Pride is a conundrum: simultaneously evil and a blessing. While we encourage our children to take pleasure in hard-won successes, many consider pride the worst of the seven deadly sins.

Despite this intriguing duality, pride as an emotion has been largely unstudied by researchers, perhaps because it doesn't fit neatly into the category of "primary" emotions such as happiness, sadness and disgust, which have received the lion's share of attention. That may be changing thanks to University of California, Davis, psychologist Jessica Tracy, PhD.

She and colleague Rick Robins, PhD, have found evidence that there's a universal pride expression, recognized from the streets of Davis, Calif., to the savannahs of Burkina Faso, Africa. Her studies lend support to the idea that pride is a basic a human emotion that evolved to serve some social role.

"The evidence supports the idea that pride is something universal," says Tracy, who moves to a faculty position at the University of British Columbia this fall. "And that fits with the idea that pride is evolved. If you have an achievement or success, it's important that other people know about it. It says: 'I'm someone who shouldn't be rejected.'"

But although pride can serve a positive, productive purpose, Tracy's empirical work has found that it has a dark, destructive side too.

"Jessica has really pushed the area very far," says George Mason University psychologist June Tangney, PhD, who's conducted seminal work on shame and guilt. In particular, Tracy has used a broad array of research methods to develop measures of pride and demystify its different faces.

The pride expression

One of the difficulties with studying pride has been a lack of good measurements, says Tangney. Recently, Tracy has made strides in identifying the pride expression-an important first step because the field of emotion research has taken an expression-focused approach since the 1960s when Paul Ekman, PhD, and Carrol Izzard, PhD, identified universal facial expressions for the six primary emotions: happiness, surprise, sadness, fear, anger and disgust.

Emotions without their own unique facial expression have been largely dismissed as facets of these five primary emotions. In particular, researchers have argued that emotions such as pride, shame, guilt and embarrassment-known as the self-conscious emotions because they require social awareness-are culturally derived as opposed to the primary emotions, which seem to be hard-wired.

Although Tracy has not found a smile unique to pride, she has found what she thinks is a pride expression that includes the "happy" smile and a unique posture: The head tilts back, the chest puffs out and the hands rest on the hips or raise in the air. It's an expression that emotion researcher Michael Lewis, PhD, a distinguished professor at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, described in children who felt successful after finishing a task they'd been told was difficult to complete.

In a series of studies published in Psychological Science (Vol. 15, No. 3) and Emotion (Vol. 5, No. 3), Tracy and Robins show that people reliably label photos of this expression as pride and pick out the expression from among photos of other positive emotion expressions, such as happiness. Newer studies submitted for publication find that even children as young as four and people from an isolated, tribal culture in Burkina Faso, Africa, label the pride expression correctly just as often as they correctly identified the primary emotions such as surprise and sadness.

These findings are strong evidence that pride is universally recognized and likely evolved for some social purpose, such as maintaining an individual's status, says Tracy.

"The big issue here is, is it universal or is it culturally prescribed?" says Tangney. Tracy's work suggests that pride is the same across cultures, suggesting that it's part of humans' emotional equipment. Does that mean it's a "basic"emotion the way happiness or anger are? That depends on what criteria you use, she says.

Lewis argues that all the self-conscious emotions are basic. The biggest distinction between "primary" emotions, that are present in infancy and that have a hard-wired, universal facial expression and the self-conscious emotions that begin to develop at around 18 months, are that the latter require what he calls a "meta-representation" of the self.

A double-edged sword

The problem with these self-conscious emotions is that they're messy and difficult to study, says Lewis. In particular, they're difficult to elicit in people using standard techniques because one experience will draw out pride or guilt or embarrassment in some people but not others.

Both Lewis and Tangney independently developed theories describing two facets of pride-one productive and positive and the other linked to narcissism and the difficulties associated with it. They argue that people who experience the first type credit their behavior for a success while people who experience the second type credit themselves. It's the difference between saying "I played well because I practiced"and saying "I always play well because I'm great," says Lewis. The productive study of pride hinges on distinguishing the two, say the researchers.

Tracy has added weight to these proposals with some of the first empirical tests of the theory. In a series of studies submitted for publication, Tracy and her colleagues asked study participants to cluster pride-related words into groups. As expected, two distinct and relatively independent factors appeared. The "I played well" facet that Tracy calls achievement-oriented pride was associated with adaptive personality traits-measured with the Big Five Inventory-during pride experiences. The "I'm great" facet, which Tracy calls hubristic pride, was associated with negative personality traits.

"It looked like what you'd think of when you think of cocky and egotistical," says Tracy.

Interestingly, both types of pride seem to share the same expression, implying that they're facets of the same emotion rather than two distinct emotions, says Tracy.

So how could these self-conscious emotions, particularly the seemingly destructive one, fit into an evolutionary framework? It could be the case that achievement-oriented pride promotes a person's social status through long-term relationship-building while hubristic pride promotes status quickly by obtaining the admiration, if not the liking, of others.

In the words of Lewis: "Pride is good and hubris is sometimes necessary to get us through. Sometimes it's good to feel good about yourself. But, like anything when there's too much or too little, there's pathology on both ends."

Beth Azar is a writer in Portland, Ore.