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Written by Andrew Neff

March 2019

The Universality of Pride Expression

what research from the end of the world can tell us about how we communicate emotion


If, circumstances arose where we found ourselves in a predicament, say an unseen danger was lurking.  I, the more considerate of the group, call out to you, is everything okay over there? You, perhaps more concerned with the lurking danger than satisfying my need for concern-expression, and not wanting to give away your position, look back at me, arm raised, hand fisted, with an upward pointing thumb.  The gesture, the thumbs up, and it’s cousin the bird-flip, are examples of culture dependent expressions. You can’t bird-flip an isolated amazonian tribesmen or tribelady and expect your insult to properly land.

But both us bird-flippers and the uncomprehending Amazonians share something in common - millions of years of shared genetic and distant cultural ancestry.  As a result, there are some things we do, like bare our teeth in anger, or cry in sadness, that are universally recognized (Ekman, 1969).  Displays of hostility, pleas for help, it makes sense that the circuitry both to express, and to recognize these expressions are deeply embedded in our evolutionary neural architecture.  

But how about complex social phenomena?  How about things that seem just a bit too human for even chimps or gorillas or orangutans or those monkeys on planet earth that use rock tools to break open nuts?  Is the display and comprehension of complex social phenomena constant across distant, dis-connected, human cultures?


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The Experiment

Pride, now there’s a complex psycho-social state worth testing.  For pride to happen, there has to be some understanding of who you are, what you’ve accomplished, and what society values.  And for the expression of pride, a few slight postural adjustments “a small smile, head tilted slightly (approximately 20°) back, expanded posture, and arms akimbo with hands on hips.”  Just have a look at the picture, pride right?

With this image in hand, researchers got their yellow fever vaccines and set off to the remote village outposts of Burkina Faso, a land uncorrupted by 30-hashtag-posts and culture-by-listicle and Ariana Grande’s post-coital soreness.  There they met their translator, and through word of mouth, began recruiting non-english speaking (although french speaking), mud-hut living subsistence farmers. From this point, the experimental question was very simple. When farmers were shown pictures of people presenting pride, in what might have been a prototypical western way, would they, like us standard USA’s, also identify the expression as pride?  Lo and behold, 57% of these remote farmers correctly identified small smiles, head tilts, and akimbo arms as “pride”, or, fierté, which is pride.


This means that the way we express pride, we didn’t just pick it up from hollywood, it didn’t all stem from muscularly animated disney Frenchmen with a penchant for lady-wooing and enormous egg eating prowess.  To the human brain, pride looks a particular way, it always has, and if you want to signal your achievement of a socially sought-after goal to just about any human on the planet, this is how it’s done.


This is part of a series on reproducible psychological research.


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Either through actual genetic mutations, or a maybe unrealistically through a stable cultural transmission spanning thousands of generations, the way we express pride is static.  Dr. Tracy compellingly theorizes that this expressive crystallization was no accident. A stable and universally comprehensible pride-signal allows us an opportunity to identify better sexual partners.  People who are prideful are good for mating on account of their self-proclaimed goal-achievement. Without pride expression, it would be harder to identify those who are fit, and therefore, we’d never be able to evolve into the highly-tuned super-state we humans find ourselves in today.  If this is true, in a sense, the Gastons of the world, through their non-duchenne smiling and head tilting and general radiance of self-satisfaction, are trying to signal others that they’re worthy inseminators (1).  And lucky for them, should they aspire to a world insemination tour, no new expressions are necessary, they can go ahead and recycle their same tricks.


Next time

Human brains are expert pattern recognizers.  Humans minds, on the other hand, comparatively, not so great, amateurish.  But the brain has its limits too. Next in this series, the experiments trying to decipher the limitations of human pattern recognition.



  1. Which, some individuals, say Jewishmen, who may have been culturally or religiously programmed to exist in a tenuous balance between sarcasm and shame-expression, might just find a small bit enragingly unfair, on account of these individuals competitive disadvantage in the insemination competition.  But resentment another day.



  1. Ekman, P., Sorenson, E. R., & Friesen, W. V. (1969). Pan-cultural elements in facial displays of emotion. Science, 164(3875), 86-88.

  2. Mineka, Susan, and Arne Öhman. "Phobias and preparedness: The selective, automatic, and encapsulated nature of fear." Biological psychiatry 52.10 (2002): 927-937.

  3. Tracy, Jessica L., and Richard W. Robins. "The nonverbal expression of pride: evidence for cross-cultural recognition." Journal of personality and social psychology 94.3 (2008): 516.

  4. Tracy, Jessica L., et al. "Cross-cultural evidence that the nonverbal expression of pride is an automatic status signal." Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 142.1 (2013): 163.

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