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The perks and pitfalls of pride

June 20, 2007
Courtesy Association for Psychological Science
and World Science staff

Pride has per­plexed phi­loso­phers and the­olo­gians for cen­turies, and it is a par­a­dox­i­cal emo­tion. Pride based on per­son­al ex­cel­lence is en­cour­aged, but too much pride can easily tip the bal­ance to­ward van­ity, haugh­ti­ness and self-love. Sci­en­tists have al­so been per­plexed by this com­plex emo­tion, be­cause it is so un­like so-called pri­ma­ry emo­tions, those felt as a first re­sponse to a situa­t­ion, like fear and dis­gust.

Juan de Pareja, by Diego Rodriguez de Silva Velasquez, c. 1650.


Psy­chol­o­gists have been ex­plor­ing pride’s ori­gins and pur­pose, and wheth­er pride is as un­iver­sal as, say, joy or an­ger. 

In the June is­sue of the re­search jour­nal Cur­rent Di­rec­tions in Psy­cho­log­i­cal Sci­ence, Jes­si­ca Tra­cy of the Un­ivers­ity of Brit­ish Co­lum­bia in Van­cou­ver and Rich­ard Robins of the Un­ivers­ity of Cal­i­for­nia, Da­vis re­view sev­er­al re­cent stud­ies on the na­ture and func­tion of pride.

In one ex­pe­ri­ment, re­search­ers used pho­tographs of mod­els with var­y­ing fa­cial ex­pres­sions and body lan­guage, ask­ing sub­jects to iden­ti­fy the non­ver­bal signs of pride. 

They found what they called a pro­to­typ­i­c pride­ful look, which was rec­og­nized by chil­dren as young as four and peo­ple of many dif­fer­ent cul­tures, in­clud­ing mem­bers of an iso­lat­ed, pre­lit­er­ate tribe in Burk­ina Faso, West Af­ri­ca.

So pride seems to be un­iver­sal, they said, but that still leaves the ques­tions: What is it? What is its pur­pose? To ex­plore this, Tra­cy and Robins first asked peo­ple to come up with words that they as­so­ci­at­ed with pride. They found that ei­ther peo­ple link pride to such achievement-oriented ideas as ac­com­plish­ment and con­fi­dence—“au­then­tic” pride—or to self-ag­gran­dize­ment, ar­ro­gance and con­ceit—“hu­bris­tic” pride.

Peo­ple who tend to feel au­then­tic pride were more likely to score high on tests of ex­tro­ver­sion, agree­a­ble­n, gen­u­ine self-es­teem and con­sci­en­tious­ness, the pair found; but people who tend to feel hu­bris­tic pride were nar­cis­sis­tic and prone to shame. Fur­ther, they found that peo­ple who felt pos­i­tive, achievement-oriented feel­ings of pride viewed hard work as the key to suc­cess in life, where­as hu­bris­tic peo­ple tended to view suc­cess as pre­de­ter­mined, due to their sta­ble abil­i­ties. 

Tra­cy and Robins ar­gue that the prim­i­tive pre­cur­sors of pride probably mo­ti­vat­ed our an­ces­tors to act in al­tru­is­tic and com­mu­ni­tar­ian ways, for the good of the tribe. The phys­i­cal dis­play of pride both re­in­forced such be­hav­ior and sig­naled to the group that this per­son was wor­thy of re­spect. So in­di­vid­ual pride, at least the good kind, con­tri­but­ed in im­por­tant ways to the sur­viv­al of the com­mun­ity.

But what about pride’s dark side? Tra­cy and Robins spec­u­late that hu­bris might have been a so­cial “short cut,” a way of trick­ing oth­ers in­to pay­ing re­spect when it was not war­ranted. Those who could not earn re­spect the old-fash­ioned way fig­ured out how to look and act ac­com­plished in or­der to gain sta­tus. So­cial cheaters puffed them­selves up be­cause deep down they did not have what it took to suc­ceed. What­ev­er re­spect they got would have been fleet­ing, of course, as it is to­day.


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Pride has perplexed philosophers and theologians for centuries, and it is a paradoxical emotion. Pride based on personal excellence is encouraged, but too much pride can easily tip the balance toward vanity, haughtiness and self-love. Scientists have also been perplexed by this complex emotion, because it is so unlike so-called primary emotions, those felt as a first response to a situation, like fear and disgust. Psychologists have been exploring pride’s origins and purpose, and whether pride is as universal as, say, joy or anger. In the June issue of the research journal Current Directions in Psychological Science, Jessica Tracy of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver and Richard Robins of the University of California, Davis review several recent studies on the nature and function of pride. In one experiment, researchers used photographs of models with varying facial expressions and body language, asking subjects to identify the nonverbal signs of pride. They found what they called a prototypical prideful look, which was recognized by children as young as four and people of many different cultures, including members of an isolated, preliterate tribe in Burkina Faso, West Africa. So pride seems to be universal, they said, but that still leaves the questions: What is it? What is its purpose? To explore this, Tracy and Robins first asked people to come up with words that they associated with pride. They found that either people link pride to such achievement-oriented ideas as accomplishment and confidence—”authentic” pride—or to self-aggrandizement, arrogance and conceit—”hubristic” pride. People who tend to feel authentic pride were more likely to score high on tests of extroversion, agreeableness, genuine self-esteem and conscientiousness. However, those who tend to feel hubristic pride were narcissistic and prone to shame. Further, they found that people who felt positive, achievement-oriented feelings of pride viewed hard work as the key to success in life, whereas hubristic people tended to view success as predetermined, due to their stable abilities. Tracy and Robins argue that the primitive precursors of pride probably motivated our ancestors to act in altruistic and communitarian ways, for the good of the tribe, and the physical display of pride both reinforced such behavior and signaled to the group that this person was worthy of respect. So individual pride, at least the good kind, contributed in important ways to the survival of the community. But what about pride’s dark side? Tracy and Robins speculate that hubris might have been a social “short cut,” a way of tricking others into paying respect when it was not warranted. Those who could not earn respect the old-fashioned way figured out how to look and act accomplished in order to gain status. Social cheaters puffed themselves up because deep down they did not have what it took to succeed. Whatever respect they got would have been fleeting, of course, as it is today.