October 27, 2008
Americans like a little cockiness. We implicitly know that you've got to act like a winner to be a winner; you've got to fake it to make it. In our market-driven worldview, we tend to think that we're all pretty much worth what we say we're worth. Anyone who's ever been on a date or worked in retail knows that a little bravado can go a long way. I'm not talking about tacky post-touchdown victory dances, but more on the level of self-assured pride and confidence. Think Gary Cooper.
But we also know that excessive bragging can simply be a cover for deeper insecurities. How many times have you chalked up a colleague's arrogance to feelings of inferiority? We have names for people with too much pride: snobbish, pompous, stuck-up. And though it's their superiority that annoys us, we often suspect that these very people are overcompensating for their internal doubts and sense of inadequacy.
Psychologists have generally studied pride as it relates to individuals. Recent research has even identified two types of pride: authentic and hubristic. Both are predicated on achievement, but the former tends to focus on the effort an individual took to succeed, the latter on his innate qualities. In other words, someone who is authentically proud will tend to say calmly that he won because he practiced a lot, while the hubristically proud will shout that he won because he's just plain fantastic.
Right now we're assaulted with charges and countercharges about a certain kind of pride -- the red, white and blue nationalistic variety. Who and where are the most patriotic Americans, and how can you tell? To answer the question, it should help you to know that the categories of authentic and hubristic pride apply to groups as well as individuals.
Last Thursday at the annual meeting of the Society of Experimental Social Psychology in Sacramento, UC Davis psychologist Cynthia Pickett presented findings from a series of studies that couldn't have been released at a more appropriate moment. Not surprisingly, she and her co-investigators found that displays of hubristic group pride "might actually be a sign of group insecurity as opposed to a sign of strength."
Before you jump to any conclusions, let me first say that Pickett and her colleagues don't appear to be suspicious of the concept of national pride. Indeed, Pickett makes clear that collective pride can serve positive functions, not least of which are to promote group harmony and cohesion. Communicating collective pride can also help a nation attain greater power and influence. But these researchers have bolstered common sense: Group pride is always a double-edged sword.
In one study, 99 UC Davis undergraduates were asked to recall a group achievement, how they felt and the level of threat, security and competition they thought their group was experiencing at the time. What was revealed was a direct correlation between feelings of insecurity and hubristic pride. In other words, the more people felt that their group was doing poorly or was vulnerable to threats from other groups, the more hubristic pride they experienced when they recalled a group achievement. You could use words like "defensive" and "compensatory" to describe it.
But perhaps the most compelling of the studies surveyed 98 UC Davis undergraduates about their feelings toward their football team's 20-17 upset over Stanford a few years ago. After having the students read an article about the game, they were asked what they thought contributed to the win; was it effort, ability or luck? What the researchers found was that the students who thought the victory was just plain luck were more likely to have hubristic pride than the students who thought the win was because of hard work. The "luck" group's pompous pride was a mask for real doubts that the Aggies could beat the Cardinal again any time soon.
Clearly, these studies shed some light on all the loose-lipped campaign rhetoric about who and what parts of the country are more patriotic than the rest. They suggest that not all pride is good, and they raise the question of whether hubristic pride is actually counterproductive. After all, if flag-waving braggadocio is no more than a mask for deep doubts about the viability of your "side," it just makes sense to put down Old Glory and stop shouting. That's the only way you're going to be able to engage in the hard work, sacrifice and practice you need for authentic achievement and authentic pride.
May the real patriots win.
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