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Scott Barry Kaufman, Ph.D.

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Pride and Creativity

Posted: 07/20/2012 1:49 pm

"You received a score of 124 out of 147, which is the 94th percentile. Great job on that! That's one of the highest scores we've seen so far!"

When Lisa Williams and David DeSteno told this to their participants, they noticed a significant increase in perseverance on a difficult cognitive task. This intrigued them, so they fiddled with the dials to see what was going on. When they took out the "Great job" part and just told the participants they performed exceptional, they saw no increase in perseverance. When they put people in a generally positive mood by having them look at pleasant pictures, such as a wedding and a tropical landscape, they also found no increase in perseverance. What was it about this particular phrasing that increased motivation?

The winning phrasing was effective because it activated one of our most deeply-rooted emotions: pride. Pride may have evolved to motivate people to achieve social status in a socially valued domain. This emotion is not just any feel-good emotion though. Pride particularly makes people feel good about themselves. Children are quick to associate pride with domains in which they feel competent, and are driven to further pursue those domains. In contrast, those who continually receive negative feedback in a domain quickly lose their motivation for achieving and feeling pride in that domain.

But here's the paradox: pride is correlated with both positive and negative social consequences. Pride has always received mixed reviews. The ancient Greeks viewed pride as "the crown of the virtues" whereas the early Christian philosophers viewed pride as the "deadliest of the Seven Deadly Sins". To reconcile these different conceptualizations of pride, researchers have found it useful distinguishing between two different shades of pride: authentic and hubristic.

Authentic pride is fuled by the emotional rush of accomplishment, confidence, and success, and is associated with prosocial and achievement-oriented behaviors, extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, satisfying interpersonal relationships, and positive mental health. Authentic pride is also associated with genuine self-esteem, which is high self-esteem controlling for narcissism. Authentic pride, and its associated subjective feelings of confidence and accomplishment may facilitate behaviors that are associated with attaining prestige. People who are confident, agreeable, hard-working, energetic, kind, empathic, non-dogmatic, and high in genuine self-esteem would draw inspiration from others and would want to be emulated by others.

Hubristic pride, on the other hand, is fueled by arrogance and conceit, and is associated with anti-social behaviors, rocky relationships, low levels of conscientiousness and high levels of disagreableness, neuroticism, narcissism, and poor mental health outcomes. Hubristic pride, and its associated subjective feelings of superiority and arrogance, may facilitate dominance by motivating behaviors such as aggression, hostility, and manipulation.

Since authentic pride is related more to a focus on competence and mastery (mastery-oriented goals), whereas hubristic pride is related more to the drive to dominate and avoid incompetence (performance-oriented goals), researchers Rodica Damian and Richard Robins wondered whether these two forms of pride would also be linked to intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. It would make sense that those high in authentic pride would be driven by the sheer joy and enjoyment of engaging in a task, whereas those high in hubristic pride would be driven more by external rewards, such as money and power. Going even further, if authentic pride is indeed linked to intrinsic motivation, it may also be linked to creative achievement, since intrinsic motivation is highly linked to creative achievement.

This is basically what they found among a sample of 489 undergraduates. Authentic pride was positively related to intrinsic motivation and self-reported creative achievement. In contrast, hubristic pride was negatively correlated with intrinsic motivation, positively correlated with extrinsic motivation, and showed no relation to creative achievement. Additionally, intrinsic motivation (but not extrinsic motivation), was directly related to creative achievement, and authentic pride was positively related to creative achievement because of its association with intrinsic motivation.

But that's not all. Digging deeper into their dataset, they found that not everyone with hubristic pride was lacking in creative achievement. For those already high in extrinsic motivation, there was a significant correlation between hubristic pride and creative achievement. Those low in extrinsic motivation, however, showed less creativity if they scored high in hubristic pride. As the researchers note, "extrinsic motivation may fuel creative achievement for individuals high in hubristic pride but inhibit it for individuals low in hubristic pride."

It seems like authentic pride, and its association with intrinsic motivation, is particularly conductive to creativity. But hubristic pride can also be conducive, if you're already driven by external rewards. These participants are just college students, and the effects are rather small, so there certainly needs to be more research to see how these findings hold up among adult creators. Also, it's not immediately obvious how to reconcile these findings with other studies showing there is a dark side to creativity. For instance, another recent study conducted by Paul Silvia, James Kaufman, Roni Reiter-Palmon, and Benjamin Wigert found that creative achievement among adults was associated with honesty and humility: the higher creative achievers displayed lower levels of honesty and humility! I asked Silvia how he squares his findings with these findings. Here's his response:

"It sounds sort of zen, but I intuitively suspect that both brashness and humility are necessary for Big C [exceptional] creativity--you need both a sense of the grandness of your work along with the sense that it could be better."

No one said creativity is simple, or has a single cause. People may take different paths to the same outcome. At any rate, one thing is clear: pride plays an important role in fueling creativity.

© 2012 by Scott Barry Kaufman.

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