Pride isn’t a vice – it’s a way to become your best self

“We all evolve to want to create those feelings [of pride], of figuring out who you want to be. Listen to those feelings and use them to try to figure out how to become the best person that you want to be.”

Photo: Tanja Heffner

Jessica Tracy is a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, where she also directs the Emotion and Self Lab. Her research focuses on emotions and emotion expression, especially on the self-conscious emotions of pride and shame. Her most recent book on the subject is Take Pride: Why the Deadliest Sin Holds the Secret to Human Success. She joined Ryan Hawk, host of The Learning Leader Show, to discuss the difference between good and bad pride, and how pride can push us to succeed.

This conversation has been edited and condensed. To listen to Jessica and Ryan’s full conversation on The Learning Leader Show, click here.

Ryan: You’ve been conducting scientific research on the emotion of pride for over a decade. How did you first get interested in this topic?

Jessica: I saw emotions as the basic building blocks of everything that we do. How people relate to each other. Why people are different from one another. Everything we do is driven by a desire to feel something. I really wanted to study that. When I got to grad school, my adviser, Rick Robins, his expertise was on the self: things like self-esteem, self-enhancement, how we see ourselves and understand ourselves. When we put our heads together, we realized that the emotions that are most important to our sense of self are [what] we call “self-conscious emotions.” These are emotions like pride, shame, and guilt. They’re all about how we feel about ourselves.

Once we got into it, we realized that while there was [some] research on shame and guilt—the negative self-conscious emotions—there really was almost nothing out there on pride. When you discover something like that as a scientist in any field, you realize, “That’s where I want to go. I want to see if I can figure that out.”

Ryan: What is pride?

Jessica: Pride is a positive self-conscious emotion. We feel it when we see ourselves as meeting or even exceeding some goal that we have for identity, for the kind of person we want to be. Pride is what we feel when [we’re] like, “You know what? I’m doing something or becoming something that I really want to be.”

Ryan: There are a couple types of pride—good and bad. The bad would be hubristic pride and good would be authentic pride. Can you explain the difference between the good and bad versions of pride?

Jessica: Pride is not just one thing. This creates a ton of confusion in the English language because we use the same word to refer to both these things. That’s why many people think of pride as a deadly sin and something we shouldn’t experience—they’re thinking of hubristic pride in particular. [Hubristic pride] is all about a sense of superiority. It typically goes with feelings of arrogance, conceitedness, egotism. Hubristic pride makes people feel like they’re better than others and like they should put others down as a way of feeling good about themselves.

Authentic pride is really different. That’s more about a sense of confidence, genuine feelings of self-worth, accomplishment, achievement, productivity. We know that we’re putting in the effort that we need to achieve a particular goal. It could be about being a good partner, being a good parent, doing good for our community. All these kinds of things can make us feel the sense of authentic pride. It’s about feeling that [you’re] on track to becoming the kind of person that you want to be.

“Authentic pride . . . is about feeling that [you’re] on track to becoming the kind of person that you want to be.”

Ryan: Social media is interesting when it comes to pride. I’m interested in hubristic pride and its function when we all post the best 5% of our lives on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, [etc.] I’m certainly in that boat. I don’t post negative or boring or bad-looking pictures of my life. Usually, it’s fun things with my family or maybe travels or vacations. What’s the science behind that [impulse]?

Jessica: When we feel good about ourselves, one of the things that we automatically are motivated to do is share that with others. It’s a way of maximizing those pride feelings—the more praise we get from others, the more that we can enhance those feelings in ourselves.

That is a large part of why people post on Facebook or Twitter. It is a way of maintaining the pride experience. It becomes really complicated, though, because there’s a limit to how much we can do that before it becomes hubristic. It’s one thing to let your friends and family know about your success, but once you start focusing only on praise, that is where things convert to hubristic pride.

“The more praise we get from others, the more that we can enhance those feelings in ourselves.”

Lance Armstrong is a classic example of someone who, early in his life, was motivated by a desire to feel authentic pride. The desire to be the fastest cyclist in the world and put in all those hours on a bike even when it’s painful and tiring, that’s driven by this desire to feel authentic pride. To become a certain kind of person. It’s really admirable. Then we know something changed.

Once Lance reached a particular level, he decided that, rather than basing his sense of self on how fast he genuinely can go, he wanted to give himself something extra. We know he started doping and cheating in various ways. Once a person does that, then their success is no longer based on their authentic sense of self. If you’re cheating, then any praise you’re getting, any success that you’re achieving isn’t based on who you really are. It’s based on this artificial or deceptive sense of self. That’s hubristic pride.

Ryan: What about pride in the workplace? Specifically when it comes to leaders, managers—[what’s] the difference between a great boss, a great leader, and the poor ones, in terms of pride?

Jessica: The two kinds of pride are linked to two very different kinds of leadership styles. Both styles actually get people power. Both are effective, in the sense of being seen as a powerful person and actually having influence over others. They’re incredibly different in terms of the behaviors that these leaders engage in and how they’re seen by others and what the long term outcomes are. Authentic pride basically motivates people to want to work hard to achieve. The result of that is people who are driven by authentic pride end up becoming the kind of leader that we call prestigious.

These are leaders who get power because they have a lot to contribute. They know a lot. They’re very skilled. They’re nice—this is really important. They care about others. We found that when people feel authentic pride, not only do they feel good about themselves but they also tended to feel a greater sense of empathy toward others, especially people who are different than them.

Now, people who feel hubristic pride, the kind of power they get is really different. They think they’re better than everyone else. They tend to engage in behaviors that are not co-social. They’re aggressive. They often will put others down in order to feel good about themselves. The leadership that results from this is called dominance. We find that followers actually give these people power. They see them as powerful, but not because they like these people. Because followers are afraid of [a dominant leader,] they end up giving them power.

“When people feel authentic pride, not only do they feel good about themselves but they also tended to feel a greater sense of empathy toward others, especially people who are different than them.”

Ryan: You suggested in the book that these people who feel hubristic pride don’t feel great about themselves. Deep down, they’re quite insecure. We all know people like this who have the false sense of hubristic pride. We can tell by just being around them that there’s actually a deep level of insecurity.

Jessica: That’s absolutely true. This is the case with narcissists. Narcissists are people who feel a lot of hubristic pride. There’s been a lot of evidence that suggests that insecurity is the reason they need to constantly tell you how great they are, constantly brag and also put others down. People with genuine high self-esteem have a secure sense of their own self-worth.

Studies have shown this. In one, [researchers] have people write an essay and get feedback on it. They’re told the feedback is from another student. Of course, it’s actually from the researcher. This feedback is pretty harsh. It says things like, “This is the worst essay I’ve ever read” and is all marked up in red.

Someone who genuinely feels good about themselves is going to see that negative feedback and probably think something like, “Well, you know, I didn’t really work hard on the essay. I spent five minutes on it. That guy is a jerk. Who cares? I’m going to let it go.” Narcissists can’t really handle that negative feedback. It goes to their core, even though it’s an essay they spent five minutes on and they don’t really care about.

In the next part of the study, they are told they get to play a video game with the person who just gave them feedback. Whenever the person does something wrong in the game, they get to blast them with loud noise. They get to choose how loud they want to set the noise or how often they want to blast. What these studies find is that the more narcissistic people are, the more loudly and frequently they will blast these other people. It suggests that narcissists can’t handle being critiqued. They have to punish these people. It’s this real aggressive response that we see in dominant leaders. I think the only way to make sense of it is that there is this underlying defensiveness going on. You have to protect this fragile sense of self.

Ryan: It felt to me like you were describing Donald Trump to a tee.

Jessica: I agree. It’s rare to see a public figure so blatantly demonstrate that kind of grandiosity on such a regular basis. He’s the perfect example. Of course, I wrote the book before he was running for president, but I absolutely think he used these tactics to get ahead. You can look at how he won the primary election. It really was by threatening and intimidating anyone who wanted to critique him.

Anyone who wanted to critique him, whether it was an opponent in the Republican primary or just a Republican activist who didn’t like what he was doing or the way he was saying things, he would berate them. He would humiliate them on Twitter. He would insult them. He would call them names. It was incredibly effective because what these people found was the punishment wasn’t worth it.

Ryan: What are some of the things that surprised you [in] your research over the last 10 years?

Jessica: A number of things have been surprising, especially the fact that dominance is an effective way of getting power. It’s upsetting because we want the people who give, who care about others, to be the only ones to have power. That’s not what we found. In fact, in one of our studies, the groups that were led by someone dominant actually outperformed those other groups. Why that happened is because you have a limited amount of time to solve a problem. So, someone who’s high in prestige, one thing they care about is reaching consensus. They really want to hear from everyone. They want to honor everyone’s opinion. This encourages a lot of creative, out-of-the-box thinking, but there are times where that can really slow things down.

“We want the people who give, who care about others, to be the only ones to have power. That’s not what we found.”

Ryan: This reminds me of Lorne Michaels. Lorne Michaels has created this incredible environment and culture with Saturday Night Live to be inclusive of all the cast members’ ideas. They created psychological safety amongst the group to listen to all. In line with your research, it makes sense to say that Lorne Michaels has a lot of prestige.

Jessica: If you are leading a team of creatives, I think it absolutely makes sense to go [with] the prestige strategy.

Ryan: I was speaking with Andrew Warner, another great podcaster, and he talked to me about Dean Karnazes. I’d love for you to discuss pride in the story of Dean Karnazes.

Jessica: He’s such an inspiring example. This is a story that comes up early on in my book. Dean was a successful businessman, had his MBA, lived in San Francisco, was married, [just a] very happy guy. When he turned 30, though, he woke up with a feeling that something was missing from his life. To me, this really resonates. So many of us have gone through this experience where things are fine. We’re successful or at least we’re becoming successful. We’ve got a job. We’ve got a partner. Everything is in place in terms of where we think our life should be. Yet we all of a sudden get this sense that something is missing. Typically, that’s because we’re not finding a way to feel a real sense of authentic pride and the kind of self we want to be.

Dean didn’t know what was going on. He reflected on the couple of times in his life where he had experienced a real sense of pride. [They] weren’t when he was working in his corporate job. They were when he did something that was physically punishing.

“Listen to those feelings and use them to try to figure out how to become the best person that you want to be.”

He talks about when he was a child and he decided to ride his bike from his parents’ house in Los Angeles to his grandparents’ in Pasadena. That’s about 40 miles. He was 10 years old, had no idea where he was going but he did it. He just felt this incredible sense of pride after getting there. He talks about the time when he ran a particularly grueling race on the track team when he was in high school. That was his moment of real pride. He realized that being physical and physically punishing himself, that was a huge part of who he was in terms of feeling a real sense of the kind of self that he wanted to be. Having this moment of epiphany, he left the bar and just started running.

He ended up running all the way from his home in San Francisco down to Half Moon Bay, which is about 30 miles away. He ran basically all night long. This is someone who literally hadn’t run in 15 years. He had this epiphany while running that this was what he wanted to be doing with his life. This was what he had been missing. A lot of people would have that epiphany and decide. “Okay. Now, I’m going to start running marathons. Now, I’m going to start running on the weekends.” For him, it went even further.

He managed to find a way to give up his business career and actually become a full-time runner and support himself off that, which took several years. We all evolve to want to create those feelings [of pride], of figuring out who you want to be. Listen to those feelings and use them to try to figure out how to become the best person that you want to be.

Ryan: I think that sounds like a great idea. I love it. However, the implementation and execution is an important question for me. How can I do that?

Jessica: You raise a really important point. It’s easy for Dean Karnazes, who’s already successful and financially stable, to make this massive career shift. It’s not so easy for people who like you said, are working day-to-day, hour-to-hour to pay off a mortgage or support a family. It’s a totally different situation. In those cases, though, it doesn’t mean it can’t be done. It’s just a matter of how you find that sense of pride. If you need that job or you can’t give up that job for various financial reasons, see if there’s a way that you can find that sense of pride outside of your work.

If there’s a way that you can shift things career-wise to get that sense of pride in your work, do it. People who manage to find a job that give them a full sense of authentic pride are the lucky ones. It’s not feasible for everyone. In those cases, I would seek some other way. [If] you see yourself as someone who needs to be creative and you’re not getting that outlet in your work, is there a photography class or a pottery class you could take on the weekend? Can you buy a set of paintbrushes and paints and get into that?

Thi article first appeared on Heleo.