The Two Faces of Pride
Friday, June 15, 2007
By Wray Herbert
Pride has perplexed philosophers and theologians for centuries, and it is an especially paradoxical emotion in American culture. We applaud rugged individualism, self-reliance and personal excellence, and indeed encourage these traits with gold stars and blue ribbons and statues. But don’t you dare let it go to your head. Too much pride can easily tip the balance toward vanity and haughtiness and self-love.
Scientists have also been perplexed by this complex emotion, because it’s so unlike primary emotions like fear and disgust. Those emotions clearly had survival value for early humans, alerting us to predators and poisons as we explored the savannahs, so it’s easy to see why such feelings endure in the human psyche. But pride? Is it as universal as joy or anger? And if so, what’s the point of this double-edged emotion?
Psychologists Jessica Tracy and Richard Robins have been exploring the origins and purpose of pride, both in the laboratory and in the field. Everyone knows disgust and happiness when they see it, almost instantaneously, and the scientists wanted to see if the same were true for pride. They ran a series of experiments using photographs of models with varying facial expressions and body language, asking subjects to identify the nonverbal signs of pride. And they did indeed find a prototypical prideful look: It includes a small smile (but not a grin), a slight head tilt, and puffed up chest and posture. The arms are either akimbo or (in an extremely proud moment) held overhead. Children as young as four recognized this face of pride, as did people in different cultures, including members of an isolated, preliterate tribe in Burkina Faso, West Africa.
So pride appears to be universal, and people consistently distinguished pride from other positive emotions, like excitement and joy. But that still leaves the question: What is it? What’s its purpose? To explore this, Tracy and Robins first asked people to come up with words that they associated with pride, and interestingly they found two distinct clusters of word associations. On the one hand, people link pride to such achievement-oriented ideas as accomplishment and confidence. These are positive traits on balance. On the other hand, people also connect pride to self-aggrandizement, arrogance and conceit—not appealing traits at all. The psychologists experimented with this idea in several different ways and, as described in the June issue of Current Directions in Psychological Science, all of the evidence supports the idea that pride comes with two very different faces. They call these two faces “authentic” pride and “hubristic” pride.
Here’s where it gets really interesting. When they studied people with tendencies toward one or the other form of pride, they found that they had very different personalities. People exhibiting authentic pride were more likely to score high on extraversion, agreeableness, genuine self-esteem and conscientiousness—all adaptive, appealing traits. But those exhibiting 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, the luck of the draw. Guess which group was more engaged in life?
Most human emotions evolved for one of two reasons. Some, like fear and disgust, were necessary to everyday survival, and ultimately reproductive success. But more complex, self-conscious emotions like pride were probably more important in reaching certain social goals, like status and group acceptance. In this sense, Tracy and Robins argue, pride is closely linked to self-esteem. 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? It’s not clear, but Tracy and Robins speculate that hubris might have been a social “short cut,” a way of tricking others into paying respect when it wasn’t warranted. Those
For more insights into the quirks of human nature, visit “We’re Only Human . . .” at www.psychologicalscience.org/onlyhuman.
posted by Wray Herbert @ 11:05 AM