Get Yourself to Do Stuff by Appealing to Your Own Sense of Pride

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Photo: Lambert/Archive Photos/Getty Images

A story at the start of Take Pride, a forthcoming book by University of British Columbia psychologist Jessica Tracy, is a typical one of youthful aimlessness, at least at first. Tracy writes about her post-college life in the late 1990s, when she moved across the country to San Francisco and got a job as a barista in a cozy cafe. It was a pleasant life, filled with lots of people to talk to and lots of time to read, along with few anxieties or responsibilities. But after about a year, she started missing something she’d had in college, an emotion that she used to experience often as a student, especially when working on the magazine she started with friends, but that she rarely felt as a barista.

“I was missing the feeling of pride I experienced from creating that magazine — the feeling of building something that seemed important,” Tracy writes. “I’m not talking about the feeling I had when I saw our first completed issue of the magazine dispersed all over campus. I wasn’t missing the feeling of pride in a job well done or of basking in others’ (remarkably restrained) appreciation of the magazine. What I was missing was that late-night, hard-working knowing-we-were-doing-something-we-cared-about pride.” She applied to grad school, and (fast-forward to 2016) is now the director of the Emotion & Self Lab at UBC. Much of her research has focused on understanding the point of pride as an emotion, and her work has found that it has a purpose that many of us overlook: The feeling — or, more specifically, the absence of the feeling — is an important key to motivation. (The book, which is out next week, has a subtitle that spells this out rather directly: Why the Deadliest Sin Holds the Secret to Human Success.)

In her book, she backs up this assertion with stories and empirical evidence, and some of the latter comes directly from her own lab. She’s found, essentially, a way to measure the effects of that purposelessness she felt in her early 20s. “When we’re not feeling pride, and we’re aware of it, that pushes us to do something different — to change our behavior, so that we will feel pride,” she told Science of Us. In one experiment, for example, she asked university students who had just finished an exam to report how much pride they were feeling; they also told the researchers how much they’d studied for the exam. “And what we found was that the students who did poorly on that first exam, if they did poorly and they felt a lack of pride in that performance, that led them to change their behavior, to study more for the next exam — which, in turn, led to an improved performance,” Tracy said. “And, using statistical analyses, we can trace that back to the lack of pride.”

It’s an intriguing way to consider pride, which is often thought of as a reflective emotion — pride over a job already done — than a state that spurs someone on to get a job done. “I’ve been studying motivation for 15 years and never saw pride as a major engine of human accomplishment. Jessica’s book changed my mind,” Wharton professor and author Adam Grant said in an email. (Grant named Take Pride among his recommendations for eight new books to read this fall.) Like me, Grant said he “had always thought of pride as something you feel after an accomplishment — a consequence of success.” That’s one way to look at the feeling, Tracy acknowledges. “But the thing is, we have strong evidence to suggest that it’s universal and innate in humans,” she said. And if that’s the case, that means that pride must have an adaptive function, she argues.

Consider one clever study she did, along with colleague David Matsumoto of San Francisco State University, that centered around the Paralympics. She and Matsumoto collaborated with a photographer at the Games, and examined photos of 108 judo athletes — some of whom were born blind, others who became blind later in life, and others who were sighted — noting their body language after they won or lost a match. After a win, most of the athletes did the same thing: They stood up a little straighter, they puffed up their chests, and they often raised their arms above their heads in victory. After a loss, too, their body language changed, this time slumping their shoulders and caving in their chests.

To recap: The sighted and blind athletes behaved the same way, despite the fact that the athletes who were born blind would never have seen anyone else reacting to pride in this way. That suggests that these behaviors are likely not learned, and that they probably do not arise from culture — which means, in turn, that pride (and its sadder sister, shame) may be a primary emotion.

There is some debate over which emotions get to be considered “primary,” but researchers generally agree that they’re at least four of the five colorful little blobs that starred in Inside Out: happiness, sadness, anger, and fear. As you learned if you saw that movie, each primary emotion has a function, even the darker ones. “We evolved to experience emotions because they are useful for us,” Tracy said. They’re adaptive, in that they get us to behave in specific, useful ways. “So, fear — while we’re experiencing that, it kind of pushes us to hide, right? That’s kind of a direct behavioral output of the experience of fear, and that’s going to be adaptive under conditions of threat.” If pride is a primary emotion, then that means it must serve a purpose, too, Tracy reasons. To her, the function of pride is that it’s an intoxicating feeling; it pushes you to work harder so that you can once again have that lovely sense of being proud of yourself.

It’s being proud of yourself that’s key, by the way. That’s what Tracy refers to as “authentic pride,” which is when you’re doing something for your own sense of self. You want to write a book at least partially because writing is important to your identity, for example, and so you chase after the feeling of pride you know is awaiting you on the other side of a hundred messy drafts. To return to the language of motivation, authentic pride can be thought of as intrinsic motivation, which study after study has shown is the long-term key to the delicate art of getting stuff done.

And while it’s true that primary emotions are adaptive, they can turn on you, too. The instinct to hide when you’re afraid is useful if there’s a real, physical threat, but it is not so useful if you’re shrinking into yourself because you’re afraid of appearing awkward in a meeting. Pride becomes poisonous when the feeling becomes less about how you see yourself, and more about how others see you; that’s when pride turns to hubris, Tracy argues. “Where hubristic pride comes in is when you start doing it for the recognition, and the fame, and the praise,” she said. Authentic pride nudges you to keep doing good work; hubristic pride is more about letting others know that you already did some work, and, hey, look, everybody — look how good it was!

Hubris is associated with many negative outcomes: arrogance, egotism, generally being unpleasant to be around. It is also, according to Tracy, a motivation-killer. “We evolved to care so much about our sense of self, and how we’re seen by others — it’s adaptive to care a lot about that. That’s what pushes us to achieve in all the great ways we have,” she explains. “But because we do care so much about it, once we start to have those feelings, it’s very hard to put them aside and say, ‘What’s the next thing I’m going to do to keep this going?’ Especially when there’s also the option of, ‘I’m just going to bask in this. I’m just going to feel really great about myself right now.’” Tracy’s advice to avoid falling into the hubristic pride trap is mostly just — don’t. Learn to recognize the dead-end trap of hubris, and lightly step around it by chasing after the next goal that will bring you authentic pride.

But, perhaps equally important, is admitting to yourself in the first place that your own pride is a driving source of much of your goal-directed behavior. This can be a deeply uncomfortable thing for some to admit. You’d like to imagine that you’re doing good things out of selflessness, purely because you are a good person. “But the fact is — the reason we feel good about ourselves for doing good things is because we evolved to,” Tracy said. Overall, the book presents an intriguing new way to think about a complicated emotion. I sure hope she’s proud of herself.