in order to really understand that the regulation of fear (emotional regulation) is the most relevant to courage. But I think we should stop far short of thinking of courage as being synonymous with self-regulation. Just to give a single example of a point of departure some courage is automatic and happens beneath the level of careful conscious processing, in effect taking a short cut to behavior without pausing to reflect on fear. Hope this helps!


oz 20 April 2012 - 3:04 am

Kathryn – two huge assumptions on your behalf re curiosity and willingness the change. In various personality measures I score highly on both these.

This is the question I would have asked Rob. “I’m interested in the evidence you have to support your claim?”

My hunch is and I’m willing to be proved wrong is that it’s a theory that is yet to be tested. I have no issue with this but it goes against the spirit of PP. Its reserach that separates PP from the typical self help book.

Dr. Robert Biswas-Diener 21 April 2012 - 1:10 pm

I would encourage anyone to be careful about charging me with being unethical. In The Courage Quotient, I have written a book that– to the best of my ability- reports on a wide range of courage research as well as studies relevant to the concept of courage. These include research on de-individuation, culture and aggression, conformity and obedience, reactions to failure, the physiology and psychology of fear and other topics. As both a scientist and a practitioner I place a premium on ethical work and have even recently published a report on it with regards to positive psychology practice. I have written at length, in both peer reviewed sources and in my books, about the necessity for professionalization of positive psychology and the importance of ethical considerations and high quality practice. I am not certain which assertions of mine you believe are unethical, nor why you think my book does not contain discussion of research.

Lisa Sansom 21 April 2012 - 1:40 pm

I think we also need to be careful about labelling people “gurus”…

Perhaps we should invite Todd Kashdan about what “curiosity” looks like and sounds like, to help people express it clearly in a virtual, online situation where communication is limited in its ability to really convey emotions and intents? 🙂

Editor K.H.B. 21 April 2012 - 2:50 pm

When you include ad hominem attacks in your comments, you make it very hard for people to see the real questions you are asking or to believe that you really care to hear the answers. That includes me, and I’m not in the middle of this debate.

I’m sure that Robert is quite able to deal with healthy skepticism and respectful disagreement, given how much he has put his work out in public so that others can examine it. You are free to read his new book or any of his papers, many available from the Positive Acorn web site. Even without buying the book, you can look through its reference list using Amazon Inside. I counted 80+ references, many of them research papers.

This was, after all, an interview to help people decide if they want to read the book. It was not meant to answer all the questions curious people can raise.


oz 21 April 2012 - 3:25 pm


The study I would like to see is does the construct of courage as you define it add any incremental prediction of wellbeing over and beyond self regularion.

Again let me muse – perhaps it only applies to people high in neuroticism – so perhaps neuroticism might be a moderator.

These sort of things need to be addressed before we make big statements.

Dr. Robert Biswas-Diener 21 April 2012 - 6:48 pm


The study you describe would be an interesting one for someone to conduct and I encourage you to do so. Before you embark on it, however, I will offer a bit of technical advice related to the research of well-being. Courageous action could alienate people from others, especially in cases such as whistle blowing. Further, it could result in death, as in the case of the passengers on Flight United 93 on 9/11/01. So you would have to give serious thought to your well-being outcome measure as courage might result in short term affective ill-being (anxiety, fear, alientation, discomfort) but perhaps retrospective or long-term positive cognitive appraisals. These hypotheses would be interesting to investigate and if you choose to do so I would be happy to offer further in-depth guidance.

As I mentioned above there are clear conceptual distinctions between courage and self-regulation, but also certainly some overlap. The definition of courage I tackle in the book is taken from Chris Rate’s work, and I also add discussion from empirical works from the research laboratories of Walker, Pury and Eagley, respectively, among others. Read the book– even if you have to borrow it from a friend or library– and I am certain you will get a better sense of the types of research I bring to bear on the topic.

Finally, If you are challenging my statement that “courage is the shortest route to the good life” this is not an empirical hypothesis and is something I inscribed in some books. I no more need a reference for that than I do to substantiate the fact that I prefer mint to vanilla ice cream. I clearly offered that statement in the interview above as a personal opinion given in the context of a book signing.



Lisa Sansom 22 April 2012 - 7:14 pm

Oz – thank you for adding another interesting book to our discussion. (For those who are interested, you can learn more about Dr. Mcgonigal’s book here: http://kellymcgonigal.com/willpowerinstinct/)

I have not read Dr. Mcgonigal’s book.

Robert Biswas-Diener, in his book, defines courages as the following (p.8):
1. There is perceived danger or threat to an individual.
2. The outcome of any action is uncertain.
3. Fear is present.
4. The person willfully, intentionally acts, despite the presence of the first three characteristics.

This is based on a host of research and synthesis, which Biswas-Diener outlines in his book.

My question: Does Dr. Mcgonigal’s construct address these same defining characteristics, notably the emotional state of the individual, specifically fear?

All the best,

oz 22 April 2012 - 11:09 pm

Lisa – if you really get down to the basics what Robert is talking about is stress management 101. Stress is a fear response.

From what I can gather having done some snooping, most of the interventions that Robert covers are covered in most stress management workshops.

{edited out}

Dr. Mcgonigal provides some interesting insights about the different physiological mechanisms that underlie diffrent type of fear.

Kevin Simmons 23 April 2012 - 1:28 am

Honestly Oz, I am still not familiar enough with Dr. Rob’s work to evaluate it; I have yet to read his book, papers, or a quality abstract of either. However, life experience is enough to attest to the fact that it is better to be courageous than cowardly (though not stupidly so), so I’m not certain why you are so gung-ho on stoning RBD for the statement (remember hyperbole is rhetoric, and passion may lead people to overstate their case…often to good effect). While I found his advice that “courage is the shortest route to the good life” a bit off putting as well- it was not because it was unsubstantiated, but because in my view that claim belongs to humility (please don’t ask me to support this empirically…).

By recommending Armstrong’s book, I did not exactly mean to call your general capacity for compassion into question, but only your application of it to the people you encounter here. Kathryn’s observation about the way people may view your comments was spot on.

I am starting to view you as a sort of Socrates, you question until either ignorance or truth is revealed. Socrates was a bit nicer about it though.

Amanda Horne 23 April 2012 - 11:56 pm


I enjoyed reading your interview with RBD and the comments that followed.

Self-regulation / self control appears in the VIA cluster “Temperance”. Yet, I believe (from experience and observation) that self-regulation can also feed courage. This might be so for people who have fears which hold them back. Careful observation and regulation of those fears might reveal a new pathway to a courageous action (rather than the fear response of fight/flight). It’s also good to see in the interview RBD’s comment about character strengths as potentials which helps to shift our attention beyond the “Top 5” thinking.


oz 24 April 2012 - 8:49 pm

Amanda – Kelly McGonigals’ book provide a fuller undertanding of stress – it goes beyong the traditional understanding of “fright flight” which isn’t the primary mechansim that operates with most modern day stressors

Jeremy McCarthy 26 April 2012 - 8:37 pm

Great interview and fascinating field of study. I don’t see any problem with Robert’s statement. How does a bird’s life change when he finally pushes himself out of his nest for the first time? While reading this article I was thinking about the article I wrote on my own blog this week about becoming a musician. From my own personal experience and from the comments of others who reached out to me after reading my post, there is a powerful transformation that happens when someone challenges their limitations, and by doing so, comes to the realization that change is possible. This is how a growth mindset is formed. I also don’t think we should hamstring scientists by preventing them from sharing an opinion without doing a RCT experiment first (and yet any bozo with a computer can express their opinions of a researcher’s work without even reading their book or their research.)

Amanda Horne 27 April 2012 - 1:04 am

Thanks Oz – looking forward to a better understanding of flight/fright, stress etc.


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