One of the best predictors of success across all areas of life is the ability to delay gratification. As psychologist Walter Mischel showed in his now famous “Marshmallow Test,” children who were able to resist the urge for immediate pleasure prospered later in life academically, professionally, and socially compared to their more impulsive peers. In a similar vein, research with adults (including this 2004 study) has linked the ability to be future-oriented–to favor larger long-term gains over smaller immediate ones–to superior financial, work, and health outcomes. Put simply, a willingness to accept sacrifices in the moment–to work, practice, or otherwise persevere in the face of difficulties–is what drives productivity, innovation, and, thereby, prosperity. It’s a trait any manager should value among members of their team.
So where does pride fit in? While researchers long thought that all emotions inhibit self-control because they tip the mind toward valuing immediate pleasure, newer research suggests that certain emotions, including pride, do just the opposite: they nudge the mind to be more patient and future-oriented than it would otherwise be. Eddie Tong, leading a team of psychologists at the National University of Singapore, conducted an experiment forthcoming in the journal Emotion in which he asked his participants to make 27 different decisions that took the form of: “You could either have $X now, or $Y in Z days” (where Y was always greater than X, and Z varied over weeks to months). In many ways, this is an adult-friendly version of the marshmallow test. People have to decide between getting a smaller prize immediately or a greater one after some delay. Using this standard procedure, Tong estimated the degree to which participants devalued, or discounted, the future. For example, someone who was willing to accept $35 now rather $70 in a year showed a decided preference for immediate pleasure, as he or she would be forgoing the ability to double their money in a year’s time.
Tong and his team noted that participants demonstrated the usual human tendency to overvalue immediate gains. However, when they asked participants to recall a time when they felt proud about specific accomplishments, the pattern changed. Those who were feeling pride placed significantly greater value on future gains meaning that they were significantly more willing to accept costs in the moment in the service of greater rewards down the line.
Given this tendency to focus more on the future, we’d expect that people feeling pride would be willing show greater diligence at work as well. That is, they should show an increased willingness to persevere on difficult tasks in order to enhance their performance or reach long-term goals. In work I’ve published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology with University of New South Wales psychologist Lisa Williams, we put this prediction to the test.
In a series of experiments, we had our participants work on an initial set of demanding tasks. Some received feedback that made them proud of their initial performance while others received either no feedback at all or simply statistical information that attested to good performance but wasn’t accompanied by overt praise. We then asked them to work on a related difficult task for as long they liked.
What we indeed found was that pride led people to value the future. Participants who were feeling proud about their initial performance worked almost 50% longer on the second task. They were willing to persevere in the face of initial difficulty in order to use their skills to reach their goal. What’s more, this finding was pride-specific; it didn’t arise from people simply feeling good. As we showed in a second study where we placed some people in a good mood prior to having them work on a demanding task, levels of happiness weren’t associated with any increased effort. Yet, people in this second study who were induced to feel proud of their work again devoted more time and effort to solving challenging problems.
Taken together, these findings show that pride–like gratitude and compassion–build self-control and grit from the bottom-up. Rather than relying on the force of willpower to keep working diligently toward a long-term goal, pride can ease the way by automatically enhancing the perceived value of future rewards. The more desirable any future reward is, the less you have to convince yourself to keep working toward it.
Of course, pride doesn’t come without risks. Like any emotion, if it’s experienced in inappropriate contexts or to an extreme degree, it can be a problem. We know this problem by another name: hubris. When people are feeling superior over others in general–when that feeling isn’t based on actual skills or performance but rather on an overinflated ego–pride backfires and erases the effect on future orientation. As the forthcoming paper by Eddie Tong shows, hubristic people value immediate pleasure even more than people feeling no particular emotion. They’re impulsive and self-protective.
The trick, then, for any manager is to evoke their team members’ pride in ways that benefit everyone’s performance. To do this, you have to give specific, targeted praise on discrete, measurable tasks. Avoid vague, abstract praise like “You’re irreplaceable” or “You have a golden touch” which can create hubris and say things like, “The presentation you gave yesterday was spot on because you engaged the audience and convinced at least one senior leader to support the project.” Walking this line between specific and overarching praise is challenging but knowing how to use pride as a tool is a skill that will, in the long run, benefit any manager.