Pride is a weakness

The Philosopher Developer

February 04, 2017

I remember one day in college, a friend came into the commons area of the dorm where I lived and asked me and some other friends if his purple velour shirt made him seem less masculine. A couple of guys gave him a hard time, making fun of him for wearing such a shirt. I don’t think they actually cared about his shirt; it was more the asking, and the insecurity that suggested, that they were teasing him about.

We often think of pride as a good thing. It certainly has its benefits. The notion of having pride in one’s work leads many people to do better than they would if they didn’t care. But my mother always said, “Pride cometh before a fall.” Even as we celebrate pride, in the backs of our minds we know that it can be a weakness too.

To clarify: by “pride” I am referring to the psychological need to be recognized. I believe it is an overloaded term, so I know that when we speak of pride that isn’t necessarily what we’re always talking about. But this is what was on display when my college friend gave away his desire to be seen as masculine. More generally it is the driving force behind many behaviors that I feel are ultimately self-defeating.

In negotiating terms, pride presents a huge opportunity to a shrewd adversary. In a negotiation, perfectly rational actors seek to make some form of exchange where each side gets something they want. In an adversarial scenario, each side aims to get more than they give, potentially by misleading the other side or by leveraging some bargaining advantage. If one side is overly proud, it may be possible to offer them something of little or no value, which strokes their ego, in exchange for something of actual value.

Hypothetical example: suppose the kings of two warring kingdoms meet to negotiate a truce. There is some disputed territory that both sides want, but one is extremely proud and the other is simply cunning. The cunning king might propose, “My armies will lay down their arms and surrender, declaring your side to have won the war. In exchange we get the disputed territory, but you get to declare victory.”

This is an unlikely scenario–the proud king would have to be really dumb (or really weak) to agree to such a deal–but it illustrates the point. In war negotiations, declaring “victory” on its own means nothing. It may ostensibly send a signal of strength, but in fact it is little more than peacock feathers. And importantly, in the real world negotations are seldom so simple that it is obvious who played whom1. The cunning kings of the real world make sneak attacks through the soft belly of pride that may be difficult to detect.

My point is to be very skeptical of those who spend a great deal of their time and energy towards being perceived as strong. Real strength and the declaration of strength are not the same thing. More often, they are opposites.

  1. I admit that I am being cynical here. I actually do not subscribe to the idea that every negotiation is zero sum. Ideally, in many cases, negotations benefit both sides and it is not productive to scrutinize their asymmetry too closely. Nonetheless, I think it would be naive to suppose that people aren’t taking advantage of one another on a pretty regular basis.