Dean Karnazes started his professional running career relatively late in life.
As a teenager, Dean had been a top runner at his school’s cross-country team. However, the joys and demands of modern life later took hold. Karnazes went to university, got married, and pursued a business career—quickly rising ranks in his sales job.
But something happened when Dean turned 30 years old.
On the morning Karnazes turned 30, he woke up in a state of shock. In his memoir Ultramarathon Man, Karnazes wrote; “I realized that my life is being wasted.” He later told his wife; “My fear is that I’ll wake up thirty years from now and be in the same place, only wrinkled and bald… and really fat. And bitter.”
That night, Karnazes went drinking in San Francisco, and found himself within inches of cheating on his wife. Reflecting on what nearly happened, Karnazes had an epiphany. He realised that the proudest moments in his life were when he’d independently endured something physically demanding.
Dean escaped from the bar he was drinking at, and started running… All night. He ran from his home in San Francisco, to Half Moon Bay—thirty miles down the California coast.
Karnazes hadn’t ran in 15 years, and suffered for days afterwards. But Karnazes described feeling a profound sense of purpose, and decided he wasn’t going to let it go.
Since that eventful day, Karnazes has become the world’s most famous ultra-marathon runner.
Pride: A fundamental aspect of human nature
Why did Karnazes abandon a successful business career, to become an endurance athlete?
Evidently Karnazes was driven by emotion– and one emotion in particular. Like every other person who dedicates their time and effort to achieve something, Karnazes was driven by pride: the desire to feel proud of one’s self.
In Take Pride: Why the deadliest since holds the secret to human success, psychology professor Jessica Tracy argues that pride is a fundamental aspect of human nature, and an emotion which has been long neglected by social scientists.
Grounded in evolutionary science, Tracy argues that the ultimate function of pride is to increase one’s social status, and that this motivational emotion is the driving force of our species’ success. “One conclusion I’ve reached is that the desire to feel pride is of the most important motivational forces propelling human achievement… Yes, pride is at least partially responsible for many of our species’ greatest successes, including artistic masterpieces, groundbreaking scientific discoveries, and world-changing technological inventions.”
Tracy and her colleagues’ innovative research demonstrates that pride is not just confined to individualistic societies, but is a universal human emotion. For example, hunter-gatherers in Burkina Faso who have received little to no exposure to Western culture recognise pride displays on similar levels to that of other universal human emotions, such as fear. On top of this, Tracy’s research illustrates that congenitally blind Olympic athletes display recognisable pride displays—ruling out the possibility that these behaviours are learned from watching others.
A virtuous sin
Historically, pride has been described as both a virtue and as a sin. How have scholars and religious leaders come to radically different conclusions on this emotion?
The answer is because of pride’s two-sided nature.
One the one-hand, there’s authentic pride: a type of pride based on a reasonable perception of one’s self-worth, accompanied with a desire to achieve. It is based on one’s actions and their contributions to others. On the other hand, you have hubristic pride. Unlike authenticity, hubristic pride is based on one’s own perception of innate greatest and superiority. In other words, an inflated sense of self-worth and entitlement.
Tracy’s research illustrates that those prone to authentic pride are generally prosocial, outgoing and emotionally stable. In contrast, those prone to hubristic pride are more likely to be narcissistic, low in self-esteem, and vulnerable to bouts of shame.
Essentially, the key determinant of either authentic or hubristic pride is where one attributes their success. As stated by Tracy;
“No wonder authentic pride is associated with feelings of achievement and accomplishment while hubristic pride is linked to egotism and arrogance. If you think you succeeded because of your hard work, you should confident, productive and accomplished. And if you believe you succeeded because of who you are, well, then it makes sense that you’d feel pretty great about yourself in a manner that can described as conceited or smug.”
These two variants of pride are also associated with different ways of processing failure. Those who tend toward authentic pride can put their failures into perspective, and treat them as temporary setbacks and extract lessons from these experiences. Conversely, those susceptible to hubristic pride do not respond in kind. They are vulnerable to setting unrealistic goals, which typically fail. When the inevitable happens, they disregard or undermine these failures, as admitting failure would violate their identity.
This distinction is why pride can explain acts of genius, as well as acts of apparent insanity. For example, hubristic pride may best explain why Lance Armstrong not only enhanced his already remarkable cycling performance by doping with EPOs, but why he subsequently manipulated and intimidated his teammates to follow suit– which drastically increased the odds of getting caught. Tracy summarises this point eloquently. “The hubristic form of pride can explain these seemingly inexplicable acts, and it may be the only thing that can. Yes, pride is a source of human greatness, but it’s also a source of the greatest of human downfalls. For this reason, pride- perhaps more than any other emotion – lies at the heart of human nature.”
Two paths to leadership
Tracy argues pride is ‘adaptive’, in the sense that it grants one power and influence, which helps increase one’s social rank. We know that leaders are more likely to survive and reproduce than those at the bottom of the hierarchy.
With that in mind, why are there two very different forms of pride, and how can they both be adaptive? It’s because there are two divergent routes to leadership.
Firstly, there’s dominance– increasing one’s social status through intimidation, manipulation, and coercion. This type of leadership is ancient, and is rooted in primate social dominance. Within the animal kingdom, animals which are the most powerful and the superior fighters are generally granted high status.
However, we homo sapiens are unique. Unlike other animals, we are a hyper-social cultural species. We rely on cultural knowledge and wisdom like no other animal– we literally depend on socialisation and cultural know-how for our survival. As a result, we seek leaders with the skills and knowledge our group needs to thrive. This path to leadership is called prestige.
Intriguingly, Tracy’s research shows that both paths are equally successful. That is, one can get to the top either through domination, or by developing prestige.
For example, Tracy and her colleagues conducted experimental research, providing groups of university students with problems solving tasks developed by NASA. However Tracy and her colleagues weren’t interested in the groups’ answers. Instead, they measured each participant’s dominance and prestige, along with four measures of social influence (including eye-tracking of reviewers watching the experimental footage, with the time spent focused on each participant as a measure of status).
The experiments demonstrated that both dominance and prestige were equally effective strategies. Despite acknowledging that they didn’t particularly like the dominant group members, participants nonetheless viewed these individuals as influential leaders.
This helps explain why Donald Trump was elected President of the United States. Trump pursued the primate dominance path to success by bullying, manipulating and intimidating his political rivals, and ended up winning arguably the world’s most powerful position. In other words, Trump didn’t win despite of his arrogance and aggression; he won because of it.
Although the US election caught pollsters off guard and subsequently shocked the world, it appears that many evolutionary psychologists were not surprised by the result– including Tracy herself. Take Pride was penned before Trump was elected the Republican nominee. However, Trump’s leadership style is a focal point of the book. “…[A]s this book goes to press, in the spring of 2016, Trump is the leading Republican candidate for U.S. president. Overt or exaggerated displays of hubristic pride are obviously not a deal breaker.”
What should we take from Tracy’s work?
Tracy’s advice for your own life couldn’t be more clear: cultivate authentic pride.
“One of my ultimate aims of this book is to demonstrate that you can choose to control the darker impulses and follow your more authentic prideful voice. I believe understanding the science of pride—both sides of pride—will allow you to fully appreciate and benefit from this natural capacity all members of our species share. It’s an ability not only to feel good about ourselves, but also to use those feelings towards our own ends, to change our lives.”
Recruiters and HR professionals should take note. It’s vital that organisations explore the motivations of job candidates and promising leaders, not just their skills and experience. Businesses should seek leaders that display authentic pride, and cite intrinsic motivations for wanting the position.
Yes, dominance is a successful leadership strategy. However it comes with big costs, including lower employee satisfaction, higher staff turnover, and reduced creativity. Essentially domineering leadership causes unnecessary suffering, and is arguably unsustainable. In a world were culture is a key driver of human evolution, we need to select knowledgeable and competent leaders who can improve the human condition.
Written by Max Beilby for Darwinian Business
Click here to buy a copy of Take Pride.
*Post updated 12th December 16
References and recommended reading
Boehm, C. (2016) Trump’s primate-like posturing got him to poll position in Iowa, New Scientist. Available here
Cheng, J. T., Tracy, J. L., Foulsham, T., Kingstone, A., & Henrich, J. (2013). Two ways to the top: Evidence that dominance and prestige are distinct yet viable avenues to social rank and influence. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 104(1), 103.
Henrich, J. (2015) The Secret of Our Success: How culture is driving human evolution, domesticating our species, and making us smarter. Princeton University Press
Karnazes, D. (2007). Ultramarathon Man. Riva Verlag
Tracy, J.L. (2016) Evolutionary psychology shows that people get ahead in life by using one of these two strategies. Quartz Magazine. Available here
Tracy, J. L., & Matsumoto, D. (2008). The spontaneous expression of pride and shame: Evidence for biologically innate nonverbal displays. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 105(33), 11655-11660.
Tracy, J. L., & Robins, R. W. (2008). The nonverbal expression of pride: evidence for cross-cultural recognition. Journal of personality and social psychology, 94(3), 516.
Van Vugt, M. (2015) Understanding Primates – and Donald Trump, Psychlogy Today. Available here
Van Vugt, M. & Ahuja, A. (2010) Selected: Why some people lead, why others follow, and why it matters. Profile Books
Von Rueden, C. (2016) The Conversation About Trump Should Consider the Evolution of Men’s Political Psychology, This View of Life. Available here
4 thoughts on “A Virtuous Sin: An Overview of ‘Take Pride’ by Jessica Tracy”
Awesome video. I also listened to The Art of Charm Podcast, the episode with Jessica Tracy and I found it very interesting.