Pride can be a virtue, but it needs to be the right kind of pride

Jan 30, 2018 /

Yes, it’s number 1 on the list of 7 deadly sins, but pride can actually move us toward our goals — and toward better behavior — according to psychology professor David DeSteno.

Gratitude and compassion are universally seen as positive feelings. By making our minds value the future, these two emotions make us more patient, more willing to persist in the face of challenges, and more resistant to temptations that distract us from our aims.

What other emotion can do the same things? Pride.

Yes, pride.

This may seem surprising to you or just plain wrong. If you think about people who are labeled proud, it’s likely that a good number are egotists or blowhards. Pride, in the eyes of many, includes a bit of arrogance. And, as we all know, it’s on the list of the seven deadly sins, which might explain the familiar proverb “Pride comes before a fall.”

But I’d argue this picture is too simplistic — pride can also be a virtue. I’m not saying pride isn’t problematic in some respects or in some situations. However, in its most beneficial form, pride is inherently social and can help us achieve our goals.

Making the case that pride plays a role in fostering dedication can pose a few problems. People might feel proud of their abilities, but maybe they practice, study, or work hard simply because they find the task rewarding; pride is just an afterthought. Right?

For our experiment, we had to convince people they were good at something that others valued and they could take pride in. The task also needed to be a bit annoying.

University New South Wales psychology professor Lisa Williams and I decided to design an experiment to show that pride can make people persevere at something whether or not they enjoy it. We realized we’d have to make people take pride in an ability they didn’t know they had and couldn’t have any interest in pursuing. So we had to convince people they were good at something that others valued and that they could take pride in. Only then could we determine if pride would translate into greater diligence in honing that ability. Since we also needed to be sure people didn’t enjoy the work, it needed to be a bit annoying.

To this end, we brought people into our lab under the pretext of studying their “visuospatial” ability. None of them had any sense of where they ranked in terms of visuospatial skills or even what that meant. At the start of the experiment, then, we had a group of relatively uninterested, unmotivated participants who wanted to get the whole thing over with as quickly as possible.

For the experiment, we told people we’d assess their visuospatial ability using a computerized task and then ask them to work on a second, related measure of visuospatial ability that would allow them to build their skills while measuring their improvement. The first task was relatively painless. Arrays of colored dots would appear briefly on the screen, after which people would report how many of the dots were red. This test was just difficult enough that people would believe it was doable, but they wouldn’t have a great sense of how they had performed.

The second visuospatial task involved mental rotation, which most people find onerous. On each trial, two three-dimensional shapes appeared on the screen, and people had to make one of three choices: (1) the shape on the right was a rotated form of the shape on the left, (2) the shape on the right was not a rotated form of the shape on the left, or (3) I quit. We told people they only had to work on this second task for as long as they wanted, because we wanted to know how long they would keep working to build and test their skills.

But there was one last possibility we researchers needed to consider: Might people work longer not because they were feeling proud but because they thought they could succeed?

The only remaining issue was how to get people to feel pride about their visuospatial ability, so we inserted one additional element into the experiment. After each person finished the first visuospatial test, she was brought into a different room to meet with the experimenter. In the neutral, or control, condition, she signed a form and then went to work on the mental rotation task. In the pride condition, the subject was greeted by an experimenter who presented a score sheet indicating a visuospatial ability in the 94th percentile (that is, better than 94 percent of the general population). The experimenter also smiled, looked impressed, and said something like “Wow! That was an amazing score” before sending her to complete the mental rotation task.

At this point, we had two types of participants. Some were feeling quite proud — as confirmed by a subsequent report of their emotional states — and others were feeling as they usually do going about their days. But there was one last possibility we needed to consider: Might people work longer not because they were feeling proud but because they thought they could succeed? To rule out self-efficacy as a source of motivation, a final group of participants got feedback on their scores but without any praise. When they entered the experimenter’s room, she handed them the same score sheet — a score in the 94th percentile — that she gave to the proud people, but didn’t give any verbal or nonverbal expressions of admiration.

What happened? People who were feeling proud of their abilities significantly increased their efforts on the difficult mental rotation task: they upped the time devoted to building their skills by 40 percent compared with people who weren’t proud. Intriguingly, self-efficacy didn’t appear to play a role. Those who believed they possessed the ability to succeed — people who received the positive score feedback without any social acclaim — didn’t persevere any longer than did those who received no feedback at all.

Research findings suggest that pride nudges the mind to value the future. So perhaps pride doesn’t always precede a fall; instead, it fosters diligence and dedication.

When we look outside the lab, we can see how pride can manifest in the workplace. For example, feeling pride has been shown to increase effort and success in salespeople. Perhaps some of the best evidence for pride’s positive aspect comes from an experiment led by German psychologist Wilhelm Hofmann. In the study, participants were buzzed seven times a day on their smartphones and asked if they had recently experienced any temptations they tried to avoid: to procrastinate, overeat, drink alcohol, take drugs, sleep, etc. If they had experienced a temptation, they were asked about their emotional states and whether their attempts at self-control had been effective. Hofmann found that pride increased self-control: the instances in which people reported feeling more pride directly corresponded to the ones in which they resisted tempting and pleasurable behaviors that might have otherwise distracted them from their goals. Taken together, these findings suggest that pride nudges the mind to value the future. So, pride doesn’t precede a fall; it fosters diligence and dedication.

Still, using pride wisely requires a solid grasp of when and why it can go wrong. It’s particularly susceptible to the halo effect, a type of confirmation bias in which, once we believe a person possesses superior characteristics in one domain, we generalize that belief, often erroneously, to others. For example, supervisors assume an employee who shows enthusiasm is also competent.

This bias matters for pride because humans possess the ability to be their own audience. As a consequence, we’re just as likely to succumb to the halo effect when evaluating our own qualities as when evaluating those of others. And that’s where the slippery slope to hubris begins. Whereas authentic pride — pride that stems from proven possession of a valued ability — is often narrowly defined, hubristic pride is the opposite. It’s a grandiose belief that one has prized qualities that one doesn’t actually have.

For pride to work, it must be paired with humility — a humility to know that no matter our skill set, each of us depends on what others have to offer.

These differing types of pride — authentic and hubristic — produce very different outcomes. In studying 1,000 people, a team lead by University of Miami psychologist Charles Carver found that those who habitually experience authentic pride have greater self-control, perseverance, and goal attainment. Those who frequently experience hubris, however, tend to be more impulsive and motivated solely by monetary or related external rewards.

The differences between authentic and hubristic pride don’t end with motivation, however. Hubristic pride also tends to be associated with a fragile ego, and with anxiety and aggressive tendencies as people strive to keep up the illusion of competence and control. Authentic pride, on the other hand, is associated with increased social support, lower anxiety, and a greater desire to help others by sharing one’s expertise. We can see similar patterns at the neurobiological level. Whereas hubristic behaviors are often accompanied by elevated testosterone, those related to authentic pride (for example, mentoring and outreach) are accompanied by lower testosterone and, more important, higher serotonin, which is associated with increased motives for bonding and social support, as well as feelings of well-being.

For pride to work, it must be paired with humility — a humility to know that no matter our skill set, each of us depends on what others have to offer. Since none of us can be an expert in all areas, we must be humble enough to recognize that we cannot be great at everything; there will be times when we need to rely on others. People who follow this advice are the ones for whom pride, like gratitude and compassion, becomes a virtue, not a vice.

One strategy to use pride in our own lives is to keep a journal where we track our success and our aspirations. Just as we should feel compassion for ourselves if and when we miss a goal, we should take pride when we successfully take steps toward a goal, as well as anticipate the pride we’ll feel when reaching the next step. By doing this, we’ll be charting our advancement through time, with today’s achievement likely being yesterday’s aspiration. At each step, it can be quite motivating to feel pride, much more so than if we only allowed ourselves to be proud upon reaching a final goal. However, it’s also essential to remember that progress toward goals doesn’t always follow a linear trajectory. It often goes in fits and starts. What matters most is a continued upward trajectory irrespective of the rate. Taking pride in the direction of progress benefits perseverance most.

Excerpted from the new book Emotional Success: The Power of Gratitude, Compassion and Pride by David DeSteno. Copyright © 2018 by David DeSteno. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

Watch the TEDxNortheasternU Talk on compassion from Dr. DeSteno.