Think, for a moment, about the last time you accomplished something big. How did you feel afterward? Did the achievement change the way you thought about yourself, or the way others see you?

If you’re like most people, you probably felt pride in your accomplishment. Others who learned about your success also probably admired you for it, and your social status may have risen a notch. Indeed, studies show that achievements bring feelings of pride along with increases in social status, and that pride and status are therefore closely related. People who have high social rank tend to feel pride often, whereas those lower in rank feel pride much less.

But what is the cause of this relationship? Do achievements promote both pride and social rank separately, or might feeling pride cause an increase in social rank? Or vice versa?

Perhaps feeling pride following success is reinforcing; pride is a pleasurable emotional experience that motivates people to continue working hard toward status-gaining future successes, with the goal of feeling that pleasurable emotion again. Yet it is also possible that an increase in social rank is a pride-worthy event itself, such that part of why you felt pride after that achievement was because you knew that it increased your status.

Two Kinds of Pride

To answer the chicken and egg question, we need to address the complexity of pride, which is not simply one thing. Instead, pride has two distinct facets, which we call authentic and hubristic. Authentic pride refers to feelings of confidence and fulfillment; this is the “bright side” of pride that makes you feel good about yourself and your accomplishments, but not necessarily superior to others. Hubristic pride, in contrast, refers to feelings of arrogance and egotism; it is the “dark side” of pride that is well known as one of Dante’s seven deadly sins, and is associated with antisocial behaviors like aggression and dishonesty.

And Two Kinds of Status

Interestingly, there are also two distinct ways of attaining status. Prestigious leaders get ahead by earning others’ respect and admiration, whereas dominant leaders forcibly take power, intimidating and threatening would-be followers to ensure they are in control.

We sought to determine the causal direction of the association between pride and social rank—to figure out which comes first—while taking into account the different types of pride and social status.

In the Fall, we asked university students to report their daily feelings of pride and their relative social rank among their peers, and then we asked them these same questions again the following Spring.

Our analyses showed it was a two-way street: both pride and social rank contribute to changes in the other. Students’ feelings of pride in the Fall led to increases in their status by the Spring, and, their status in the Fall led to increased pride experiences by Spring.

Furthermore, each kind of pride was linked in this two-way manner to one kind of social rank, but not the other. Students who reported high levels of authentic pride showed increases in prestige, whereas those who reported high levels of hubristic pride showed increases in dominance. Yet, authentic pride was not associated with any change in dominance, nor was hubristic pride associated with change in prestige. Likewise, individuals with high levels of prestige in the Fall showed increases in authentic but not hubristic pride by the Spring, whereas those who started the Fall high in dominance showed increases in hubristic but not authentic pride by Spring.

Thus, feelings of authentic pride may motivate individuals to work hard and develop important skills—behaviors that ultimately cause others to see them as prestigious. Correspondingly, feelings of hubristic pride may motivate individuals to arrogantly and aggressively take power; their sense of superiority may allow them to dominate others without fear of retaliation or concern about others’ well-being. At the same time, prestigious individuals who earn others’ respect and admiration likely feel authentic pride as a result, and dominant individuals who successfully intimidate others into falling in line are likely to respond with heightened hubristic pride.

The relationship between pride and social rank thus seems to be a feedback loop; pride promotes gains in status, which then lead to increased pride. Climbing the social ladder via dominance or prestige provides the emotional reward of pride, but pride is more than a reward; it is also the impetus underlying the next status gain.  

For Further Reading

Cheng, J. T., Tracy, J. L., & Henrich, J. (2010). Pride, personality, and the evolutionary foundations of human social status. Evolution and Human Behavior, 31(5), 334–347.

Tracy, J. L., Mercadante, E.J., Witkower, Z., & Cheng, J. T. (2020). The evolution of pride and social hierarchy. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 62, 51-114.

Witkower, Z., Mercadante, E. J., & Tracy, J. L. (2021). The chicken and egg of pride and social rank. Social Psychological and Personality Science.

Eric Mercadante is a PhD student studying Social/Personality Psychology at the University of British Columbia. He is interested in relationships between stable personality traits and emotional processes, specifically in the context of navigating social hierarchies.

Zak Witkower is a post-doctoral researcher in the Department of Psychology at the University of Toronto. He researches how facial, head, and body movements are used to communicate emotion, personality, and social rank.

Jessica Tracy is a Professor of Psychology at the University of British Columbia and a Sauder Distinguished Scholar. Her research focuses on emotions, self, and nonverbal behavior.