No, not lust. Calm down. This is not that kind of website.
I’m talking about pride. When you think about the deadly sins, pride’s actually kinda confusing. Few ethical people are running around advocating greed. Wrath isn’t going to make you a lot of friends. And, as the saying goes, envy is the one deadly sin that’s no fun at all.
But we all think it’s O.K. to be proud of your family, proud of your country, proud of your religion and proud of yourself. We encourage it. Ever wished someone “took more pride in their work”? Of course you have.
Without some amount of pride there’s a void in our lives. An emptiness. And yet we also agree that being prideful is bad. Nobody likes jerks, narcissists or hubris. (In fact, Dante said that pride was the deadliest of the deadly sins.)
And the confusion’s right there in the dictionary. Merriam-Webster has two definitions for pride. And they’re contradictory.
Consistent with this multiplicity of meaning, Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary lists two definitions for the English word pride—and two that could not be more antagonistic. The first is “inordinate self-esteem/ conceit.” The second? “A reasonable or justifiable self-respect.”
So what gives? When you look at the psychological research, it turns out that pride does come in two flavors. One can give you the motivation and grit to become the best version of yourself. Far from being a deadly sin, it makes you kinder and more compassionate. People who possess this kind of pride are happy, healthy, popular and prestigious.
And then there’s the other kind. It leads you to cheat, lie and take advantage of others. It’s marked by aggression, manipulation and dominance.
In professor Jessica Tracy’s book Take Pride: Why the Deadliest Sin Holds the Secret to Human Success she explains some fascinating new research about how pride has enormous power to greatly improve—or irrevocably harm—your life.
You’re gonna be proud of something, that’s for sure. So it’s pretty important we learn how to do it the right way.
Alright, strap in. We’re gonna make some sense of this pride thing…
What The Heck Is Pride Anyway?
Studies show that pride is a universal signal of status. They’ve done tests all around the world (even in isolated cultures) and people always recognize the expression of pride at a rate well above what would be predicted by random chance.
In fact, when congenitally blind athletes win a competition, they make that recognizable posture: chest expanded, shoulders back, a broad smile. Since there’s no way they could have seen someone else do this, it would seem pride is hard-wired into us.
When you show pride, other people see you as higher status. How powerful is the signal pride sends to others? Crazy powerful. When one job candidate shows pride and the other shows shame, the one who is beaming gets the job—even if they have a much weaker résumé.
Participants chose to hire the candidate who displayed pride more often than they chose the candidate who displayed shame, regardless of the quality of his or her résumé.
Pretty awesome, huh? Pride sounds like a good thing to have. But here’s where all the ethical confusion comes from…
There are two kinds of pride: “Authentic Pride” and “Hubristic Pride.” Both make you seem higher status and get you respect but they come from very different places and have very different side effects.
Authentic pride is when you are pleased with what you’ve achieved through hard work. Hubristic pride is when you feel you’re fundamentally better than everyone else.
(Authentic Pride) is the pride people feel from a sense of accomplishment, and it’s the pride that makes them care about others. While hubristic pride engenders an almost obsessive focus on oneself, authentic pride fosters a sense of compassion and a focus on others… Authentic pride is also what people feel when they attribute their successes to unstable, controllable causes, like effort and hard work.
Obviously, hubristic pride doesn’t win you any popularity contests. People will respect you, but that doesn’t mean they like you. Not exactly a quality you would want to develop in yourself, hence the numero uno spot on that infamous deadly sin listicle.
But authentic pride is something we should all be working our best to build. What happens when you derive your esteem from your efforts instead of a narcissistic belief in your innate superiority? Lots of really good stuff, bubba.
Authentic pride motivates you. People who feel it literally work twice as hard.
…researchers found that those participants who had been made to feel pride voluntarily chose to work almost twice as long on the new task as participants who had been informed of their performance but not encouraged to feel proud of it…In both experimental conditions, participants knew that they had succeeded. But it was only when they felt pride in their success that they became inclined to repeat that performance. This is important, because it tells us that pride has a causal impact on behavior; it made these participants want to persevere.
Hubristic pride doesn’t have the same effect. It will make you work harder on some tasks—ones that immediately impress other people.
Unlike its authentic counterpart, hubristic pride does not, in general, motivate people to work much more (or less)…While a desire for authentic pride pushes people to put in the kind of work that might earn them higher grades, hubristic pride pushes people to work hard when doing so might impress others…People who feel hubristic pride will work hard if it’s clear that there’s something in it for them, something like power or status. But they won’t do it for the simple sake of feeling good about themselves.
Authentic pride increases self-control. Hubristic pride makes you more impulsive and less conscientious.
In the study of Germans’ daily temptations, those participants who reported feelings of pride each time they successfully resisted a temptation—each time they chose the apple over the fries—demonstrated a stronger resistance to temptation the next time they faced it.
And far from being deadly or being a sin, authentic pride makes you a better person. Those who felt it were more generous and empathetic. People made to feel hubristic pride, on the other hand, became more selfish.
If there is a silver lining in this research, it’s our finding that momentary experiences of authentic pride led individuals from this same population to become more prosocial. And, in a final study, we added a measure of empathy and found that authentic pride makes people care more about others, in stark contrast to hubristic pride, which makes people care less.
(To learn the seven-step morning ritual that will keep you happy all day, click here.)
Okay, the benefits are obvious. So how do you get more authentic pride in your life—and dodge the hubristic pride bullet?
1) Ask, “What Kind Of Person Do I Want To Be?”
We all spend a lot of time thinking about what we want. Yachts made of platinum and decade long vacations. But who do you want to be? What character traits would make you proud of yourself? What’s the best version of you?
Focusing on those intrinsic factors produces grit and success. Hubristic pride’s desire to impress doesn’t deliver the same results.
Researchers looked at over 10,000 West Point cadets. Those that said they only came to the school for intrinsic reasons—like they wanted to become a good leader—were more likely to graduate, got promoted earlier and were more successful a decade later. Those concerned with extrinsic reasons—like how impressive it would be to say they graduated from West Point—were less likely to graduate or become officers.
…those cadets who cited reasons intrinsic to their identity—factors like wanting to become an officer in the U.S. Army or a strong leader in any domain—ended up with more successful careers ten years later than cadets who chose to attend West Point for reasons external…like earning money or because they liked the school’s prestigious reputation. The cadets who were motivated by internal factors were more likely to graduate, be promoted early on in their careers, and become commissioned as officers…Cadets who reported external motivations for attending West Point were less likely to graduate or become officers even if they also, simultaneously, reported internal, self-relevant motivations…To attain the best possible career outcomes, individuals need to work hard only for the sake of becoming their best selves and feeling authentic pride in those selves…The critical point, from this study, is that you need to take the time to figure out who you want to be and then work hard to become that person, not for any other external reasons or rewards.
We all want to be happy and we all too often think that comes from getting things, not who we are and how we behave. And not only does trying to become your best self make you more successful—research also shows it makes you happier.
(To learn the four rituals that neuroscience says will make you happy, click here.)
So you have an idea of the best version of you. Now what the heck do you do with it?
2) Regularly Remind Yourself
Once you specify the qualities you’d like to have and the character traits you’d like to exhibit, you’re gonna need reminders because your context exerts enormous influence on your behavior, whether you realize it or not. When you’re tempted to be bad, you need a reminder to be good.
Work by Nicholas Christakis at Yale shows that when we surround ourselves with the kind of people we want to be, we’re more likely to become like those people.
And the research shows reminders really do have positive effects on your behavior. That’s what leads to improvement and authentic pride in yourself.
When we’re reminded of that identity, or a particular piece of it, we become particularly inclined to behave like it. The net result is that we do things that make us most like whatever aspects of our identity are currently on our minds, regardless of whether these behaviors are good or bad for the rest of our selves.
How many religions offer a weekend crash course and then you’re a good person for life? None that I can think of. Most have regular get-togethers at a place of worship. And you’re supposed to pray or meditate frequently. Guess what those are? Reminders.
(To learn the 6 rituals that ancient wisdom says will make you happy, click here.)
Now what’s to stop you from having a good vision of who you want to be, reminding yourself of who you want to be, and then being filled with hubristic pride over how much better you are than everyone else?
3) Focus On Effort, Not Natural Ability
When you credit your achievements to effort, you know others can get there too. You’re not innately better. And that makes you more likely to be compassionate, helpful and filled with authentic pride.
This difference— between feeling pride for reasons that are controllable and action-based, as opposed to reasons that are uncontrollable and identity-based—seems to be crucial to the psychological distinction between the two prides. Authentic pride is the emotional response to successes that are hard won and that people know occurred as a result of their own efforts. Hubristic pride is the emotional response to successes that are perceived as less effortful and thus less controllable, events that, people believe, occurred simply because of who they are. No wonder authentic pride is associated with feelings of achievement and accomplishment while hubristic pride is linked to egotism and arrogance. If you think you succeeded because of your hard work, you should feel confident, productive, and accomplished. And if you believe you succeeded because of who you are, well, then it makes sense that you’d feel pretty great about yourself in a manner that could be described as conceited or smug.
(To learn how to stop being lazy and get more done, click here.)
O.K., we’ve learned a lot about the good and bad forms of pride. Let’s round it up and learn what to do if you don’t have much to be proud of right now…
Here’s how to make sure that the deadly sin of pride isn’t deadly, isn’t sin-ly, and authentically helps you be the best you:
- Ask, “Who do I want to be?”: Not “What do I want?” Or “What will impress other people?” What qualities would you want others to praise at your eulogy?
- Regularly Remind Yourself: Post-it notes, inspirational pictures, whatever will keep you on track to becoming the best you.
- Focus on effort, not ability: You weren’t born with magic powers. But you can get magic results from hard work. And that’s something to be proud of.
Pride isn’t something to be avoided. It’s just got to be the right kind.
Maybe you don’t have a lot you’re proud of right now. That’s okay. As the saying goes, “Anyone can be cool, but awesome takes practice.” Becoming the best you is a process. No, it’s not as pleasurable in the moment as bragging or showing off but it’s an investment in future-you that will pay off—and it won’t make you a jerk in the process.
The Stoic philosopher Epictetus once said, “No great thing is created suddenly.”
And that great thing can be you.
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Eric Barker is the author of Barking Up the Wrong Tree: The Surprising Science Behind Why Everything You Know About Success Is (Mostly) Wrong. Eric has been featured in the The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Wired and TIME. He also runs the Barking Up the Wrong Tree blog. Join his 205,000-plus subscribers and get free weekly updates here. This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.