Foolish False Pride: Creativity and Wisdom from My Mother

organesuitEvery family has sayings that stick with them forever. Some of these seem common to a lot of families: “If Johnny jumped off a bridge, would you jump, too?” Or, “If you can’t say anything nice about someone, don’t say anything at all.”

In my family, one of my mother’s classic sayings had to do with “foolish false pride.” It started on a day we were camping and rain was coming down in a teeming downpour. For reasons I don’t remember, it was important that one of my brothers (who shall remain nameless) go to a nearby campsite. My mother suggested that he wear her fluorescent orange waterproof suit to do so. Like most elementary school boys, he thought he’d rather die that trek across the campground in bright orange suit—his mother’s suit no less—and he objected strenuously. But my mother prevailed.  Without the suit he would be drenched in seconds, so she insisted he forget his “foolish false pride” and wear the suit. I can still see his stooped figure as a dim orange shape, barely visible through the rain.

I’m not sure to this day whether she was wise to insist on the suit—depending on the depth of my brother’s embarrassment, water may have been less damaging than humiliation—but the phrase became a family classic. And it turns out that as far as creativity is concerned, my mother may have been on to something. Real pride, and hubris—what my mother would deem “foolish false pride”—may affect creativity differently.

Researchers Damian and Robins investigated the relationships between what they labeled “authentic pride” and “hubristic pride” and both creativity and intrinsic motivation. Authentic pride was defined as pride in an accomplishment. Students may take authentic pride in a well-written paper, a creatively-organized yearbook, or a successful concert. Hubristic pride was based in a global sense of self–individuals were proud of their overall intelligence, talent, or other attributes. While authentic pride typically was attributed to specific causes (“I practiced really hard and only made one mistake in the concert”), hubristic pride was more global (“I am such a good musician I never make mistakes”). Damian and Robins  found that authentic pride, but not hubristic pride, was correlated with creativity and intrinsic motivation. Hubristic pride was not correlated to creativity, though it was related to extrinsic motivation in some complicated ways. It seems creativity may be most associated with pride in achievement, not pride in who we are.

What does this mean to teachers and parents? We can add creativity to the list of reasons that it is more helpful to praise young people’s efforts and specific accomplishments (“Your hard work on the revisions really paid off. The description of walking through the woods was so scary!”) rather than more global statements about them as people (“You are so smart” or “You are always such a good writer.”)

No mother can be right about everything, but it seems mine was right in her opinions about “foolish false pride.” Pride that is not based in accomplishments is not as likely to predict creativity.  In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised to find that false–or at least hubristic–pride may make it harder to take risks, admit mistakes, and explore the many paths that make creativity possible.

Now, where was that orange suit?


Damian, R. I & Robins, R. W. (2012). Aristotle’s virtue or Dante’s deadliest sin? The influence of authentic and hubristic pride on creative achievement. Learning and Individual Differences. Available online June 12, 2012.

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