What are feelings for?

Our foraging ancestors lived or died depending on how much other people in their social group valued them, because that affected other people’s willingness to render help. In deciding how to act, they needed to balance the direct payoff of an action against its social consequences. Does the human mind have mechanisms that are good at estimating these social consequences–and are these estimates delivered to decision-making systems in the form of feelings, such as pride and shame? That is, does the intensity of these feelings have an adaptive function for decision-making?

The advertisement-recalibration theory of pride

Pride has been called a deadly sin, which leads to excessive self-importance, narcissism, and a willingness to exert dominance over others. But does pride have an upside–with these negative consequences resulting when the pride system is poorly calibrated or malfunctioning?

According to the advertisement-recalibration theory of pride, the felt intensity of pride has an adaptive function: It is an internal signal that motivates you to pursue otherwise costly actions that are valued by others in your social group. If so, then the intensity of this feeling should closely track the extent to which others would value or respect you more if you were to pursue a given course of action. We tested this and other predictions of the theory in 16 nations across 4 continents (Europe, Asia, North America, and Australia) and in 10 small-scale (non-WEIRD) societies in Central and South America, Africa, and Asia.

Sznycer, D., Al-Shawaf, L., Bereby-Meyer, Y., Curry, O. S., Smet, D. D., Ermer, E., … Others. (2017). Cross-cultural regularities in the cognitive architecture of pride. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA114(8), 1874–1879.

Sznycer, D., Xygalatas, D., Alami, S., An, X.-F., Ananyeva, K. I., Fukushima, S., … Others. (2018). Invariances in the architecture of pride across small-scale societiesProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA115(33), 8322–8327. 

For brief accounts, see Andrea Estrada’s UCSB press releases: Pride–Sin or Incentive? (2017) and The Value of Pride (2018).

Pride as a computational system

Pride occurs in every known culture, appears early in development, is reliably triggered by achievements and formidability, and causes a characteristic display that is recognized everywhere. Contrary to folk theories of emotion, pride is more than a feeling state. It is a neurocomputational system that orchestrates many systems regulating cognition and behavior. Why did it evolve?

In the papers above, we review evidence from many researchers that converges on a specific hypothesis about the design and adaptive function of the computational system that regulates pride. In this view, the pride system evolved to orchestrate cognition and behavior in ways that:

1. motivate the cost-effective pursuit of actions that would increase the extent to which others value and respect you;

2. motivate you to advertise acts or characteristics that, if recognized by others, are likely to enhance the value they place on your welfare; and

3. mobilize you to take advantage of the resulting enhanced social landscape.

Pride following success organizes cognition and behavior in ways that promote the second and third goals. But what about the first? We have been testing the hypothesis that anticipated pride also has an adaptive function: It is a social pricing signal, which helps you decide which value-promoting acts are worth the effort. It regulates actions that might change estimates of your value in the minds of others.

This feature of the pride system gives the people around you a vote in what behavior you end up choosing. It increases your motivation to pursue activities they value–which gives them an ongoing stake in your continued welfare..

On becoming valuable to others

Becoming valuable to fellow group members so that you would attract assistance in times of need was a major adaptive problem for our group-living, foraging ancestors. Solving this problem requires cognitive machinery that produces an accurate predictive map of the degree to which others value actions you might take and skills you might develop.

Do people have a detailed map of what members of their community value socially? We created dozens of short scenarios that described actions or traits that a person might exhibit. When asked how negatively or positively they would evaluate the characters in these scenarios, we found high consensus between people within a culture–and often between cultures as well.

Accurate estimates of how positively others evaluate different actions can inform decisions about which are worth pursuing. Accurate estimates would allow your decision-making systems to balance the social payoffs arising from how much the people around you value a course of action (e.g., demonstrating your hunting skill to bandmates by pursuing a hard-to-acquire animal) against its direct payoffs (e.g., the energetic costs of pursuit and the calories you gain from the animal). These estimates can also regulate motivations to invest time and effort cultivating specific skills: those that are valued by the people around you.

These estimates should be available to decision making systems, but how might these estimates be represented? The feeling of pride is a good candidate. Feelings of pride have a characteristic quality different from, say, shame (i.e., distinct qualia). And the intensity of the feeling can represent estimates of how much more others would value you for having made that decision.

If anticipated pride is a social pricing signal, the intensity of pride you feel when contemplating a course of action should reflect the degree to which pursuing it would lead others to value or respect you more–that is, the degree to which their minds would recalibrate the weight they put on your welfare. In this view, the felt intensity of pride is data in a format that can be read by decision systems: It represents your mind’s estimate of the increase in your social value that would result from taking the action contemplated.

The Goldilocks Principle–The intensity of pride needs to be “just right”

A central prediction of the the advertisement–recalibration theory is that the intensity of the feeling of pride will track the magnitude of audience evaluations incrementally and closely. This calibration is necessary if the intensity of the internal signal (anticipatory pride) is used prospectively to (i) compute whether the benefit of enhanced audience valuation or respect outweighs the cost of engaging in a given act, and (ii) decide whether the likely net payoff of a candidate act makes it worth pursuing.

Too weak. When contemplating a course of action, an internal pride signal that is too weak would lead to maladaptive choices. “Too weak” means that it underestimates how much more others would value you if you pursued the candidate action. The consequences? The course of action may be abandoned, or pursued insufficiently, or, if achieved, under-advertised.

“Advertising” an achievement need not imply bragging. The internal pride signal may motivate you to share your success with friends, who then spread the word. Spontaneous nonverbal displays also advertise achievement: The common pride expression following success–head tilted back, smile, arms raised, chest expanded–is found even in congenitally blind athletes.

These consequences carry opportunity costs. You might invest too little in actions that would greatly increase how much others value you. Under-advertising an achievement also entails a loss: If the audience had more complete knowledge, the increase in how much they value you would have been greater.

Too strong. A pride signal that is too strong yields diminishing or even negative returns: You will pursue socially beneficial courses of action in excess of their actual return. Moreover, audiences are designed to resist and devalue people whose sense of entitlement exceeds their actual social value.

Just right. To avoid these errors, the pride system should estimate the magnitude of valuation that a given act or trait causes among local audiences, and calibrate the intensity of its internal signal in proportion to those estimates. Anticipated pride should have this same property because decisions about what to do must be made before you can get feedback on how people will react to your decision. For these reasons, pride feelings should forecast, and track in intensity, the magnitude with which other people will recalibrate their evaluation of you if you pursued a given course of action or display a given trait.

Pride is sometimes referred to as a self-focused emotion. But the analysis above suggests that a well-designed pride system will be coupled to the evaluative psychology of others.

Empirical tests across 16 nations and 10 small-scale societies

To test these predictions, we created dozens of scenarios, which portrayed a character’s behaviors or traits in a wide range of evolutionarily important domains, such as social exchange, skills, aggressive contests, mating, parenting, and leadership. In each country, one group of subjects rated how positively they would evaluate the character described in each scenario. As predicted, there was great consensus in these audience evaluation ratings: People agreed on how valuation-enhancing these situations were relative to one another. In fact, the average ratings from each country were highly correlated with those from the other 15 countries, suggesting that some behaviors and traits tap universal social values.

A separate group of subjects in each country reported how much pride they would feel if they were the character in each scenario. Again, there was great consensus in how much pride they anticipated feeling in one scenario relative to the others, both within countries and between them.

For the intensity of anticipated pride to be useful in decision making, it must be well-calibrated–that is, the feeling intensity a person experiences needs to accurately reflect audience evaluations. It did. Anticipated pride and audience evaluations were highly correlated within each culture. This is what you would expect if the intensity of pride people anticipate feeling is based on accurate estimates of how positively an audience would evaluate someone who exhibited those traits or behaviors.

Consistent with the view that some behaviors and traits tap universal social values, audience evaluations in each country were highly correlated with anticipated pride ratings in the other 15 countries. These results replicated in a separate study conducted in 10 small-scale societies that are not “WEIRD” (WEIRD: Western Educated, Industrialized, and Democratic).

Do audience evaluations predict all positive emotions?

Like pride, feelings of excitement, happiness, and amusement are positively-valenced and arousing–and they sometimes co-activate with pride. To see whether the close relationship between feeling intensity and audience evaluations is specific to pride, we conducted a second study in which separate groups of subjects rated the intensity of pride, excitement, happiness, or amusement they anticipated feeling in each scenario. This was done in India and the US.

Pride tracked audience valuation, and it did so better than happiness, excitement, and amusement did. Pride was correlated with happiness and excitement in the US and India, and audience evaluations were consistently correlated with pride and happiness in both countries. But when all four emotions were simultaneously regressed on the audience evaluations, pride was the only emotion that uniquely predicted valuation in both countries. That is, the intensity of felt pride consistently predicted audience evaluation ratings, even when the analysis controlled for intensity of happiness, excitement, and amusement.

Universal versus culturally specific valuation

The function of anticipated pride is to guide decisions based on how they would influence audience evaluations locally. So we conducted another follow-up study in the US and India, which also included scenarios that should be positively evaluated in India but not the US, and vice versa. As predicted, pride tracked the valuations of foreign audiences only when foreign and local audience evaluations agreed. When evaluations in India and the US disagreed, the relationship between pride and foreign valuation dissolved.

Personality disorders and psychopathology

We have not studied disorders of the pride system. But the analysis above suggests interesting directions.

In principle, every computational system can malfunction, become disordered by drugs or toxins, or develop in an atypical fashion due to an unusual developmental environment or genetic “noise“.

An intriguing possibility is that narcissism is caused by a malfunctioning pride system–one that over-estimates the value that others put on your traits and actions. Over-estimating how much members of your community value and respect you will lead you to expect more deference from people than they are willing to give. Colloquially, you will be acting “too big for your britches“: To others, you will appear “overconfident in your importance, skill, or authority, behaving as if you are more important or influential than you actually are“. When people do not defer to you as much as you think you deserve, you may become angry–an emotion that causes you to bargain for better treatment by withdrawing cooperation from others or threatening them with aggression. See Mercadante & Tracy, 2022 for an interesting discussion and experiments on the relationship between “hubristic” pride, narcissism, and strategic dishonesty in response to status threats.

A malfunction that results in under-estimating the value others put on your traits may result in social anxiety, overly-submissive behavior patterns, or even social phobia.

There are, of course, non-pathological reasons why anticipated pride might be poorly calibrated to the valuation of local audiences. A straightforward one is moving to a new culture or community. For situations in which social valuations differ in the prior and current communities, a pride system calibrated to the prior community will be mis-calibrated for the current one. With experience, a properly functioning pride system will eventually become calibrated to the new circumstances.

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