Author Jessica Tracy discusses her book, Take Pride: Why the Deadly Sin Holds the Secret to Human Success
Pride is a complicated emotion. It can propel human beings to dizzying new heights, where the their accomplishments can spread beyond self to all of mankind. But pride can also push people to behave abominably. Jessica Tracy, a psychology professor at the University of British Columbia, looks at both sides in her book, titled — Take Pride: Why the Deadly Sin Holds the Secret to Human Success. She discussed her ideas on the [email protected] show, part of Wharton Business Radio on SiriusXM channel 111. (Listen to the podcast at the top of this page.)
An edited transcript of the conversation follows.
[drizzle][email protected]: Explain the back story on how pride got this negativity attached to it. I think if you take pride in your work, it’s always a positive.
Jessica Tracy: Do you? I agree that it’s often a positive. I won’t say always because there is a darker side to pride. But I think what you’re suggesting is unusual in that a lot of people do see it as negative. It goes all the way back to ancient religious scholars. In the Bible, pride is deadly. Dante saw it as a deadly sin. There’s some truth to that in the sense that what we found is there are two different kinds of pride: hubristic pride and authentic pride. Hubristic pride is problematic. That’s the pride that really is all about arrogance and egotism and more than just, “I worked really hard and I feel good about it.” It’s more, “I am the greatest. I’m better than others. I deserve more than others.”
[email protected]: In the book, you bring up an interesting example of that with cyclist Lance Armstrong. If there’s anybody that ever fit into that category, it’s Lance Armstrong. The seven-time Tour de France winner was stripped of his titles in 2012 after a doping scandal.
Tracy: He’s a really interesting example because he’s someone who probably didn’t always exemplify hubristic pride. If you think about his early life, he spent every day of his teenage and young adult years riding his bike as hard and fast as he could. That sense of drive for achievement and greatness, that’s authentic pride. That’s the desire to be the best that you possibly can, to sacrifice all kinds of fun things that he could be doing to put in this incredibly hard work, subject himself to pain.
One thing I argue in this book is that pride is what motivates us to do all that, to go beyond pleasure and easiness and say, “No, there’s something that I want to be or some kind of person that I want to be that takes really hard work, and I’m going to do it.” That’s authentic pride.
I think at some point Lance got much more attached to the praise that he was getting from others, the sense that he was the greatest and how others saw him, than he was to actually being the greatest. He shifted his strategy and thought maybe there’s an easier way to get all this praise and be seen as the greatest without having to put in the hard work that would be necessary to prove it.
“Hubristic pride is problematic. That’s the pride that really is all about arrogance and egotism.”
[email protected]: What’s interesting about him is the fact that he’s a cancer survivor. When you have a life-altering moment like that, a lot of people would say you want to work hard to come back from that.
Tracy: My sense is when he was beating cancer that was the authentic pride. That was him saying, “I’ve got to do everything I can to kick this disease.” He did amazing things for the world and cancer survivors everywhere with his Livestrong Foundation. But then I was as surprised, as many people were, when it came out that he’d been cheating for a long time.
But if you look at the behaviors that he engaged in while he was cheating, it’s very consistent with the kinds of behaviors that we see of people who demonstrate hubristic pride, which is to say it’s not just that they’re arrogant and think they’re better than everyone else, they also feel the need to sort of put others down. They bully others. They control them in a very intimidating and aggressive way. Based on stories that Lance’s teammates told about him and other people in his life, it sounds like that’s exactly what he was doing.
[email protected]: Is there a level of insecurity within some of these people?
Tracy: I think insecurity is a big part of what drives hubristic pride. These are people who feel at some level, maybe it’s unconscious, some bit of shame. “I’m not good enough, and what if people discover that I’m not good enough.” The way they cope with that is to bury it, hide it away and say, “No, no, I’m going to be the greatest, I’m going to be the best.” So, the pride you see is not authentic. It’s a sort of inflated, aggrandized sense of self that leads to all this defensiveness that really I think is apparent.
[email protected]: It almost feels like you come to a decision point, the fork in the road. You can take one path to the right and continue to be a very supportive person, or you could go to the left and be that kind of egotistical self where pride becomes a negative.
Tracy: I think that probably is what happened with Lance Armstrong, and I think it’s what happens to many of us. He’s an extreme example, but I think we all encounter that fork any time we have a success, any time we feel good about ourselves. We evolve to feel this way. We evolve to want to feel good about ourselves. It’s this really rewarding, pleasurable feeling.
And then we’re at the decision point where, OK, I know I got here by working my butt off and having this great achievement. If I want to keep this feeling, do I think about the next big achievement, the next thing I need to do to keep this sense of self going? Or do I instead think about ways where I can kind of just maximize this feeling I’m having right now?
What if more people knew about my success? What if I could advertise more broadly how great I am? That’s a nice shortcut that’s going to get me a lot of pleasure, but it doesn’t make me have to do all that work.
I think that’s where hubristic pride sets in, where people say, “You know, there’s an easier way. I don’t have to put in the work. I can brag. I can post about my success on social media.” Then all of the sudden, instead of feeling the authentic pride and actually becoming the kind of person you want to become, what you’re feeling is this sort of inflated pride that’s based on other people’s’ recognition of you.
[email protected]: For people who understand and can make