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Pride Goeth Before Cooperation

Israeli researchers report thinking about one's self-worth increases the likelihood you'll engage in cooperative behavior.
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Male Indian peacock on display. (Photo: Jebulon/Wikimedia Commons)

Male Indian peacock on display. (Photo: Jebulon/Wikimedia Commons)

How can we prompt people to act less selfishly and more cooperatively? The issue has long perplexed everyone from popes to policymakers. New research from Israel suggests such socially positive behavior can be boosted by a basic emotion: Pride.

Researchers led by psychologist Anna Dorfman of Ben Gurion University of the Negev report that, in a series of experiments, participants who thought about the concepts of pride and self-worth were more likely to behave in a way that reflected concern for the common good.

Other positive emotions did not have the same effect, they write in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

"Considering pride influences the individual’s behavior in a way that benefits the group."

Dorfman and her colleagues describe one experiment featuring 83 university students. To begin, most wrote a short essay about either “an event that, if happened, would make them feel pride and self-worth,” or one that would make them feel “joy and fun.” (A control group did not write about either.)

All then played a computer “fishing game,” in which they “caught” between 13 and 17 fish during each of 60 attempts. They were told that (a) a counterpart was fishing in the same lake at the same time, and (b) the fish population needed to stay about a certain level, “or all profits would be confiscated.”

Since they didn’t know how well their counterpart (which was actually a computer program) was doing, participants had no idea how low the fish count was getting. Faced with the dilemma of maximizing their own take vs. jeopardizing the entire project, they decided after every catch “how many fish they return to the lake, and how many fish they keep for personal profit.”

The key result: “Participants returned more fish to the lake (after) considering pride than joy,” the researchers report. Indeed, those who thought about joy threw no more fish back, on average, than those who wrote about neither topic.

A similar experiment duplicated those results, finding pride trumped feelings of “enjoyment” in encouraging cooperative behavior. In a final experiment, “participants rated the importance of returning fish to the lake as higher after considering pride” rather than enjoyment.

The results suggest that pride is a powerful positive emotion, one that can produce positive results for society. As Dorfman and her colleagues put it: “Considering pride influences the individual’s behavior in a way that benefits the group.”

That’s a potentially important piece of information. The researchers should be proud.