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
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
May the real patriots win.