10/18/2013 02:04 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

The Power of Pride

Pride. It has a bad reputation and sometimes with good reason. If the government shutdown of the past two weeks is any indication, pride can lead to disastrous outcomes. Remember the quotes from several members of the GOP that they didn't want to loose face or be disrespected? Look how it turned out.

But this view of pride as something to be shunned extends far beyond politics. A quick glance in any thesaurus shows the vast majority of synonyms for pride to be negative (e.g., hubris, arrogance). In fact, pride has been so despised historically that it's not only on the list of Christianity's seven deadly sins, it is the seventh and most deadly!

But there's a problem with this view. If pride were always so damaging, why do we still have it? Why has the mind retained the ability to feel and to express pride if it always leads to trouble? Yes, pride surely can cause difficulties -- no one would argue with that -- but if it didn't offer some benefits, it would have been extinguished as an emotion long ago. The question, of course, then becomes, "What good is it?"

At Northeastern University's Social Emotions Group, this is the type of question we regularly strive to answer. How, when and why do emotions help or hinder the achievement of goals? When it came to issues of leadership, we had a strong suspicion that pride was a double-edged sword. It could be a mark of power and skill, or a tool with which to proverbially cut oneself down to size. It all depends on how it's used.

One of the biggest challenges of successful leadership centers on the ability to delay gratification -- to work hard in the moment, even at great cost to oneself, to achieve something better in the long run. Lisa Williams, a psychologist at the University of New South Wales, and I had a sense that pride might serve as something of a "booster shot" to help in this regard. You see, resisting immediate temptation often requires willpower, but willpower can and does fail. As a result, it would make great sense that the mind would have some built-in methods to foster willpower, thereby making people more resilient. Pride might be just the thing.

To find out, Lisa and I created a set of experiments where we told people we were assessing a novel but important cognitive ability. Measuring it required them to complete many, many difficult (and admittedly somewhat boring) problems on a computer. After they had completed the first battery of tests, we privately informed some people that they had performed exceedingly well, patting them on the back and looking impressed while we were doing so. Others were given no such information. We then set them loose on the second battery of tests after measuring their emotional states. What we found was exactly what we expected. The people who now felt proud persevered much longer on the difficult work than did the others (on this second task, people could stop whenever they felt they had done enough). Now it wasn't anything in particular about these people that made them work longer. We randomly selected the people to whom we gave acclaim. It was simply the fact that they felt proud of their achievements. The more pride they felt, the longer they persevered on tasks they believed to be valuable indicators of their potential. Put simple, taking pride in their abilities motivated them to suppress an immediate desire to stop working on something difficult.

Ok, you might say, so proud people will persevere more. That doesn't necessarily mean pride is good for leadership. We all know people who are workaholics but completely unlikeable. Fair enough. That's why Lisa and I conducted a second experiment. This time, we constructed teams out of people who did not know each other. Unbeknownst to the participants, only one person in each team had been induced to feel pride just before entering the room (again, through our giving these people acclaim for their performance in private). The teams had to work together to solve a puzzle while sitting around a table. Our question centered on who would become the leader? Again, the answer was clear. The people were feeling proud almost universally rose to guide the group. They were the ones who gave the most directions and suggestions -- directions and suggestions that were accepted by their teammates. And perhaps most importantly, they also emerged as the most liked and valuable members of the teams. Pride made people attractive as leaders. The others intuitively sensed that the proud people were competent and could be trusted.

So is pride a sin or a virtue? It all comes down to context. If one's pride stems from true ability and is expressed in moderation, it certainly is adaptive. It helps one persevere through difficulties to gain skills or rewards that, in the long run, will be quite valuable. It also marks one as someone others can trust to lead. But if the pride is misplaced -- if it's not reflective of one's true abilities or competence -- then it is hubris and can only end in ruin. If we had let the people in our experiments interact over longer periods of time, it would have become clear that those who felt the pride we induced didn't really possess any special "know how" in solving the problems at hand, and the group would have turned on them. That's the trickiest part of pride. It can easily be used to manipulate others. When people first see someone express it, they assume it's valid and will want to follow him or her. But if that pride is hubris -- if the person expressing it is doing so without good reason or without a competent plan -- it can end up seriously diminishing his or her profile. Just ask Ted Cruz.

For more on emotional intelligence, click here.

For more by David DeSteno, click here.

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