Mark Zuckerberg did not invent Facebook because he wanted to find a new way of connecting millions of people all over the world. Nor did he found his multibillion-dollar company solely for the money, judging by his trademark jeans and hoodie sweatshirt. He did it, author Ben Mezrich implies in The Accidental Billionaires, because he wanted to show up a girl who dumped him and the guys in Harvard's most elitist social club. The desire to prove he was smarter than them gave Zuckerberg the motivation he needed to start on a path toward becoming one of the world's preeminent innovators.
Many successful people—Bill Gates, Margaret Thatcher and physicist Murray Gell-Mann come to mind—are driven not simply by wealth or a desire to solve a particular problem but rather by a need to be the person who did it. They want to feel pride.
Pride is what compels us to aim high rather than simply get by—and in this sense it is a virtue. Yet pride also has a darker side, a facet that has earned it a billing as a deadly sin. As my collaborator Richard W. Robins of the University of California, Davis, and I discovered in a series of psychological studies, people can feel pride in two very different ways. One type of pride motivates the hard work and creative thinking displayed by Gates and Zuckerberg. Another kind involves arrogance and egotism—think Donald Trump and Muhammad “I Am The Greatest” Ali. Depending on which kind of pride we feel, this emotion can have almost opposite effects on our thoughts and behavior. One brings out the very best in human nature, and the other elicits the worst. By understanding pride's two-sided nature, we can learn to harness this emotion to make the most of our goals and aspirations.
What Is Pride?
Pride is a pleasurable emotion that arises when people feel good about themselves, often in response to success. Almost a decade ago, when Robins and I began our studies on pride, psychological research into emotions placed great emphasis on those feelings with clear biological import. Inspired by Charles Darwin, researchers viewed emotions such as fear, anger, disgust and happiness as an evolved part of human nature that aided survival. Not so for pride and other so-called self-conscious emotions, which drew less interest. Because they require complex judgments about who we are and how we feel about ourselves, the self-conscious emotions were deemed socially constructed, rather than fundamental to our nature.
Psychologists were, however, producing a great deal of research on narcissism and self-esteem—two concepts relevant to pride but rarely explicitly linked to it. According to psychoanalytic theory, initiated by Sigmund Freud, narcissism is a classic defense mechanism. In this view, narcissists experience pride as a way to ward off unconscious insecurities and shame. Self-esteem research falls on the opposite end of the emotional spectrum. It seeks to understand the genuine good feelings people can hold about themselves.
As the emotion underlying narcissism, pride should promote aggression, hostility and conflict. As the emotion also underlying self-esteem, pride should spur achievement, perseverance and caring for others. Superficially, these two sets of behaviors could not seem farther apart. Nevertheless, we had good reason to believe they are indeed two facets of the same emotion—psychoanalytic researchers studying narcissism and social psychologists investigating high self-esteem assume that pride is a central emotion driving both personality profiles.
To solve this puzzle, we set out to learn what, exactly, pride is. Robins and I conducted a study in which we asked undergraduates to list the feelings and behaviors they associate with pride. We then analyzed the associations and dissociations among all the words in our collection—for example, “achieving” versus “successful” or “accomplished” versus “egotistical.” These associations revealed to us that college students think of pride as both the destructive emotion that underlies narcissism and the achievement-promoting emotion that underlies self-esteem.
A similar analysis of how people react when they say they are proud of themselves netted complementary results. Judging by the emotions people reported, we determined, for example, that feeling productive tended to occur with feelings of self-worth but not arrogance. It seemed clear that we were looking at two types of pride—a distinction that helps us answer the age-old question of whether pride is a sin or a virtue. It can be either, and we have dubbed the two hubristic pride and authentic pride.
Yet it was clear that our participants viewed both feelings as part of the same emotion. As subsequent studies published in 2007 showed, participants identified both kinds of pride with a single nonverbal display—chest expanded, arms outstretched, head tilted slightly upward—which we coined the “pride expression.”
We and other researchers have further learned that the two types promote different behaviors. Using questionnaires tailored to exploring pride, we found that individuals who frequently feel authentic pride have high self-esteem and tend to be extroverted, agreeable, creative and popular. These individuals also report wanting to help and advise others. They are generally communally oriented and more likely to engage in volunteer activities. In contrast, people who frequently feel hubristic pride have low self-esteem. They tend to be disagreeable, aggressive, manipulative, socially anxious and even clinically depressed, and more interested in derogating others than helping them.
Recall for a moment the psychoanalytic view of narcissism, that narcissists hold grandiose views of themselves not because they genuinely believe these inflated self-representations but because these views buffer them from unconscious insecurities. Integrating this theory with our research findings, we realized that hubristic pride and its associated aggressive and manipulative tendencies might allow narcissists to maintain an artificially positive sense of self. Derogating less powerful individuals so as to feel better about oneself is a well-known tactic of bullies, whether in the schoolyard or the corporate conference room.
In Search of Status
Although we now had an explanation for the purpose of pride—ensuring or restoring a positive sense of self—we still lacked a good framework for why hubristic pride exists in the first place. We needed a stronger theory to unite both facets.
Authentic pride motivates people to do the things that make them feel good about themselves, and those who are particularly successful at their pursuits—the Mark Zuckerbergs and Bill Gateses of the world—acquire status and power. In an evolutionary framework, status and power drastically increase our likelihood of surviving long enough to reproduce. To demonstrate how pride inspires people to work hard, psychologists Lisa A. Williams of the University of New South Wales in Australia and David DeSteno of Northeastern University made participants in their study feel authentic pride by praising their performance on a tedious cognitive task. Other participants received no feedback and, not surprisingly, reported far less pride.
They then asked all participants to complete a similarly tedious task for as long as they chose. Those who were made to feel proud persisted at the second task significantly longer than those who received no feedback. In fact, the more proud they felt, the longer they stuck with it. As this study illustrates, authentic pride galvanizes us to put in extra effort to succeed. Success, in turn, allows people to improve their place in society. Becoming a high-achieving, empathic person is a surefire route to gaining acceptance in a group. For a social species such as humans, that acceptance is a prerequisite for long-term survival.
But what about hubristic pride—how could an emotion that makes people act like jerks be adaptive? My student Joey T. Cheng and I were discussing precisely this question when we stumbled on an article written by our colleague Joseph Henrich, a psychologist at the University of British Columbia who is an evolutionary anthropologist by training. He had noticed that leaders in small traditional societies all over the world acquire power through two routes. He described some leaders as prestigious, meaning they had built up a set of skills or knowledge that benefited the group—and their compatriots hoped to learn from them. Other leaders, he noted, gained status simply through dominance: they used force to control resources and bully others into granting them power. Followers deferred to these aggressive, manipulative people because they felt they had no choice.
Cheng, Henrich and I teamed up to explore how this two-facet model of status attainment might help us understand hubristic pride. In a study published in 2010 we asked university varsity team members to rate one another's prestige and dominance. Then they rated themselves on their tendency to experience authentic and hubristic pride. As we expected, the athletes who tended to feel authentic pride were most likely to be viewed by their teammates as prestigious, and those who more often felt hubristic pride were considered dominant. This makes sense in light of Henrich's theory. Hubristic pride, we found, facilitates all the behaviors needed to become dominant: arrogance, a sense of superiority, and a willingness to intimidate and derogate others. Authentic pride, meanwhile, is ideally suited to prestige. It motivates achievement and concern for others.
Both types of pride seem to be adaptive because they help us secure social status—albeit through completely different routes. Yet we still wondered whether hubristic pride, with all its negative connotations, did serve us well in the long run. Sure, it might promote high rank in tribal groups of villagers, but would it do so in modern Western society? To address this question, the three of us brought groups of undergraduates who did not know one another into our lab, six at a time. We asked everyone to imagine being an astronaut lost on the moon. The challenge was to rank 15 items—oxygen tanks, signal flares, and so on—by how useful they were for survival. After completing this task in private, they were asked to do it again as a group and to use their private rankings to guide the discussion. We videotaped them as they talked. Finally, the subjects rated one another on prestige and dominance and on how much influence every person had over the group. We also asked other students who were not involved in the discussions to watch the video and rate our participants' influence.
As it turned out, the people in the group and the outside observers agreed that both highly dominant and highly prestigious individuals were the most influential group members. We also measured influence another way: we examined the extent to which every participant's private rankings on the task converged with the group's final decision. Our thinking was that those participants who were more influential would sway the opinion of other group members more successfully. Indeed, as we noted in our study published this year, both dominant and prestigious group members deftly convinced the group to adopt their rankings.
In short, dominance, just like prestige, helps us get our way and influence others. Hubristic pride gives people the necessary push to behave like arrogant jerks, which can win them power at the expense of friends. Like it or not, it pays to be a bully and not only in a prison or schoolyard—even in a group of high-achieving college students trying to solve a puzzle.
Should You Seek Pride?
But that doesn't mean that hubristic pride is a good idea. As we noted earlier, it can cost friendships, relationships and even mental health. Authentic pride, however, is critical: without it, we would not be motivated to reach the highest peaks of success. Authentic pride can be safely sought and nourished; in fact, accepting that pride is an important human motivator may allow us to pull off even greater feats. It is what makes us care whether we are good, hard-working people—pushing us to sign up for volunteering activities, for example, or to get involved in a political cause—and thus is a critical source of motivation.
The trick lies in recognizing the inherent riskiness of certain prideful feelings. Research has yet to clarify how we cross from one kind of pride to the other, but we have some early hints. When we become too dependent on our pride—when it goes beyond being motivating and becomes a crutch for our sense of self—it can become dangerous. For example, finding ourselves more interested in basking in the glow of a compliment than taking pleasure in a hard-earned success can be a clue that our pride has become hubristic and potentially damaging. Given that prestige reaps the same benefits as dominance, those who have the self-awareness to choose one over the other can attain all the benefits of pride, without the costs.