My research focuses primarily on the “self-conscious” emotions of pride, shame, guilt, and embarrassment. These emotions are central to a wide range of fundamental social processes and behaviors, yet have been largely neglected by both the emotion and self literatures. One of the major goals of my work is to redress this gap. New findings suggest that self-conscious emotions fit well within evolutionary models of emotions, and that understanding the adaptive functions and phylogenetic history of these emotions may address broader questions about the evolution of self and social status. My research on self-conscious emotions is largely organized around four fundamental questions:
(1) How are self-conscious emotions expressed?
In one of the seminal findings in the social and behavioral sciences, a small set of six “basic” emotions were shown to have discrete, universally recognized nonverbal expressions (Ekman, Sorenson, & Friesen, 1969). By supporting Darwin’s claim that these emotions evolved through natural selection, and implying that emotions have reliably observable components, these findings changed the way that scientists across disciplines viewed emotions. Much of my work has aimed toward demonstrating that universal nonverbal expressions exist for at least several of the self-conscious emotions, as well. Specifically, I have demonstrated that individuals can reliably recognize a prototypical pride nonverbal expression (Tracy & Robins, 2003; 2004; 2007), that recognition for pride generalizes to young children (Tracy, Robins, & Lagattuta, 2005) and adolescents with autistic spectrum disorders (Tracy, Robins, Schriber, & Solomon, 2011), that recognition for pride and shame generalizes across cultures, including a highly isolated, preliterate small-scale society (Tracy & Robins, 2008), and that pride, shame, and embarrassment expressions are recognized through an automatic cognitive process (Tracy & Robins, 2008). I also found that the pride and shame expressions are spontaneously displayed across cultures in response to the same success and failure situations, and this holds across sighted, blind, and congenitally blind individuals (Tracy & Matsumoto, 2008). Together, these findings provide strong support for the claim that pride and shame displays are likely to be universal and innate. In ongoing research, I am addressing several other questions regarding the pride, shame, and embarrassment nonverbal expressions, such as how they function in daily life, how they originated in evolutionary history, and what the benefits and costs of displaying them are likely to be. This includes a growing body of research on the social functions of pride displays, which, we have found, function to signal high status implicitly and across cultures, and to guide social learning (Martens & Tracy, in press; Shariff & Tracy, 2009; Shariff, Tracy, & Markusoff, 2012; Tracy, Shariff, Zhao, & Henrich, 2013).
2) What is the psychological structure of self-conscious emotions?
This research examines the ways in which people experience and conceptualize these emotions. Based on studies analyzing the conceptual and experiential structure of pride, I found that there are two distinct facets of pride, which we labeled “authentic” and “hubristic” (Tracy & Robins, 2007). In recent and ongoing research, my students and I are examining the distinct behavioral, social, and personality correlates and effects of these two facets (Ashton-James & Tracy, 2012; Tracy, Cheng, Robins, & Trzesniewski, 2009), and whether they generalize to other cultures. We have also written several theoretical reviews on how the experience and regulation of pride and shame can result in narcissism (e.g., Tracy, Cheng, Martens, & Robins, 2011); in recent related work, we found that narcissists show heightened activity of two stress hormones in the face of everyday distresses (Cheng, Tracy, & Miller, 2013).
(3) What are the cognitive processes that elicit self-conscious emotions?
Several years ago, I developed a theoretical process model outlining the cognitive antecedents of shame, guilt, pride, and embarrassment (Tracy & Robins, 2004). Since developing this model, I have conducted studies testing a number of its predictions; results have demonstrated differences in the causal attributions that lead to guilt vs. shame, and to authentic vs. hubristic pride (Tracy & Robins, 2006; Tracy & Robins, 2007). More recently, I extended this model to propose a novel account of the role of self-conscious emotions and causal attributions in recovery from alcoholism. This model forms the basis of a major ongoing project studying the emotional lives of recovering alcoholics, funded by the Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research and the Canadian Institute for Health Research (see here for more information). Studies published thus far in this vein demonstrate that nonverbal displays of shame strongly predict relapse and poor health among recovering alcoholics (Randles & Tracy, in press), and that narrating addiction-related events in redemptive terms can promote better recovery (Dunlop & Tracy, 2013).
(4) What are the evolved functions of self-conscious emotions?
Directly addressing this question is a primary focus of my current and future work, and a number of my ongoing projects are shaped by this aim. For example, in work led by former PhD student Joey Cheng and colleague Joe Henrich, we have examined how the two facets of pride may have separately evolved to promote two different forms of status: Dominance and Prestige (Cheng, Tracy, & Henrich, 2010; Cheng, Tracy, Foulsham, Kingstone, & Henrich, 2013; Cheng & Tracy, 2013). With former student Azim Shariff and current PhD students Aaron Weidman and Zak Witkower, I am examining the evolved functions of the pride nonverbal expression. Several recent theoretical papers present our attempts to deal with these broad issues (Martens, Tracy, & Shariff, 2012; Shariff & Tracy, 2011; Tracy, Shariff, & Cheng, 2010; Weidman, Tracy, & Elliot, in press).
In recent years, my research has moved from an emphasis on self-conscious emotions to other related topics, including: the study of social status and hierarchy, understanding the emotional underpinnings of morality, the nonverbal communication of social rank, the measurement of distinct emotion subjective feelings, trends in psychological science, and the development of a taxonomy of positive emotions.