How to Act With Courage: Preload Your Response

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Power of Moments" by Chip Heath and Dan Heath. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Why do people tend to withdraw and do nothing when they witness unjust or even violent behavior? How do you act when you witness unjust treatment?

Usually, when you see something wrong or unjust, you don’t react right away, or at all—most people don’t naturally know how to react to these situations. Without a specific planned response, we end up spending too much time deliberating what we should or could say or do, and miss the moment. To avoid decision paralysis in situations that call for courage, plan out exactly how you’d respond with “preloaded responses.”

Here is how preparing preloaded responses can help you act with courage when a situation calls for it.

Prepare Yourself Mentally for Courage 

We feel a great deal of pride when we act with courage—when we stand up for someone else, call out injustice, or fight for something we believe in. These moments are meaningful because they show us what we’re made of. 

The problem with these moments is that it’s very difficult to engineer situations that call on us to be courageous—they almost always happen spontaneously. However, you can practice and prepare yourself mentally to act courageously when it’s necessary. 

The Heaths note that while you might not have any control over when opportunities to act with courage appear, you do have control over how you react to these opportunities. 

(Shortform note: In their book Switch, the Heaths put a name to this phenomenon of clamming up when faced with the task of making a choice—decision paralysis. When presented with numerous options or ambiguity, humans are predisposed to conserving their mental energy by defaulting to whatever decision feels easiest or most familiar, or not doing anything at all.)

Preloaded responses are reactions that you’ve drilled into your memory so that they’re immediately ready in a situation that calls for it. 

  • For example, “When I see Bill and his friends mocking my sister at school, I will walk over, ask them to stop, and walk her to class. ”

While thinking of your preloaded responses, it’s helpful to reframe your thoughts away from, “What is the right thing to do?” This question forces you to deliberate between all the different “right” responses you could have. Instead, ask,How can I get the right thing done?” This question asserts that you know what’s right and now must make it happen. It’s not a matter of what you should do, but what you will do.

Example: Speaking Up About Inappropriate Remarks

Imagine that your colleague makes a racially insensitive remark to another colleague. Without any practice, you’d likely be so caught off-guard that you’d do nothing at all in response. However, what if you’d had a preloaded response at the ready? “I know that Mary makes insensitive jokes to her friends about Julie. That’s not right and it won’t stop unless I bring it to HR. The next time I hear her make a remark like that, I’ll say ‘Mary, that’s a really inappropriate and disrespectful thing to say, and as it goes against our company values, I’ll be reporting you to HR.’” Chances are if you’d had this preloaded response prepared, you would have been primed to speak up the first time you heard your colleague making these types of remarks. 

Preloaded Responses for Personal Moments of Courage

Asserting that you know the right thing to do and planning out how to make it happen can apply to smaller, very personal moments of courage as well. Doing the right thing and acting with integrity matters, even if you’re doing it just for yourself. 

Perhaps you’re trying to cut down on drinking. The journey toward sobriety is full of situations that will call on your ability to do the right thing, and you can cut out the hesitation and temptation of these situations by creating preloaded responses. 

First, remember to reframe your thoughts. You already know what the right thing to do is: avoiding situations that will tempt you to drink. Then, determine how you can do that. You identify your triggering scenarios and practice your actions: “When the waiter asks me what I would like to drink, I will say seltzer.” “When I am walking home after work, I will take the long way around the block to avoid walking in front of the bar.”

In practicing these small moments of courage so that you may put them into action, you can bring out your best self and multiply your opportunities for meaningful moments of personal pride.

Try Creating Precommitments 

Preloaded responses are a type of precommitment—a pact you make with yourself about the way you’ll act in a certain situation. At times, rehearsing your preloaded response may not be a strong enough pact to prompt you to follow through. You can try raising the stakes by putting more tangible precommitments in place. 
In his book Indistractable, Nir Eyal outlines several ways you can use precommitments you can use to push yourself into doing the right thing:

Create social pressure: This kind of pact, which Eyal calls an “effort pact,” is a precommitment that makes it harder to do something undesirable. One way you might use an effort pact is by making a precommitment with someone else—you’re not likely to break the precommitment because of the added pressure of being “watched” by someone else. For example, you might ask a friend to walk home from work with you every day so you don’t stop at the bar. 

Put your money on the line: In this pact, you attach money to your precommitment—if you break it, you lose the money. You might attach a $100 bill to your fridge and make a pact: If you buy beer, you have to burn the money. Each time you think of buying beer, the potential loss holds you back.

Identify with your future self: Make a precommitment to the identity you want to have by consciously talking about yourself as someone who has that identity. For example, instead of saying, “I’m someone who’s trying to quit drinking,” you might say, “I’m someone who is quitting drinking.” 

Practicing Courage Brings Out the Best in Others

Why should you put in the hard work to practice courage and use it when necessary? The Heaths say that in doing so, you just might inspire someone else to do the same. 

It’s human nature to be wary of going against the status quo; we want to blend in with what everyone else is doing, no matter if it’s right or wrong. However, people are much more likely to have confidence in their own beliefs—even if they are unpopular—if they see someone else lending support to those same beliefs. Likewise, people are much more likely to do the right thing after they have observed someone else doing so; justice suddenly becomes much more important than blending in. 

(Shortform note: Being able to “spread” feelings or actions in this way is a result of the mirror neuron system, which directs the brain to mirror others’ actions. This system comes from early in our evolution when humans depended on being part of a group for survival. Mimicry—especially of positive, or prosocial, behaviors—helped humans assimilate into groups by creating a sense of similarity and bonding. Due to your mirror neuron system, observing others’ actions prompts your brain to rehearse the action as if you were doing it yourself. In other words, by acting with courage, you subconsciously help another person to practice their moment of courage.) 

Courage is contagious. When you create a defining moment of pride for yourself with courage, you also create a defining moment for someone else who is shaped by the experience of seeing someone else stand up for what’s right and inspire them to do the same.

How to Act With Courage: Preload Your Response

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Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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