In January, the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords produced a half dozen bona fide heroes, including Patricia Maisch, a 61-year-old woman who snatched ammunition out of alleged gunman Jared Loughner's hands as he tried to reload. For good reason, people like these earn our respect and adulation; their grace under pressure strikes us as almost superhuman. Yet as we marvel at their deeds, we're always left wondering about where, exactly, this composure comes from. Do these people emerge from the womb with sanguine looks on their faces, ready to perform life-saving surgery in the next room if necessary? Or is their coolness something they picked up through life experience?
When I was researching Nerve, my new book about how people deal best with fear, pressure, and stress, I got quizzed about this constantly. Is cool-headedness born, people wanted to know, or is it made? We've been arguing about this question since the days of Socrates, but until recently, psychologists had very little hard data about how genes and experience interact to determine how we respond under stress. We now have a far more solid idea of where cool comes from, however. Poise under pressure, it turns out, does indeed have a strong genetic component—yet our poise is mostly the result of what we do to build it up throughout our lives.
Let's start with the "nature" side of the equation. For every one of us, the starting point for cool-headedness comes bundled within our DNA: our innate disposition toward anxiety. It's never been a secret that anxiousness is partially inherited (my parents, for example, had me pegged as a future neurotic from the first time my brow furrowed), but no one knew how much influence our genes threw around until psychiatrist Kenneth Kendler came along. In a 2001 study, Kendler and his colleagues examined 1,200 pairs of male twins, some identical and some fraternal, probing into each brother's individual phobias. Because all of the twins shared the same upbringing, yet only the identical twins shared the same DNA, Kendler could filter out environmental factors altogether and calculate a pure figure for our genetic susceptibility to anxiety. The answer? Genes account for around 30 percent of our anxiousness.
"Aha!" we might exclaim. "Cool under pressure is 30 percent genetic, then." Well, not quite. After all, anxiety certainly influences our poise in stressful situations, but being anxious doesn't always lead to falling apart—far from it. Some of history's coolest customers have also been nervous wrecks. Boston Celtics center Bill Russell, who led his team to 11 NBA championships, was legendary among his teammates for his pre-game anxiety; until the end of his career, Russell grew so nervous that he threw up before every single game. When Laurence Olivier was delivering the most lauded theatrical performances of his life, he too suffered from such intense stage fright that he asked people to physically push him onstage. Feeling anxious and flopping while under fire, then, don't necessarily go hand in hand.
The first people to perform useful studies specifically on composure in crisis were World War II combat researchers, who could examine soldiers under literal fire. In 1943, one of these men, a British officer named Lionel Wigram, noticed a pattern in his studies of infantry units on the Italian front. Whenever a 22-man platoon encountered enemy fire, Wigram realized, the troops always responded in the same proportions: A few soldiers would go to pieces and try to escape, a few more would react valiantly, and the vast majority would enter a sheeplike state of bewilderment, unsure of what to do. Wigram wasn't a scientist, but his insight about our instinctive reactions to crisis was remarkably accurate. According to modern research by survival psychologist John Leach, when a random group of people finds itself in a sudden emergency like a fire or a natural disaster, 10 to 15 percent will consistently freak out, 10 to 20 percent will stay cool, and the rest will become dazed and hesitant sheep.
These aren't exactly inspiring figures for those of us who fantasize that we'd respond to a mugger with a heroic flurry of karate kicks—and the situation is about to get bleaker. When researchers have studied those who naturally stay composed in crisis, they've uncovered evidence that their poise has a biological underpinning. Yale psychiatrist Andy Morgan, for example, has studied elite Special Forces recruits as they undergo "Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape" training, a three-week course designed to simulate the tortures of enemy capture. The program is brutally stressful, yet many recruits preserve an amazing amount of mental clarity in the midst of it. When Morgan examined the poised trainees' blood tests, he saw that they were producing significantly more of "a goofy little peptide called neuropeptide Y" than other, more rattled recruits. The extra NPY was like a layer of stress-deflecting mental Kevlar; its effects are so pronounced that Morgan can tell whether a soldier has made it into the Special Forces or not just by looking at a blood test.