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The ‘Deadly Sin’: The Positive And Negative Power Of Pride

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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 Knowledge@Wharton show, part of Wharton Business Radio on SiriusXM channel 111. (Listen to the podcast at the top of this page.)

Take Pride: Why the Deadliest Sin Holds the Secret to Human Success

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.


Knowledge@Wharton: 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.”

Knowledge@Wharton: 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.”

Knowledge@Wharton: 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.

Knowledge@Wharton: 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.

Knowledge@Wharton: 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.

Knowledge@Wharton: For people who understand and can make that distinction of pride as a positive, what do you see being the biggest benefits?

Tracy: What we found is that pride is a positive. It is what motivates us to work hard and achieve. I like to think of it as the carrot, this thing that we want to feel in our sense of self. We feel it when we’re doing or working or putting in the effort to become the person that we want to be.

“I think insecurity is a big part of what drives hubristic pride.”

We’ve found it’s not the case necessarily that you have a big success and feel authentic pride and think, “I’m going to work even harder next time to get that again.” Where we see the most pronounced effects is when people don’t have that sense of pride. To give you an example, we did this study where we had undergraduates take a normal class exam, and we looked at how well they did on the exam. Then we asked them to tell us how proud they felt of their performance. The students who did poorly on the exam told us, “You know, I don’t feel proud of myself. I don’t feel that sense of authentic pride that I’d like to feel in my performance.”

Those feelings, that lack, that missing of pride led those students to tell us a few weeks later, “I’m going to study differently for the next exam.” That change in behavior led to an improved performance on that next exam, which we could trace directly back to the initial absence of authentic pride feelings

It’s a long story to say it’s the awareness that there’s a sense of pride I’m not getting in my life that I want to get, that’s what causes people to change their behavior and perform better.

Knowledge@Wharton: In some respects, they’re filling a hole that’s been there for a little while?

Tracy: That’s a great way of putting it, that it is a hole. In the book, I talk about examples of people who I think sensed that hole in their lives and made a big change in order to become the kind of person they wanted to be.

Knowledge@Wharton: You mention Paul Gauguin and Steve Jobs in the book.

Tracy: Paul Gauguin, the famous painter, is more the example of that. He’s interesting because he didn’t become a painter until relatively late in life. He was a stockbroker in Paris and living the successful bourgeoisie Parisian life. He had a family, was relatively wealthy, was taking care of his family and his wife. But he wasn’t happy. He was very dissatisfied, so he would constantly sneak away from his home life to learn about bohemian art life and the art that was happening in Paris.

Eventually, he realized that to become the person he wanted to be he had to give up everything that he had, which meant leaving his family behind and living pretty much in starvation and great poverty in the streets of Paris and later Martinique in order to become an artist.

We might question whether that was a good choice to make for the others around him. Obviously, it hurt his family a great deal, so I don’t want to say he did great things. But for him, that was what he needed to do to find the pride that he’d been missing in his life as a bourgeoisie stockbroker.

I think it’s a nice example because it’s something a lot of us can relate to in the sense that of many of us in our everyday lives are able to get by. We have a job. We have a family life. Whatever it is we have, we’re successful, we’re making ends meet. But something’s missing. I think we know that something’s missing when we realize, I’m not getting enough out of my life. I’m not feeling that sense of satisfaction in myself that I need to feel. And there’s lots of different ways to go about getting it. You certainly don’t have to leave your family behind and become a starving artist. There are simpler steps that people can take.

We see this when people say, “You know what, I’m going to train to run a 5K or a marathon.” Or, “I’ve always wanted to take photography classes. I’m going to go ahead and do that.” It can be something like, “My career is good but it’s not fulfilling. It’s not the kind of thing that is right for me. I’m going to go back to grad school” or “I’m going to shift jobs” or “I’m going to go for that promotion.” What I would say drives all these changes is that sense of something is lacking in my life in terms of me becoming the kind of person I want to be.

Knowledge@Wharton: Some people may have grand dreams and would like to take that leap of faith to a degree, but they’re worried about where they are right now and, like a Paul Gauguin, having to go so far down to build themselves back up.

Tracy: Absolutely. There’s a sense that some people can do this and take this huge step and other people need to support their families and make sure that’s taken care of. I do think there’s a great deal of authentic pride that can come from just, I don’t love my job, it’s not fulfilling me, but it brings me a paycheck and lets me be the kind of family person I want to be. That’s a valuable way to attain authentic pride also, and I think that’s really important to keep in mind.

Knowledge@Wharton: How do you view what we’ve seen the last few years with college graduates who are struggling to find that right job and have to go back to living with mom and dad, or they’re taking a job much below where they should be. I get the sense that for people like that, there’s a greater chance of having negative pride more so than positive pride.

Tracy: That’s interesting because of the insecurity. I think that’s absolutely right that it’s a really tough position the economy is putting people in that you can get a great college degree, be really well educated and find yourself living with your parents because you can’t afford rent in whatever outrageously expensive city you need to live in to find a job.

“Pride is a positive. It is what motivates us to work hard and achieve.”

I absolutely think that’s a great breeding ground for hubristic pride, where someone might think, I’ve just got to find this job and it’s very entry level and it’s doing work well below the kind of things I know I’m capable of. How am I going to take pride in that? One way that people cope with that is this compensation of, I’m great in all these other ways and that’s what I’m going to focus on. I’m going to really brag to others and that kind of thing.

It’s a risk that’s absolutely out there. I don’t have any great advice for people in that situation. But I do think knowing that this can happen might be useful. Understand that authentic pride is kind of the ultimate thing that we’re all seeking, and hubristic pride is this thing that we often go for when we can’t get authentic pride or because it’s an easier route, but it’s not going to probably buy us what we want in the sense of actual success and achievement. Hubristic pride is linked to power over others and control.

I don’t want to say nothing good can ever come of it. Many people use hubristic pride as a way of getting dominance. But the kind of power that it leads to is very different than the kind of power that authentic pride leads to. Hubristic pride is much more about getting power because others are afraid of you and intimidated by you, whereas authentic pride gets you a kind of power that’s prestigious. Others look up to you because they think you have something of value to offer the group.

Knowledge@Wharton: It’s probably a bit like what we saw in terms of the housing bubble and the recession in that you have so many people who thought they were greater than they really were. If you’re a CEO, making decisions on pride can be a major downfall for you and your company.

Tracy: When good stuff is happening to us and we feel good about ourselves, it’s a really powerful emotion. We’ve evolved to feel that way because it’s the thing that tells us we’re being included by our social groups and we’re probably going to come to a position of power in those groups. You can imagine evolutionary history and the massive adaptiveness of that information, that I’m someone who’s not going to get rejected from the group and might even get control over the group.

It’s for that reason that these feelings are so powerful, that when we experience them, we don’t want to question them. People experiencing the housing bubble didn’t want to say, “Wait a minute, this is too good to be true. There’s got to be something else going on here,” because it just feels great. Why not go with it? I think that’s a huge risk.

Knowledge@Wharton: Where does Apple founder Steve Jobs fall into these examples?

Tracy: He’s a really interesting one because I think he certainly had to start out as someone who had a lot of authentic pride and was seeking authentic pride. He’s a guy who had amazing ideas and was in many ways a genius. He revolutionized so many pieces of our current technology. It takes someone with great intelligence and creativity to do that, and that’s authentic pride.

However, once he got the power that he eventually had, based on everything that everyone who worked with him and for him says, he turned into someone who wielded what I would call dominance. He sort of was controlling. He was overbearing. He was aggressive. He threatened his employees all the time. He used to say things like, “If we fail it will be because of you,” which is a very intimidating thing to say to an employee.

The people who worked for him did it not only because they looked up to him, but also because they were afraid of him. He didn’t give credit where due to the engineers who were working with him. He’s a really interesting example of someone who probably originally got ahead through authentic pride and prestige. But then once he had power, he might have been afraid to lose it perhaps because he knew he wasn’t the one behind the technology.

He’s not the engineer who’s designing these products and technology side. That insecurity might have led him to feel, “You know what, to retain control I need to be intimidating. I need to be aggressive. I need to be domineering.” And that’s what he became.

Article by Knowledge@Wharton


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