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How Can We Cultivate Less Problematic Forms of Pride?

Lessons from the Italian notion of fiero.

National Media Museum (public domain - adapted)
Source: National Media Museum (public domain - adapted)

Finally, the FIFA World Cup is here. After four years of waiting, and an interminable qualifying campaign, at last our nations’ finest players stride out on the biggest sporting stage of all. I’m a huge football fan, and am as excited as anyone for it to get going. The fixture list is up on my wall, and my viewing schedule for the next month mapped out. Let the festivities commence!

However, aspects of the whole affair do make me uneasy. High among these is the idea of national pride. I’ll certainly be waving my flag for England and cheering them on. In that sense, I suppose the team does evoke a certain pride in me. However, there are important caveats here, for pride is a complex and problematic phenomenon. Not for nothing is it one of the seven "deadly sins."

The problem of pride

The notion of the deadly sins–also known as cardinal sins or capital vices–is thought to originate with the Christian ‘desert fathers,’ especially Evagrius Ponticus, the 4th century ascetic. He identified eight evil thoughts or spirits that one needs to overcome, otherwise one’s spiritual progress would be impeded, and misdeeds and misfortune would follow. The list was rendered into Latin, and in 590 was revised by Pope Gregory into the canonical seven that are known universally today: gula (gluttony), luxuria (lust), avaritia (avarice), acedia (sloth), ira (wrath), invidia (envy), and … superbia (pride).

In fact, of these, church teachers often placed particular emphasis on pride as the root of the other sins, and the vice which severs one from grace. St. Augustine, for instance, wrote that ‘it was pride that changed angels into devils.’ C. S. Lewis made the point equally forcefully when he called pride "the essential vice, the utmost evil."1 For it describes an excessive vanity and belief in one’s own powers and self-worth. This cuts one off from the humility that in the Christian context is seen as the path of salvation.

Modern psychology may not use such vivid, dramatic language. But pride is definitely seen as problematic, for many reasons. For instance, inflated self-assessments can prompt people into taking on tasks that exceed their capacities, leading potentially to failure and harm; furthermore, this outcome can be particularly destabilizing if one’s self esteem is contingent on extrinsic validation and achievement of these goals.2 More perniciously still, pride can be imbued with noxious qualities like narcissism, which are linked to higher levels of aggression, particularly when inflated self-appraisals are threatened.3

The problem of collective pride

Pride can also be a collective phenomenon, where a person may experience it in relation to, or on behalf of, a group to which they belong. Although this can be a positive process (as we'll see below), it also has the potential to produce destructive outcomes like ‘collective narcissism,’ defined as "an emotional investment in an unrealistic belief about the in group’s greatness."4 And when it does, the issues that bedevil pride as an individual vice still apply. Unfortunately, the destructive corollary of ‘in-group love’ can sometimes be ‘out-group hate,’ with adverse consequences.5 This includes reactive and proactive hostility, aggression, and even violence towards out-groups.

Indeed, the recent history of humankind is a tragic demonstration of these dynamics. Take any major war or conflict, and these destructive processes will be there in the mix. And, to return to the topic at hand, they have cast a dark shadow over football. The UK, for instance, went through a particularly dark period in the 1980s, when the game was marred by violent hooliganism, with the nadir being the terrible Heysel stadium disaster, which led to English clubs being banned from European competition for five years. And even while the behavior of most fans has generally got better, many national teams still attract dark forms of nationalism and aggression.

How then, in that context, to feel about national pride? It should go without saying that the out-group hostility and violence depicted above has no place in football. Yet, we can ask, are all forms of pride bad? After all, at an individual level, while narcissistic self-aggrandizement may be harmful, the value of qualities such as positive self-regard and confidence is still widely recognized.6 And at a collective level, movements such as Gay Pride show that upholding group self-worth can be affirmative and celebratory, and do not necessarily involve denigrating an out-group.7 In that respect, perhaps we need a way of differentiating forms of pride, separating the good from the bad.


As we have seen, pride is a complex phenomenon, which can manifest in adaptive and maladaptive ways. It can thus be confusing to have this one word, pride, covering all varieties. Perhaps it would clarify things if we could develop a subtler lexicon to distinguish between these types. Indeed, in that regard, efforts are already underway in psychology. Consider the example of fiero.

This is a nice example of an untranslatable word, one that lacks an exact equivalent in our own tongue. I’ve become fascinated by such words, particularly ones relating to well-being (being a researcher in positive psychology). To that end, I’ve been creating a "positive lexicography," as I explore in two new books (please see bio for details). These words are significant for many reasons. Most intriguingly, they can reveal phenomena which have been overlooked or underappreciated in one’s own culture and language.

Fiero is an interesting case: In Italian it can sometimes function in the same way as pride. However, the Italian psychologist Isabella Poggi has operationalized it as a specific form of pride, one that is justified and well-earned, often because one has triumphed over adversity8. Subsequently, Paul Ekman included it in his Atlas of Emotions, in which he described it as the "enjoyment felt when you have met a challenge that stretched your capabilities."9 Crucially, rather than use the complex and ambivalent label pride, he deployed fiero as a loanword to depict the specific positive form of pride that he had in mind.

So, perhaps I’ll aim for this kind of pride over the next month. This isn’t a pride that lords its superiority over other teams–not that this would probably be viable for me anyway, given England’s record in recent championships–and it certainly isn’t the sort that ignites hostility and aggression towards rival fans. Rather, it means being happy that we're there, at the party, and being gratified if we try our best, play with passion and commitment, and carry ourselves with dignity and good grace. For me, that kind of pride that seems worth aiming for and celebrating.


[1] Lewis, C. S. (1980). Mere Christianity. San Francisco: Harper, p.121-122.

[2] Crocker, J., & Park, L. E. (2004). The costly pursuit of self-esteem. Psychological Bulletin, 130(3), 392-414.

[3] Baumeister, R. F., Smart, L., & Boden, J. M. (1996). Relation of threatened egotism to violence and aggression: The dark side of high self-esteem. Psychological Review, 103(1), 5-33.

[4] de Zavala, A. G., Cichocka, A., Eidelson, R., & Jayawickreme, N. (2009). Collective narcissism and its social consequences. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 97(6), 1074-1096.

[5] de Zavala, A. G. (2011). Collective narcissism and intergroup hostility: The dark side of ‘in‐group love’. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 5(6), 309-320.

[6] Heine, S. J. (2004). Positive self-views: Understanding universals and variability across cultures. Journal of Cultural and Evolutionary Psychology, 2(1-2), 109-122.

[7] Markwell, K., & Waitt, G. (2009). Festivals, space and sexuality: Gay pride in Australia. Tourism Geographies, 11(2), 143-168.

[8] Poggi, I., & D’Errico, F. (2011). Types of pride and their expression. In A. Esposito, A. Vinciarelli, K. Vicsi, C. Pelachaud & A. Nijholt (Eds.), Analysis of Verbal and Nonverbal Communication and Enactment. The Processing Issues (pp. 434-448). Netherlands: Springer.


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