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People Show Their Pride in Recognizable Ways

March 10, 2004

Photo: woman smiling with her hands on her hips and her chest expanded

In the second of two expressions for pride, the person shows a small smile, the head is slightly tilted and the chest expanded. (UC Davis Department of Psychology/courtesy photo)

Two UC Davis psychology researchers have found that the emotion of pride has its own distinct facial expression and body language, adding it to the short list of recognizable human emotions that have been scientifically identified.

In the March issue of Psychological Science, doctoral student Jessica Tracy and Professor Richard Robins report three experiments showing that pride has a nonverbal expression that can be distinguished from other positive emotions such as happiness and excitement.

People exhibiting pride show a small smile, tilt their head slightly back, visibly expand their posture and either raise their arms above their head or put their hands on their hips, Tracy and Robins report.

In the varied experiments, photos were created from people posing emotional expressions, including possible expressions of pride, and participants were asked to match these photos to specific emotion labels, to identify them with labels of their own choosing and to determine those associated with pride.

The UC Davis finding adds pride to a small group of emotions that have distinct, recognizable expressions. These include anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, surprise and possibly contempt and embarrassment.

"This finding challenges the assumption that all positive emotions share the same nonverbal expression," Tracy and Robins write.

They believe that the pride expression might be a form of nonverbal communication that evolved in humans so that, after a success, an individual might boost his or her social status within the group by conveying the success to others. Tracy and Robins also speculate the expanded posture in the expression creates the impression of largeness, conveying dominance, and the slight head tilt may allow the individual to gaze above the crowd, conveying superiority.

Although other research on emotions has focused on facial expressions alone, this finding shows that the expression of emotion goes beyond the face. "Pride recognition was significantly reduced when the expression was restricted to the head and shoulders, and was not greater than chance when the expression was restricted to the face," the two researchers write.

On the other hand, when subjects looked at body posture alone without the facial expressions, they did not recognize the expression as pride.

Pride is an important emotion that plays a critical role for people, reinforcing pro-social behaviors, such as caregiving and achievement, Tracy and Robins say. "In fact, pride is the emotion (along with shame) that gives self-esteem its affective kick," they write.

Feelings of pride may boost self-esteem, alerting the individual that he or she is valued by others. When people express their pride, they are drawing attention and alerting their social group that they merit increased acceptance and status, say Tracy and Robins.

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