GaudiLab/Shutterstock
Source: GaudiLab/Shutterstock

It’s rarely considered a compliment to call someone “proud,” especially when this personal quality is accompanied by a narcissistic need for recognition and adoration from others. If you had to choose between a friend who’s proud versus one who’s humble, the chances are you’d pick the humble one. Perhaps you know someone around the office who’s constantly seeking acclaim and, if she doesn’t get it, becomes cranky and resentful. She wants everyone to know exactly how successful she is and will stop at virtually nothing to show just how much better she is than everyone else. It’s this form of pride that falls into the category of “hubris,” or the egotistical need to be, and be seen as, superior. It’s quite likely that the more hubris she displays, the more annoying she becomes to everyone around her, but this doesn’t quench her apparently insatiable need to outdo the competition.

Surely, all pride can’t be bad, you might argue. What if you’re truly great at what you do? Shouldn’t you be allowed to take pleasure, if not bask a bit, in your own accomplishments? Might there be some value in being able to enjoy your own success? In new research on the difference between pride that’s born of hubris and pride that’s born of real achievements, National University of Singapore’s Shi-Yun Ho and colleagues (2016) examined this very question with respect to one very real psychological advantage — the ability to delay gratification. This ability to be able to wait, and work, for your desired outcomes in life is one key positive attribute to have, according to the theory of emotional intelligence. Rather than grasp at every shiny new thing that comes your way, if you have this ability to save up your energy for what’s truly important, this should help you also work more productively at your long-term goals.

According to the Singapore researchers, “overfixation on immediate rewards has been shown to be related to a host of negative consequences in life” (p. 1147). Delayed gratification, by contrast, allows you to keep your eye on the prize and resist the temptation to behave impulsively. Imagine that you’re working on a gift for a friend's birthday that involves a very complex craft project, such as a quilt or an intricately carved wood cabinet. If you wanted to get this done as quickly as possible, you’d opt to skimp on details or fail to correct little mistakes you make along the way. You’d get the project done, but it would reflect less than superior workmanship, and your recipient might be less than thrilled by the thought of having to display it in the home. All you'd care about is making sure everyone else at the celebration knows you made it with your own hands. If it's more important that the project reflects your very best effort, you'll take the time to make sure it's as beautiful as possible, even if you don't get it done in time for the party.

The pride you take in a project that’s well-designed and implemented, then, is truly deserved. You can look at the product of your hard labor with satisfaction that you did the very best you could, because you gave it your best effort. This is authentic pride: believing that your hard work led to a great outcome. If your pride is of the hubristic type, it’ll be far less likely to sustain you over the long haul needed to do high-quality work. You’ll think that your own greatness is likely to produce a great result, even if it’s got a few flaws. In fact, you might not even notice those flaws. As Ho and team note, this isn’t a very adaptive way to behave: “hubristic pride hurts social relationships and jeopardizes true mastery of the task domain.” In this type of pride, you believe “I did well because I am always great” (p. 1148).

The individual who displays hubristic pride, then, truly is a show-off who cares more about the show than the actual work that would underlie any accomplishments. There’s no need to wait to make the product of your work reach a high standard of quality, if you’re characterized by this kind of pride. Just get it done as soon, and in as flashy a manner, as you can. However, there’s one wrinkle in the equation that Ho and collaborators added to understanding the relationship between pride and delay of gratification. As the authors note, people high in authentic pride feel a greater sense of purpose in life, focusing not just on their own greatness or superiority, but on larger social concerns. People high in self-transcendence value good relationships with others, justice, and are compassionate and forgiving. If people high in hubristic pride could be encouraged to adopt these values, Ho et al. argue, they might be less likely to grab at immediate rewards and instead be more like those high in authentic pride.  

To test these predictions, the Singapore researchers conducted two experiments in which they manipulated the type of pride that their undergraduate participants would experience and then compared how much they were willing to risk in a subsequent monetary choice task. The first experiment tested the impact of induced type of pride on willingness to defer immediate rewards for longer-term gains. In the authentic pride condition, participants were asked to think about a time they performed a task well, because of the effort they put into it. In the hubristic pride condition, the researchers asked participants to recall a time when they did really well because they felt “naturally talented… and superior to others” (p. 1150). The emphasis in this manipulation was on getting great results without having to exert oneself.

In the second experiment, Ho et al. manipulated the extent to which participants were stimulated to think about their most important values in life. They asked one group to rank six self-transcendent values such as empathy, compassion, and support toward others and to write a five-minute essay about why they chose their most important value. The other group was asked to spend five minutes listing all the metro stations in Singapore and then showing how they'd get to their home from the university.

As expected, the participants whose authentic pride was aroused by the pride manipulation indeed were willing to put off immediate rewards in order to receive a larger reward at a later point. The hubristically manipulated participants were more impulsive. However, when their transcendent values were stimulated by the essay-writing manipulation, they were more willing to back off and go for the larger prize that took more time to win.

The upshot of this study is that there’s hope for individuals whose pride stems from such an egotistical need for attention that they’re always looking for shortcuts. The National University of Singapore team noted that “completing daily reflective exercises about achievements that one has made through his or her efforts, can inoculate people against succumbing to short-term temptations in favor of meeting long-term goals” (p. 1154). If your pride authentically stems from your achievement of actual accomplishments, by contrast, the Ho et al. team suggests that you may be more vigilant about monitoring your actual performance. In fact, participants high in authentic pride didn’t seem to take their successes for granted, so that when they did end up winning in the monetary task, they felt relieved. In other words, they didn't always expect to succeed until they did.

Another message from the Ho et al. study supports what we also know about life-span trends in narcissistic and egocentric tendencies. The young adults in this study may already have been at a point when their belief in their invincibility was beginning to change in response to experiences in which they had to work harder than they had expected. With age, most people may go through this type of shift, so that by midlife, your pride becomes more contingent on what you actually are able to do.

Taking pride in what you are able to get done seems to be a productive emotion. Fulfillment of your goals may sometimes take you longer, but the results will go further in producing a deep sense of accomplishment.

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2017

References

Ho, S., Tong, E. W., & Jia, L. (2016). Authentic and hubristic pride: Differential effects on delay of gratification. Emotion, 16(8), 1147-1156. doi:10.1037/emo0000179

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