Pride has a bad reputation. Christians classified it as one of the seven deadly sins and traditional peoples everywhere consider it bad luck. But new research findings suggest that pride serves an important social function and is universal in this respect.
The paper in the journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggests we have evolved to seek the admiration of others. Humans have lived in small tight-knit groups, where their survival depended on how they were valued by other members of the community. The research suggests that pride is an incentive and humans are motivated to seek out and do what is valuable to others. The authors suggest, however, that the flip-side of the prize of being admired is when pride elicits a negative response because someone has become too big for their boots and makes others feel threatened.
The study describes pride as a ‘social pricing signal’. It allows people to weigh up the payoff in taking a particular course of action against the trade-off of how they are likely to be viewed by others. For example, do they eat the prey they caught themselves or would they gain more in showing others how skilled they are as a hunter and then share the meat with others? The paper argues that through natural selection, our brains are hard-wired to care about how much others value us, and this motivates us to achieve and advertise things that are valued by others.
The researchers tested the theory by creating 25 brief fictional scenarios that depicted behaviours or traits that you might expect to be valued by others. They ranged from having skills, being trustworthy, generous or physically attractive, among others. These scenarios were run by more than 2,000 people in 16 countries across four continents (United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Italy, Turkey, Israel, India, Singapore, the Philippines, South Korea, Japan, and Australia). Each participant in one group fed back how they would view the person with the qualities listed, while another group evaluated how much pride they would feel if they possessed such qualities.
The studies uncovered huge similarities across the different cultures in the attributes that people value in others. This is an important finding as it contradicts what some psychologists had argued about certain cultures placing family and work group goals above individual needs or desires, such as Japan. The researchers found that the Japanese were just as likely to feel pride as people from other cultures. They also found the level of regard felt by the community for people who display each of these acts or traits closely matched the intensity of pride reported by individuals on how they would feel if they possessed such attributes or carried out the acts themselves.
The traits people were most proud of included individual “excellences” such as athletic prowess, intelligence, humour, beauty and wealth, as well as altruistic traits such as being trustworthy, providing for their children, having lots of good friends, being generous, and being brave
Dr Oliver Scott Curry from the School of Anthropology
Co-author Dr Oliver Scott Curry, from the University of Oxford’s School of Anthropology, said: ‘Taking pride in your achievements is a good thing, especially when it encourages people to benefit others. In this study, the traits people were most proud of included individual “excellences” such as athletic prowess, intelligence, humour, beauty and wealth, as well as altruistic traits such as being trustworthy, providing for their children, having lots of good friends, being generous, and being brave. But it’s possible to have too much of a good thing; excessive pride can make you overestimate your abilities and that way you may be heading for a fall. As the theory explains, pride can elicit envy and resentment among peers and rivals.’
Lead author Daniel Sznycer, from Arizona State University and a research scientist at the Centre for Evolutionary Pscyhology at UC Santa Barbara, said: ‘When there’s pride it seems there is also sometimes envy. This may explain why pride is a target of indignation around the world. Our findings suggest that pride is rooted in the evolutionary drive of our ancestors. Pride could be designed to make people pursue courses of action that benefit the social group, with the payoff being higher esteem received from others that make those actions worth pursuing.’
The paper, ‘Cross-cultural regularities in the cognitive architecture of pride‘, is published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.