Jessica Tracy; photo credit Kristin Laurin
Jessica Tracy ’96; photo by Kristin Laurin

Nonfiction Review

Take Pride: Why the Deadliest Sin Holds the Secret to Human Success, by Jessica Tracy ’96 (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Pride and curiosity,” Montaigne wrote, “are the two scourges of our souls. The latter prompts us to poke our noses into everything, and the former forbids us to leave anything unresolved.”

Curiosity is amply rewarded in reading Take Pride: Why the Deadliest Sin Holds the Secret to Human Success (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) by Jessica Tracy ’96. I was fascinated to learn what short shrift modern scientific psychology has given to that curious emotion, pride.

Tracy, a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia, reminds us that between the publication of Charles Darwin’s Expression of Emotions in Humans and Animals in 1872 and the emergence of the field of affective science in the 1980s, the study of emotions, moods, preferences, attitudes, value and stress was mostly the stuff of the belle lettres, not laboratory experiments.

Take Pride book cover
Even the list of the big six emotions—anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness and surprise—was settled (more or less) only in the last 30 years. (Alert viewers of last year’s charming animation Inside Out will recall that only five emotions were cast in that film. No surprise.) As Darwin predicted a century ago, scientists proved, by anthropological testing, that these common emotions are universal among all human beings.

It also remained to be proven that the so-called “self-conscious emotions”—pride, shame and guilt—were the same among all of us. Unlike other feelings, pride is not expressed in the face; it’s a whole-body emotion. Picture Rocky standing at the top of the art museum steps. Daring, innovative psychologists had, quite literally, to look at people differently in order to see these emotions.

Tracy was one of those pioneers. In Take Pride, she (modestly) downplays her role in this history. But she does relate in fascinating detail the clever experiments she and colleagues conducted to show that, for instance, pride is inborn in every human baby, not learned.

Pride is natural, but Tracy is quick to avoid the fallacy that because pride is natural, it is good. Historically and theologically, pride has always been an enigma, an all-too-human failing that must be avoided, but also the cause, or the effect, of just about any self-confidence or self-esteem. Experiments have confirmed that pride is essential to a healthy sense of self.

Pride is all well and good when it’s warranted, and very bad when it’s not. Writing before the 2016 presidential election, Tracy could see in Donald J. Trump the bad sort of pride: “un-empathic, disagreeable and even aggressive,” “impulsive and unconscientious.”

I rather wish Tracy had boldly offered more than an adjectival distinction between authentic and hubristic pride. She might have blown the dust off a pair of ancient but not archaic ideas, such as magnanimity and vainglory.

Vainglory, as Tracy wrote of Trump and hubris, “makes people manipulative, hostile and willing to derogate others—particularly others who are easy targets. In fact, the arrogance and aggression that goes with hubristic pride might be exactly what is needed to motivate people to treat others as inferiors and to force the weak to do as they say.”

The other big surprise in Tracy’s research is that the bad sort of pride works. Call it overweening ambition or vanity, in a leader it gets the job done. It seems a great-souled captain makes the crew happy, but keeping things shipshape calls for an Ahab. This melancholy research result rings sadly true.

If you take care to keep your capability of being in uncertainties, without any irritable reaching after moral absolutes, Take Pride has much to tempt a curious reader. The thrust of Tracy’s argument comes to this: feel free to feel proud, when you have done something admirable—but be lowly wise. If you truly have reason to puff up your chest, you will have, of course, no need to brag.

Paul Statt ’78 is a Philadelphia-based writer.