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.
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, in press; Tracy, Cheng, Robins, & Trzesniewski, 2009), and whether they generalize to other cultures.
(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.
(4) What are the evolved functions of self-conscious emotions?
Directly addressing this question is the primary focus of my current and future work, and a number of my ongoing projects are shaped by this aim. For example, PhD student Joey Cheng and colleague Joe Henrich, I am examining how the two facets of pride may have separately evolved to promote two different forms of status: Dominance and Prestige (Cheng, Tracy, & Henrich, 2010). With lab graduate Azim Shariff and current PhD students Jason Martens and Conor Steckler, 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, in press; Shariff & Tracy, 2011; Tracy, Shariff, & Cheng, 2010)
Trends in Psychological Science
In addition to my work on emotions, I also have a separate line of work examining trends in psychological science and the psychology of science. This research began with an empirical study of historical trends of prominence of the major schools of psychological thought (Tracy, Robins, & Gosling, 2003), and more recently involved a study examining the practice of psychological science (e.g., methods, approaches) as conducted by social and personality researchers (Tracy, Robins, & Sherman, 2009; 2009; 2012). Complementing my interest in the science of psychology, I have also become interested in the psychology—or motivational underpinnings—of science, and scientific beliefs and attitudes. My student Jason Martens and I, with my collaborator Josh Hart (Union College), conducted a series of studies examining the psychological motivations that influence the understanding of scientific ideas, and found that existential anxieties promote belief in intelligent design theory and antagonism toward evolutionary theory (Tracy, Hart, & Martens, 2011). Jason and I are currently designing several studies that will continue this line of work, addressing such questions as whether evolution is implicitly associated with existential concerns, and how such associations might be reversed with reminders that evolutionary theory can provide a sense of transcendent meaning.