Blog Archives

Loud and proud: A psychological (and personal) look at the ‘Sin of Pride’

A number of years ago, I was asked to write an article on “The Sin of Pride” for the British Psychological Society. Before writing that article, I knew very little about the topic. To me it was the title of an record album by The Undertones that I bought in 1983 when I was 16 years old from Castle Records in Loughborough. I perhaps learned a bit more about it when I watched 1995 film Sevendirected by David Fincher and starring Brad Pitt (which coincidentally just happens to be one of my all-time favourite films).

After agreeing to write the article I did a bit of research on the subject (which admittedly meant I did a quick Google search followed by a more considered in-depth search on Google Scholar). While I’m no expert on the topic I can at least have a decent pub conversation about it if anyone is prepared to listen. Just to show my complete ignorance, I wasn’t even aware that the sin of pride was the sin of all sins (although I could in a pub quiz be relied upon to name the seven deadly sins).

I was asked to write on this topic because I was seen as someone who is very proud of the work that I do (and for the record, I am). However, I have often realized that just because I am proud of things that I have done in my academic career it doesn’t necessarily mean others think in the same way. In fact, on some occasions I have been quite taken aback by others’ reactions to things that I have done for which I feel justifiably proud (but more of that later).

At a very basic level, the sin of pride is rooted in a preoccupation with the self. However, in psychological terms, pride has been defined by Dr. Michael Lewis and colleagues in the International Journal of Behavioral Development as “a pleasant, sometimes exhilarating, emotion that results from a positive self-evaluation” and has been described by Dr. Jessica Tracy and her colleagues (in the journal Emotion) as one the three ‘self-conscious’ emotions known to have recognizable expressions (shame and embarrassment being the other two). From my reading of the psychological literature, it could perhaps be argued that pride has been regarded as having a more positive than negative quality, and (according to a paper in the Journal of Economic Psychology by my PhD supervisors – Professor Paul Webley and Professor Stephen Lea) is usually associated with achievement, high self-esteem and positive self-image – all of which are fundamental to my own thinking. My reading on the topic has also led to the conclusion that pride is sometimes viewed as an ‘intellectual’ or secondary emotion. In practical (and psychological) terms, sin is either a high sense of one’s personal status or ego, or the specific mostly positive emotion that is a product of praise or independent self-reflection.

One of the most useful distinctions can be made about sin (and is rooted in my own personal experience), is what Lea and Webley distinguish as ‘proper pride’ and ‘false pride’. They claim that:

“Proper pride is pride in genuine achievements (or genuine good qualities) that are genuinely one’s own. False pride is pride in what is not an achievement, or not admirable, or does not properly belong to oneself. Proper pride is associated with the desirable property of self-esteem; false pride with vanity or conceit. Proper pride is associated with persistence, endurance and doggedness; false pride with stubbornness, obstinacy and pig-headedness.”

As I noted above, there have been times when I have been immensely proud of doing something only for friends and colleagues to be appalled. ‘Proper pride’ as Lea and Webley would argue. One notable instance was when I wrote a full-page article for The Sun on ‘internet addiction’ published in August 1997. I originally wanted to be a journalist before I became a psychologist, and my journalist friends had always said that to get a full-page ‘by line’ in the biggest selling newspaper in the UK was a real achievement. I was immensely proud – apart from the headline that a sub-editor had dubbed my piece ‘The Internuts’ – and showed the article to whoever was around.

Screen Shot 2016-05-09 at 15.27.58Screen Shot 2016-05-09 at 15.37.07

I had always passionately argued (and still do) that I want my research to be disseminated and read by as many people as possible. What was better than getting my work published in an outlet with (at the time) 10 million readers? My elation was short-lived. One close colleague and friend was very disparaging and asked how I could stoop so low as to “write for the bloody Sun?” Similar comments came from other colleagues and I have to admit that I was put off writing for the national tabloids for a number of years. (However, I am now back writing regularly for the national dailies and am strong enough to defend myself against the detractors).

In 2006, I was invited to the House of Commons by the ex-Leader of the Conservative Party, Iain Duncan-Smith and invited to Chair his Centre For Social Justice Working Party on Gambling and write a report as part of the Conservative Party’s ‘Breakdown Britain’ initiative. Anyone who knows me will attest that my political leanings are left of centre and that I working with the Conservatives on this issue was not something I did without a lot of consideration. I came to the conclusion that gambling was indeed a political issue (rather than a party political issue) and if the Conservative Party saw this as an important issue, I felt duty bound to help given my research experience in the area. I spent a number of months working closely with Iain Duncan-Smith’s office and when the report was published I was again very proud of my achievement.

However, as soon as the report came out I received disbelieving and/or snide emails asking how I could have “worked with the Conservatives”. I have spent years trying to put the psychosocial impact of gambling on the political agenda. If I am offered further opportunities by those with political clout, I won’t think twice about taking them. I am still immensely proud of such actions despite what others may think.

Pride is ultimately a subjective experience and the two personal experiences that I outlined above will not put me off doing what I want to do. I shall continue to engage in activities where I think my work can have an impact and shall work with (and write for) those that can help me disseminate my research findings to as many people as possible.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Averill, J.R. (1991). Intellectual emotions. In: C.D. Spielberger, I.G. Sarason, Z. Kulesar & G.L. van Heck (Eds.), Stress and Emotion: Anger, Anxiety and Curiosity [Vol. 14] pp.3-16. New York: Hemisphere.

Griffiths, M.D. (1997). The internuts (internet addiction). The Sun, August 13, p.6.

Griffiths, M.D. (2007). Gambling addiction in the UK. In K. Gyngell (Ed.), Breakdown Britain: Ending the Costs of Social Breakdown (pp.393-426). London: Social Justice Policy Group.

Kemper, T.D. (1987). How many emotions are there? Wedding the social and autonomic components. American Journal of Sociology, 93, 263-289.

Lawler, E.J. (1992). Affective attachments to nested groups: A choice-process theory. American Sociological Review, 57, 327-339.

Lea, S.E.G. & Webley, P. (1997). Pride in economic psychology. Journal of Economic Psychology, 18, 323-340.

Lewis, M., Takai-Kawakami, K., Kawakami, K., & Sullivan, M. W. (2010). Cultural differences in emotional responses to success and failure. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 34, 53-61

Tracy, J.L., Robins, R.W. & Schriber, R.A. (2009). Development of a FACS-verified set of basic and self-conscious emotion expressions. Emotion, 9, 554-559.

Extremes of dreams (so it seems): The psychology of ‘Vanilla Sky’

Regular readers of my blog will know that when it comes to certain films and television shows (and their accompanying DVD box sets) I can be somewhat obsessive and fanatical (for instance see, my blog on my love of all things concerning Hannibal Lecter). I’m one of those individuals that will watch some films again and again looking for further insight and deeper meanings (such as Memento, The Usual Suspects, Donnie Darko, Inception, Shutter Island, Seven, and The Shining). One of the films I have watched many times is Cameron Crowe’s psychological thriller Vanilla Sky (starring Tom Cruise, Kurt Russell, Cameron Diaz and Penélope Cruz), a remake of the Spanish film Abre los Ojos (Open Your Eyes).

One of the reason I like the film is that it prominently features the concept of lucid dreaming. I’d never heard of lucid dreaming until 1988. I was doing my PhD at the University of Exeter at the time and one of my best friends (Robert Rooksby) was doing his PhD on lucid dreaming. As the Wikipedia entry on lucid dreaming notes:

“A lucid dream is any dream in which one is aware that one is dreaming. In relation to this phenomenon, Greek philosopher Aristotle observed: ‘often when one is asleep, there is something in consciousness which declares that what then presents itself is but a dream’…The person most widely acknowledged as having coined the term is Dutch psychiatrist and writer Frederik (Willem) van Eeden…In a lucid dream, the dreamer has greater chances to exert some degree of control over their participation within the dream or be able to manipulate their imaginary experiences in the dream environment…Lucid dreams can be realistic and vivid. It is shown that there are higher amounts of beta-1 frequency band (13–19 Hz) brain wave activity experienced by lucid dreamers, hence there is an increased amount of activity in the parietal lobes making lucid dreaming a conscious process”.

Much like the films of David Lynch (one of my favourite film directors), Vanilla Sky is a film forces you to think about what is going on and is one of those films that you can come to your own conclusions as to what it all means. As a psychologist, I love films that play with the mind and Vanilla Sky is one of those films, particularly as psychology in the form of dreams, subjective reality, and the unconscious lie at the heart of the film. The director Cameron Crowe added many obscure clues and hidden references throughout the film to help viewers further explain the film and to add more layers.  There are dozens of dedicated websites that have compiled lists of theories, messages and/or hidden clues. In the film’s production notes, Crowe later admitted: “We constructed the movie, visually and story-wise, to reveal more and more the closer you look at it. As deep as you want to go with it, my desire was for the movie to meet you there”. That alone is enough of a hook to get me watching repeatedly.

Another aspect of the film that I love is the perfect use of music. Almost every lyric of every song used throughout the movie interweaves seamlessly between the actors, the in-scene narrative, and the developing story line. The songs are expertly chosen. This is no surprise given that Crowe was formerly a music journalist and a contributing editor at Rolling Stone magazine. Like me, Crowe is a huge fan of The Beatles, and referred to the “clues” in Vanilla Sky as his own version of the ‘Paul McCartney is Dead’ rumour that swept the world in 1969 (i.e., the notorious Beatles hoax when fans worldwide became convinced through song lyrics, sonic tricks, and album art that Paul McCartney had died and was replaced by a look-alike). As Crowe commented: “Divorcing it from whether Paul was really dead or not, that was a really great parlour game: searching for clues, the excitement of different layers, some of them chilling, some of them really funny. It was a great model for us [on Vanilla Sky]”. One of the homages to The Beatles in the film concerns their song Revolution 9. The film contains countless references to the number (or time) 9:09 (on Aames’ wristwatch, a child’s shirt, the prison chalkboard, and multiple references to cats who, has myth has it, have nine lives).

I’m assuming that anyone that has read this far has seen the film (but if you haven’t – spoiler alert – some of what I’m about to write will likely reduce the enjoyment of watching the film for the first time). The thrust of the plot is as follows:

“From a prison cell where he has been charged for murder, David Aames (Tom Cruise, in a prosthetic mask, tells his life story to court psychologist Dr. Curtis McCabe (Kurt Russell). In flashback, David [who is acrophobic with an irrational fear of heights] is shown to be the wealthy owner of a large publishing firm in New York City which he inherited from his father, leaving its regular duties to his father’s trusted associates. As David enjoys the bachelor lifestyle, he is introduced to Sofia Serrano (Penélope Cruz) by his best friend and author Brian Shelby [who is writing a book on Aames] at a party. David and Sofia spend a night together talking, and fall in love. When David’s former lover, Julianna “Julie” Gianni (Cameron Diaz) hears of Sofia, she attempts to kill herself and David in a car crash. Julie dies but David survives, his face grotesquely disfigured, leading him to wear a mask to hide the injuries. With no hope to use plastic surgery to repair the damage, David cannot come to grips with the idea of wearing the mask for the rest of his life. One night on a night out with Sofia…David gets hopelessly drunk, and [is left by Sophia] to wallow in the street outside” (Wikipedia entry on Vanilla Sky)

It is generally accepted that everything from this point in the film is a dream (although others say the whole film is a dream). Rather than live out the rest of his life in a disfigured state, Aames has his body cryogenically frozen by a company called Life Extension after attempting suicide. He lives the rest of his life as a lucid dream from the moment he was found on the pavement after his drunken night out (“under the ‘vanilla sky’ from a Monet painting”). However, during cryogenic sleep, the lucid dream goes horribly wrong and starts to incorporate elements from his subconscious. After 150 years in suspended sleep, the company that placed Aames into cryogenic suspension calls in ‘Tech Support’ and Aames is offered a choice to either be reinserted into a corrected lucid dream, or to wake up by taking a leap of faith – literally – from the top of a high roof (that forces him to challenge his fear of heights).

Conquering his final fear, David jumps off the building, his life flashing before his eyes, and whites out immediately before hitting the ground. A female voice commands him to ‘open your eyes’ (a recurring theme in the movie), and the film ends with David opening his eyes” (Wikipedia entry on Vanilla Sky).

Many different websites examining the film claim there are five interpretations of the film’s ending (and this is supported by Crowe himself). The five interpretations (taken verbatim from the Wikipedia entry on the film) are:

  • “Tech support is telling the truth: 150 years have passed since Aames killed himself and subsequent events form a lucid dream.
  • The entire film is a dream, evidenced by the sticker on Aames’ car that reads “2/30/01” (February 30 does not occur in the Gregorian Calendar).
  • The events following the crash form a dream that occurs while Aames is in a coma.
  • The entire film is the plot of the book that Brian [Shelby, his best friend] is writing.
  • The entire film after the crash is a hallucination caused by the drugs that were administered during Aames’ reconstructive surgery”.

(I’m most persuaded by the first interpretation). What I also love about the film is that Crowe added lots of little details that take a few viewings of the film before they are usually spotted. All of these help in both trying to interpret the film, as well as becoming a game where repeated watching becomes more rewarding. For instance:

  • In the first scene in which Julianna appears, the tune ringing on her cell phone is Row Row Row Your Boat that features the lyric “life is but a dream”.
  • At his birthday party, Aames is asked how it’s going to which he responds “Livin’ the dream, baby…livin’ the dream”.
  • At the same party, Aames’ best friend Brian Shelby comes into the second apartment wears a t-shirt with the words “fantasy” in sparkly sequins.
  • In one of the prison scenes, the word ‘DREAM’ is spelt out backwards on a chalkboard.
  • In the prison cell, the book, Memories, Dreams, and Reflections (by Carl Jung) is on the table while Aames is talking to his psychiatrist Dr. McCabe. The book concerns Jung’s personal dreams and how they helped uncover his “shadow” and removed his persona (his ‘mask’). In fact one critique of the film by Carlo Cavagna described the whole film as “overtly Jungian”. More specifically, he asserted that Vanilla Sky is fundamentally about the relationship between the ego and the unconscious, and practically a primer on the most fundamental concepts found in any Jungian glossary…For Jung, the unconscious includes desires repressed by our education and socialization, but there is more ‘psychic material that lies below the threshold of consciousness’. The unconscious is the foundation on which the conscious mind is based”.
  • On Aames’ prison uniform the name tag says “Frozen Guy”.
  • His patient number on his Life Extension cryogenic tank says “PL515NT 4R51MS” (which if the numbers are replaced with their corresponding letters of the alphabet, it almost spells “Pleasant Dreams”).
  • As Aames is getting his prison photograph taken, the slate spells ‘When did the dream become a nightmare?’ (in simple code).
  • Sofia calls Aames a “pleasure delayer” twice in the film (but says it so subtly that it’s hard to hear properly).
  • When Aames and Sophia are lying in bed after making love, Sophia asks “Is this is a dream?” and Aames replied “absolutely”.
  • At one point in the film, Dr. McCabe tells Aames that he’d had a nightmare the day before.  Aames replies that “It’s all a nightmare”.

I said earlier in the article that I thought the songs were perfectly chosen. Many fans of the film have noted that the lyrics repeatedly appear to match the emotion of the scene where it is played. As the Uncool website notes:

“For example, the song that plays over David leaving Sophia’s in the morning is Jeff Buckley’s, ‘Last Goodbye’…that morning was there last one true goodbye. Yes, they see each other after this, but after the car wreck when both of their lives are forever changed. ‘Last Goodbye’ also contains the lyrics: ‘Kiss me, please kiss me, but kiss me out of desire, babe not consolation’ which follows David’s plight rather well (as the next time he sees her is after the accident and he wants her affections but not sympathy for his disfigurement)…Bruce Springsteen’s ‘The River’ album (featured in the closing montage) also has some lyrical significance. One of the best lines from the song ‘The River’ is: “Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true, or is it something worse?” Also, two R.E.M. songs are featured. Don’t forget what R.E.M. stands for. Rapid eye movement. As in a state of sleep. It’s when you dream”.

It doesn’t take a psychologist to work out that I simply love the level of detail that went into making the film. I am not a great fan of psychodynamic (psychoanalytic) interpretation, but in Vanilla Sky, the mask that Aames wore became his ‘persona’ and the term was used by Carl Jung to describe the face that we as individuals present to society and (in some cases) to ourselves. Carlo Cavagna argues that:

“[Aames] attraction to [Sophie] is irresistible because she is his anima, his archetypal dream lover, the personification of the feminine nature in his own unconscious. Jung posited that all men carry an ideal image of woman in their heads and unconsciously project that image onto “the person of the beloved…David’s disfigured face, which he sometimes hides with his mask, represents his shadow. For Jung, the shadow is the inferior part of the personality, the sum of all personal and collective psychic elements that, because of their incompatibility with the chosen conscious attitude, are denied expression in life and therefore coalesce into a relatively autonomous “splinter personality” in the unconscious. Despite the negative connotations of the word ‘shadow’, Jung meant it to encompass all those qualities that are suppressed, both positive and negative. ‘The shadow personifies everything that the subject refuses to acknowledge about himself and yet is always thrusting itself upon him directly or indirectly’… [Aames] reality is subjective, and his shadow is breaking through into consciousness. This is the source of the film’s main conflict. In discussing dream therapy and the difficulty of processing and assimilating the unconscious, Jung wrote that several negative outcomes are possible – eccentricity, infantilism, paranoia, schizophrenia, or regression (the restoration of the persona). The revelation and assimilation of David’s unconscious is essentially the story of Vanilla Sky”.

Although there are many critics who hated the film, I love it on many different levels (including the underlying psychology).

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Cavagna, C. (2001, December). Vanilla Sky. Located at: http://www.aboutfilm.com/movies/v/vanillasky.htm

Jung, C.G. (1961). Memories, Dreams, Reflections. New York: Vantage.

Kummer, R. (2010). “What is happiness to you?” Vanilla Sky (2001) Film Analysis. Located at: http://rkummer.hubpages.com/hub/What-is-happiness-to-you-Vanilla-Sky-2001-Film-Analysis

Rooksby, R. and Terwee, Sybe J.S. (1990). Freud, van Eeden and lucid dreaming. Lucidity Letter, 9(2), 18–28. Located at: http://www.sawka.com/spiritwatch/freudvan.htm

Turner, R. (2014). Vanilla Sky movie review: Beyond lucid dreams. Located at: http://www.world-of-lucid-dreaming.com/vanilla-sky-review.html

The Uncool (2015). Vanilla Sky secrets. Located at: http://www.theuncool.com/films/vanilla-sky/vanilla-sky-secrets

Wikipedia (2015). Vanilla Sky. Located at: https://en.wikipedia.org/?title=Vanilla_Sky