The Science of Sin

The psychology of the seven deadlies

Pride and Prejudice

What Jane Austen didn't tell you

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Pride – deadly sin or virtue? Well, it depends.  

For psychologists, there are two kinds of pride. On the one hand we have that kind of pride that is arrogant, conceited and narcissistic; on the other hand, we have a more humble pride, one that follows proportionately upon success. The first kind psychologists call hubristic pride; the second, authentic pride.  And the status of this emotion as deadly sin or virtue hangs on the very kind of pride – hubristic or authentic – that one is talking about. 

Research from the lab of Jessica Tracy has shown that authentic pride tends to be experienced when one attributes success or achievement to effort or hard work - you pass an exam and you attribute your success to having studied hard. Hubristic pride, however, is experienced when an achievement is attributed to stable, internal characteristics – like talent. Here you pass your exam and you attribute your performance to the fact that you are just, well, rather great.

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But not only do these different prides have different attributional roots, they have different consequences (for more on the many differences between these prides see The Science of Sin).  

One of the most interesting consequences of these two kinds of pride is their impact on prejudice. Jessica Tracy and Claire Ashton-James took to the laboratory to explore the effects of authentic and hubristic pride on prejudice.  

In one, correlational study the researchers showed that people high in hubristic pride were more prejudiced against African Americans, whereas those high in authentic pride were less prejudiced. And in follow-up experimental studies, designed to establish causality, Tracy and Ashton-James manipulated hubristic and authentic pride and then examined the consequences on intergroup attitudes.

To induce hubristic pride, the researchers had participants recall and describe a time that they “behaved in a self-important manner, or felt pretentious or stuck-up.” Authentic pride was induced in a similar way, but here participants recalled a time that they “felt like they had succeeded through hard work and effort, reached their potential, or achieved a goal.”

After the emotion induction, participants rated target outgroups (e.g., Asians) on a variety of personality traits (e.g., friendly, hostile). Consistent with the correlational findings, and suggestive of a causal story, hubristically proud participants rated outgroups more negatively than did controls , whereas the authentically proud gave more positive ratings.

So just why do hubristic and authentic pride influence prejudice in these different ways? Ashton-James and Tracy predicted (and found) that differences in empathy seem to explain the effects. Hubristic pride comes with a desire get ahead at the expense of others, which puts a damper on empathic concern. Authentic pride, however, while being concerned with doing well, is somewhat less self—centred, still leaving some scope for the consideration of others. The relative decrease in concern about others opens the door to prejudice in the hubristically proud. 

Pride is often cast as the most selfish of the deadly sins, and indeed, hubristc pride is a self-absorbed, other-shunning emotion. However, authentic pride, with its sense of proportionality, leaves room for the concerns of others and, as a result, may decrease prejudice.

So, pride – deadly sin or virtue? As with many other questions of morality, the answer here: it depends. 

Simon M. Laham, Ph.D., is senior lecturer in Psychological Sciences at the University of Melbourne, Australia.

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