Under the Hood

Is Pride Really A Sin?

Pride is a complex feeling and the way we perceive it can be hard to decipher. While this varies based on context, pride has not quite made the list of human emotions with a squeaky clean image.

Most of us would remember that it is one of the seven deadly sins, which is not a great start. There is also the popular saying of how pride always comes before the downfall or destruction of a person — you may have read that in the Bible or heard it on the new JAY-Z and Beyoncé album.

Some would say this has to do with how feeling proud of oneself can easily overlap traits like arrogance and egoism. But is pride really so sinful? 

Probably not, according to a team of experts from the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) and the University of Montreal (UdeM) in Canada.

The study titled "Invariances in the architecture of pride across small-scale societies" was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on Aug. 1.

In the paper, the researchers argued pride serves an evolutionary purpose for human beings by leading us to do valuable things for each other.

"People evolved to have a selfish streak, but they also needed a contrary pull toward acts that would make others value them in a world without soup kitchens, police, hospitals or insurance," said lead author Daniel Sznycer, an assistant professor of psychology at UdeM. "The feeling of pride is an internal reward that draws us towards such acts."

In other words, we really enjoy the feeling of approval from others. So prior to any action we perform, we tend to estimate the amount of approval it would trigger in the minds of the people around us.

Study co-author John Tooby, a professor of anthropology at UCSB, highlights how it all leads to a precise quantitative prediction. Estimating pride in advance can provide useful information to "seduce" people into making choices that benefit their individual self as well as those around them.

This would make pride more of a win-win rather than a sin, Sznycer added.

So is this motivational system, in fact, universal and a part of our biology? To find out, the researchers examined data from ten small-scale societies in Central and South America, Africa and Asia.

Despite cultural variation in terms of religion, language, and occupations, the researchers observed "an extraordinarily close match" in the intensities of pride people anticipated before specific acts and how positively all the communities perceived these acts.

So what exactly is the reason behind pride having this two-edged reputation in our world? The researchers have a simple way of putting it: the pride system carries as much power to exploit others as it does to benefit them.

"When people become intoxicated with how valuable they are to others — or how dangerous — they feel they can safely take advantage of this to exploit people," said Tooby, who believed these are the people whom we refer to as prima donnas, alphas, and narcissists. 

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