Chapter 12: Pride – A Positive Self-Conscious Emotion

Physiological Changes

Kreibig (2010) reviewed five studies that investigated the physiological changes caused by authentic pride. Table 5 displays the eliciting events and resulting physiological changes for these studies. We cannot draw definitive conclusions because we have so few studies. But, based on these findings we might conclude that pride causes activation of the SNS system, because skin conductance increased. But, the study on experimenter praise (Herrald & Tomaka, 2002) found that cardiac PEP was not shortened, suggesting the SNS system was not activated. The only indicator we have on PNS is a study that elicited pride with film clips and found that heart-rate variability did not change, suggesting the PNS is not activated (Gruber et al., 2008).

Table 5
Physiological Changes Caused by Authentic Pride

A table showing how pride was elicited in the study, and the physiological changes that followed.
How Pride was Elicited in Study Physiological Changes
Film Clips Increased HR, Increased SCR, 0 HRV
Recall Pride Experience Increased SCR
Experimenter Praise Increased HR, 0 Cardiac PEP

Adapted from “Autonomic nervous system activity in emotion: A review,” by S.D. Kreibig, 2010, Biological Psychology84(3), p. 407 ( Copyright 2010 by Elsevier B.V.

Two studies investigated the brain structures activated for pride experiences. In the first study (Roth et al., 2014), participants completed three conditions in which guilt/shame, pride, and neutral emotions were elicited. To elicit each emotion, participants were asked to recall a time between 3 weeks and 6 months ago that they felt ashamed/guilty, a time they felt pride, and for the neutral condition were asked to simply wait. The procedures are displayed in Figure 15 below. Participants watched a screen and were given a cue that indicated which of the three conditions to think about. During the task step, participants were either thinking about the emotion episode or waiting in the neutral condition. Then, participants viewed a neutral IAPS image to help their physiology return to baseline. In the fourth step, baseline measures were taken prior to starting one of the three conditions. During these four steps, an fMRI machine is measuring brain activation. Table 6 displays the findings. In this study, the two emotion conditions versus the neutral condition showed greater activation in several structures. The authors note that a possible emotion network might be the amygdala, insula, and ventral striatum. This emotion network may simply be activated when we experience any emotion. The MPFC and the PCC are activated when we think about and evaluate the self and thus would be activated for negative and positive self-conscious emotions. Pride showed more activation than shame in five different structures, but we do not yet know what these findings suggest.

Figure 15
Example of Trials from Roth et al. (2014)
Emotions: Guilt / Shame, Pride, and Neutral expectation diagrams. Each has a cue, task, distractor, and baseline text boxes, containing unique elements to each emotion.
Reproduced from “Brain activation associated with pride and shame,” by L. Roth, T. Kaffenberger, U. Herwig, and A.B. Brühl, 2014, Neuropsychobiology, 69(2), p. 96 ( Open Access, Zurich Open Repository and Archive, University of Zurich.

Table 6
Summary of Roth et al. (2014) Findings

A table comparing pride versus shame and guilt
Comparison Findings
Pride and Shame/Guilt (vs. Neutral)
  • Amygdala, insula, ventral striatum
  • Medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC) and posterior cingulate cortex (PCC)

  • Left superior and medial frontal gyrus (FG)
  • Cingulate gyrus
  • PCC
  • Caudate
  • Thalamus
Shame/Guilt (vs. Pride)
  • None

Adapted from “Brain activation associated with pride and shame,” by L. Roth, T. Kaffenberger, U. Herwig, and A.B. Brühl, 2014, Neuropsychobiology, 69(2), p. 98-101 ( Open Access, Zurich Open Repository and Archive, University of Zurich.


A second study explored brain activation during a pride and joy emotion (Takashashi et al., 2008). While in an fMRI machine, participants read sentences meant to elicit joy, pride, and neutral emotions. After reading each sentence, participants self-reported the pride and joy they felt. Findings are displayed in Table 7. Pride resulted in more activation in the TOM structure the posterior superior temporal sulcus (pSTS) compared to both the neutral and joy conditions. But, another TOM structure, the MPFC, did not show more activation in the pride vs. neutral or joy sentences (Note: that the MPFC was activated for self-conscious emotions in the prior study). Joy, compared to neutral conditions, resulted in more activation in the reward circuit (i.e., ventral striatum, nucleus accumbens), the ACC, and the insula. These structures were suggested to be part of an emotional network in the prior Roth et al. (2014) study. Interestingly, self-reported pride was positively correlated with pSTS activation and self-reported joy was positively correlated with activation in the ventral striatum.

Table 7
Summary of Takashashi et al. (2008) Findings

A table comparing pride versus joy. (Neutral)
Comparison Findings
Pride (vs. Neutral)
  • Right posterior superior temporal sulcus, left temporal lobe
  • No activation for MPFC
Joy (vs. Neutral)
  • Ventral Striatum, nucleus accumbens, ACC, insula/operculum
Pride (vs. Joy)
  • Right posterior superior temporal sulcus (pSTS)

Adapted from “Brain activations during judgments of positive self-conscious emotion and positive basic emotion: pride and joy,” by H. Takahashi, M. Matsuura, M. Koeda, N. Yahata, T. Suhara, T., M. Kato, M., and Y. Okubo (2008). Cerebral Cortex, 18(4), p. 900 ( Copyright 2007 by The Author.


Overall, studies on brain activation and self-conscious emotions suggests that brain structures that control theory of mind become activated during positive and negative self-conscious emotional experiences. These TOM structures include the posterior superior temporal sulcus (pSTS) and the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC). It does seem that the MPFC might be activated more so in negative self-conscious emotions than positive. Second, a hedonic emotional processing network seems to include structures such as the ventral striatum, nucleus, accumbens, and insula. This network might control the processing of hedonic emotions – either positive or negative.


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