May 4, 2018

Pride is often considered a negative force in human existence—the opposite of humility and a source of social friction. It’s even been called the “deadliest sin.”

But is it? Not according to psychologist Jessica Tracy, author of the new book Take Pride: Why the Deadliest Sin Holds the Secret to Human Success. She argues that pride, like other human emotions, is part of our evolutionary heritage, helping us to survive and thrive in cooperative societies by inspiring us to be the best humans we can be.

Why Pride Isn't Always a Bad Thing

Pride makes us feel good, and it’s an indication to ourselves that we are behaving in a way congruent with our values, says Tracy.

Tracy argues that those who regularly experience pride tend to be “outgoing and friendly, agreeable, calm and anxiety-free, creative,,” and “are generally communally oriented, meaning they place a high value on their relationships and friendships.” In this way, having pride can lead us to feel seen in our social groups and with ourselves.

She recounts results from several research studies to help demonstrate the ways pride impacts us behaviorally and socially. In one study, participants were experimentally induced to feel pride by being told that their scores on a rather boring cognitive test were especially high. Later, those students voluntarily worked on an unrelated problem set twice as long as the students who were not induced to feel pride for the same scores, suggesting that pride motivated them to persevere.

According to Tracy, children and adults will seek knowledge from people who show pride displays, because proud people are assumed to have expertise underlying their pride. Therefore, pride helps to drive cultural learning, because it helps us figure out who can teach us about our world.

The Dark Side of Pride


But still, some of us have the fear of becoming "too proud"—or, we know someone who has that holier-than-thou sense of pride. The side of pride to watch out for: when it leads to hubris—meaning, meaning self-aggrandizement at the expense of others.

Hubris, she says, is pride that has been falsely assumed without merit in order to drive away an inner sense of insecurity. If individuals inflate their importance, take credit for others’ achievements, bully others, or act hostilely and aggressively toward anyone who questions them, it’s a sign that pride has turned to hubris, she says.

“The pride that narcissists experience—a pride that’s best summed up with words like arrogance, conceit, and, in Italy, orgoglio—is not about feeling good; it’s about avoiding feeling bad,” writes Tracy.

The Pride Sweet Spot

Can authentic pride lead to hubris? It depends, says Tracy. If you feel authentic pride and it inspires you to do good, great. But if you start feeling the need to live up to others’ expectations, and lie or cheat to earn their admiration, chances are you are leaning toward hubris.

Authentic pride might take a little work, but it’s worth it. Try to find a few moments in your day—whether they're big or mini-pride moments—where you can feel a sense of accomplishment or confidence in what you've done, plus how it serves you and others.

If we continue to use pride as motivation to better ourselves and to help our communities—not to build up our own egos—we will not only enjoy prestige, but we will help make a better future for everyone.

A version of this article originally appeared on Greater Good, the online magazine of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley.

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