In the traditional Bardeen-Cooper-Schrieffer theory of superconductivity, the amplitude for the propagation of a pair of electrons with momentum k and -k has a log singularity as the temperature decreases. This so-called Cooper instability arises from the presence of an electron Fermi sea. It means that an attractive interaction, no matter how weak, will eventually lead to a pairing instability. However, in the pseudogap regime of the cuprate superconductors, where parts of the Fermi surface are destroyed, this log singularity is suppressed, raising the question of how pairing occurs in the absence of a Fermi sea. Here we report Hubbard model numerical results and the analysis of angular-resolved photoemission experiments on a cuprate superconductor. In contrast to the traditional theory, we find that in the pseudogap regime the pairing instability arises from an increase in the strength of the spin-fluctuation pairing interaction as the temperature decreases rather than the Cooper log instability.