It's a familiar sight at sporting events, and it recently reared its head on the campaign trail. A healthy pride in a group we belong to or identify with — be it a football team, an ethnic identity or a political party — morphs into an aggressive nastiness. Rooting for the home team turns into taunting the opposing players; a commitment to one candidate inspires cries that his opponent is a terrorist.
How and why does this shift occur?
According to new research by a group of psychologists at the University of California, Davis, the answer seems to lie at the intersection of intensity and insecurity. Lead researcher Cynthia Pickett presented their findings Thursday at the annual meeting of the Society for Experimental Social Psychology.
"There is a reason this is happening now," she said of the jeers and sneers expressed at recent rallies for Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin. "Our results suggest that hubristic, pompous displays of group pride might actually be a sign of group insecurity as opposed to a sign of strength. As the poll numbers become discouraging, that's going to raise those feelings of vulnerability and insecurity."
Pickett, who studies social identity and inter-group relations, based this latest research on the work of two colleagues, Richard Robbins and Jessica Tracy. In earlier research, they distinguished between two types of pride experienced by individuals, which they labeled "authentic" and "hubristic."
"Authentic pride is a more humble form; it tends to occur when people consider their achievement a reflection of the effort or hard work they put into a project," Pickett explained. They tend to say things like, ‘I'm glad we were able to work hard and achieve this outcome.' Hubristic pride tends to be cocky, conceited, pompous or self-aggrandizing.
"There are some people who tend to be more prone to one form of pride than another, but certain situations can trigger one form of pride or another. We wanted to determine whether that distinction holds when we're talking about collective pride."
Pickett describes collective pride as "a feeling you get when you are thinking of yourself as a group member, and considering a group achievement. What's interesting about collective emotions is that often you have people who aren't directly involved (in the incident or activity), but they experience the emotion almost as strongly as the people who are actually involved."
Anyone who has ever been to a sports bar is familiar with the concept.
"There is a disinhibition factor when you know others are sharing your emotions," she added. "You'll say ‘We're the greatest,' and the person next to you will respond, ‘Hell yes, we're the greatest.' This has a reinforcing effect. It makes you more prone to say these things."
This dynamic applies to negative as well as positive emotions, something Pickett and her colleagues examined in their latest research. "Our first goal was to determine whether we could empirically distinguish between collective authentic pride and collective hubristic pride," she said. "The second was to ask: What are the conditions that tend to lead to people to feel one form of pride vs. the other?"
In the first of a series of three studies, the researchers took a group of 99 undergraduates and asked them "to think about a time when, as a group member, they felt proud. We then had them write about the details. We wanted to get them back in that time, mentally and emotionally.
"Right after that, they filled out the ‘pride ratings.' They were given a series of words related to hubristic pride, such as smug and arrogant, and a series of words related to authentic pride, such as confident and fulfilled."
The participants then answered some simple questions about the group in question, including how much respect it receives from the greater society. The results: "The less-valued people think the group is, the more hubristic pride they report."
"We also asked: At the time the event occurred, was the group feeling threatened or vulnerable? People who reported it was tended to experience more hubristic pride."
In other words, hubristic pride tends to be evoked by the belief one's group deserves to be highly valued by others, combined with either the belief it is not valued, or the perception it is vulnerable or under threat.
The second and third studies confirmed these results. The second featured a group of Asian-American students, who were asked to specifically focus on a time they felt proud of their ethnic group. The third asked another group of UC Davis undergrads to all contemplate a specific event — a football game in which the Davis Aggies unexpectedly beat the higher-ranked Cardinal from Stanford University.
Among the football fans, they found that those who attributed the win to effort and/or the players' abilities tended to feel authentic pride. Those who considered the outcome a matter of luck were more likely to feel hubristic pride.
"The key factor is a feeling of security," Pickett said. "If our team works hard or has a really good kicker, that's something that will probably stay the same. But if the victory was due to just luck, that makes our group position vulnerable, and the defensive response kicks in."
It is fair to assume hard-core conservatives are feeling insecure at the moment, as they read polls suggesting their philosophy of government will be rejected by a majority of voters in the coming election. Pickett's research suggests this feeling of vulnerability, combined with a strong conviction that their ideas are worthy of being valued, leads to the displays of hubristic pride that have become prominent on television news and YouTube.
"It's a way of coping with the news they're getting that they're not going to win," she said.
She adds this dynamic also can be seen on an international level. Pickett noted that Russians have, for a number of years, expressed the feeling that nation — which is no longer the superpower of Soviet days — has not been given the respect it deserves by the Western powers. Given their combination of vulnerability and pride, is it any surprise that their attitude toward the West has been marked by belligerence?
"These defensive emotions get in the way of progress (when negotiating treaties or other agreements)," Pickett said. By understanding how they are triggered, "You can say things that put your negotiating partner in a non-defensive position, by expressing your respect or reinforcing the fact you hold a positive view of their nation."
That is not to say Pickett excuses thuggishness, whether it occurs in the form of military action or mob anger.
"Some of these coping mechanisms are very damaging," she said, noting that individuals who are feeling wounded or vulnerable have the option of dealing with those unpleasant feelings rather than reflexively lashing out at others. "I think people are still responsible for their own behavior."