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

who couldn’t 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 didn't have what it took to succeed in their world. Whatever respect they got would have been fleeting, of course, as it is today.

For more insights into the quirks of human nature, visit “We’re Only Human . . .” at

posted by Wray Herbert @ 11:05 AM


At 6:02 PM , Blogger Susie said...

Another fascinating look at the people with whom we share our world. And no doubts whatsoever, in my mind at least, what kind of pride was being displayed in the second photo. Bravo, Mr. Herbert!

At 7:17 PM , Blogger Cassandra_Moderna said...

My daughter was a preemie and learned to do almost all sorts of physical activities later than other toddlers. At 12 months she could not sit on the ground without falling over to the side or backwards. But, one day, as I was sitting on our couch and she was sitting on my thigh with both of her legs hanging down between mine, she presented body language that I can only describe as showing the illumination of an idea in her head combined with bravado, and she purposely pushed off of my leg and landed on her two little feet and stood there, standing without assistance for the first time, with her head turned up at me and a little smile on her face and a look of accomplishment in her eyes that said, "Tah dah! I did it!" And, I was just speechless, wondering how on earth a tiny thing like that could know the emotion of pride in self. She seemed to be expressing an almost smug self-satisfaction. I also thought, how does she even know that standing on two feet alone is in fact a type of accomplishment for her?

At 7:49 AM , Blogger hellfried said...

an interesting read. i like!

At 1:24 PM , Blogger Cecilia Abadie said...

Marvin Minsky is one of the greatest thinkers on human mind from the very different perspective of Artificial Intelligence. In his book 'The Emotion Machine' he discusses the purpose of pride and shame as ways of setting people's goals. It is basically agreeing with this study findings about the 'good' pride's purpose.

At 2:47 PM , Blogger Tony Austin said...

I love your site, I am bookmarking it too but I have a constructive criticism: Reversed out type on a blue background for copy that is more than 150 words long is hard on the eye.

When I go to another page that is all white, I practically have an ocular seizure. Reversed out type should only be used for captions.

trust me! change your template and see for yourself or stare at your page for 30 seconds and then look at a white piece of paper.

At 8:16 AM , Blogger Bari2K said...

Bush picture demonstrates pride is really an universal emotion, available for everyone no matter the personal record of the person. Could be otherwise for an evolutive trait?

At 3:38 PM , Blogger Illia Leonov said...

Basically I think it all comes down to what Clint Eastwood's character said in "The Outlaw Josey Wales", which was, "A man's gotta know his limitations." Self-assurance is fine up to a point where a person's reach exceeds his grasp. When you begin to believe you are a better person than you actually are, or that you can do more than you are actually capable of, then self-assurance becomes a liability. Unfortunately that line is not so clearly marked in life as it is in fictional works, and the point varies with time, experience and age, the variables often operating independently. Those who struggle with this end point are to be lauded, while those who choose to ignore it deserve a wakeup call.

At 1:37 AM , Blogger ed said...

The survival value of pride and conversely shame is more than evident in pecking orders throughout the animal kingdom. When monkeys and apes playfight to establish their social position the antics and body language they display clarify who is the winner and who has to wait for access to food, mates, grooming... This goes a long way to explain the feelings of resentment we foster when someone puffs up, particularly when you know you could take them physically, intellectually or otherwise. If you should challenge and win try not to gloat.

At 4:54 AM , Blogger YoMauwma said...

President Bush's picture shows a beleaguered man. I do not see arrogance as in the first picture nor do I see shame. The viewer's perception would be easily biased by Party affiliation.