Humble People Are More Helpful

Helping others means sacrificing your time and energy. But if you're humble, you don't mind.

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Michael Blann

If a stranger asked for your help, how likely are you to jump in, regardless of how busy you are or how much your Good Samaritan act will interrupt your day?


Turns out that if you’re a humble person, you’re more likely to help. In the latest research on helping behavior, scientists found that humility is a major factor in determining whether you go out of your way to come to the aid of others, regardless of time and social pressures.


That might not seem so surprising — after all, humble people are not egotistical or selfish, and therefore might be more inclined to pitch in. But humility is one of the first personality traits to be linked to helping behavior, and that’s significant because personality traits are broad and far-reaching contributors to behavior, and tend to take precedence over other factors, such as time and social pressures. If you’re late for work and you drive pass an elderly person on the side of the road with a flat tire, you’re not likely to stop and help, for example. Previous studies have found that another personality, agreeableness, may also contribute to Good Samaritan acts, but in the new study, humility appears to have a stronger influence on helping behavior.


Most studies on helping have focused not on personality traits per se, such as extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism and openness, but on cognitive and emotional levers that can pull us either toward or away from helping others. These include empathy, a sense of personal responsibility, as well as a sense of social obligation in which we feel pressured to act in order to maintain our status and respect in a community. If you and your boss are walking by a homeless person and she drops a dollar into his cup, for instance, you might feel more pressure to do the same. Linking a personality trait such as humility to helping means that regardless of these factors, humble people are more likely to give aid. “This study demonstrates that there are personal qualities that alter whether people are more or less likely to help somebody in need,” says the study’s lead author Jordan LaBouff, a psychologist at the University of Maine.


How do we define humility? Even the experts aren’t in complete agreement, but, says LaBouff, humility is generally about how we view ourselves. “The definition we used includes things such as a low self-focus, so you spend less time and energy on yourself, an intellectual openness and a relatively accurate view of your strengths and weaknesses,” he says. Things we normally associated with humility, such as modesty, shyness and even conservative dress are more outward manifestations of humility, but humility itself isn’t necessarily visible. “If I spend some time around somebody, I can tell whether or not they are fairly modest,” he says. “But I couldn’t tell you whether they were humble. Humility is an inner quality.”


In the study, LaBouff and his colleagues measured humility in two ways — by asking a group of college students to rate themselves on a series of questions such as ‘Some people would say that I have an over-inflated ego,’ and ‘I am an ordinary person who is no better than others,’ as well as by asking students to associate words depicting humility and arrogance to either themselves or to others. The students were also asked to respond to a helping scenario in which a fellow student had broken her leg and could not attend class, so needed their help in providing and discussing class notes. The students who recorded high scores on humility were more likely to lend their time to help the student than those who scored lower.


“There seems to be growing evidence indicating that humility is a good thing,” says LaBouff. “We just have to figure out how it’s generated — why do people feel humble — and see if it can be manipulated to help people experience more humility.” Whether or not that will be possible — in other words, teaching people to be more humble — remains to be seen, but LaBouff’s results are at least encouraging. Some people, it seems, can’t help but to help others, and for them, that behavior may be more of an instinctive act rather than a calculated one.  Which is what most acts of kindness should be.