Humility: A Quiet, Underappreciated Strength

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Humility doesn’t top the list of popular virtues these days, but if you’re ever in need of help, a humble friend is more likely to be there for you than a prideful one, new research suggests.

Humbleness has also been linked with generosity. Studies find that the trait predicts charitable giving and generous behavior toward others in monetary games played in the lab. “Compassion is hard if you don’t have humility,” says psychologist Jordan LaBouff of the University of Maine.

What’s more, humble people tend to make better employees and bosses. But because the typical American workplace tends to reward self-promotion over humility, such modest types may have a tough time making it to the top.

Evolutionary theory suggests that humble people will be more helpful to the group because a trait that involves subsuming one’s own needs to those of others is only likely to be preserved in a species in which cooperation is necessary for survival. Humans, who are generally incapable of thriving or raising vulnerable children in the wild without help from others, are probably one such species.

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In a new study, published in the Journal of Positive Psychology, researchers led by LaBouff set about examining the evidence for the evolutionarily predicted connection between humility and helping. First, they had to define humility and measure it — not an easy task because genuine humility precludes self-advertising.

“For the purposes of the study we defined humility as being relatively down-to-earth and capable of understanding one’s own strengths and weaknesses appropriately, not underestimating or overestimating them,” says LaBouff. “It’s not this kind of down, meek, ‘I’m no good,’ low self-esteem feeling. It’s a more appropriate measure of their abilities.”

Researchers also framed humility as basically as the opposite of arrogance or narcissism, and used a questionnaire that measures these traits by gauging participants’ responses to statements such as “Some people would say I have an overinflated ego” or “I am an ordinary person who is no better than others.”

“I come to it from a psychology-of-religion background,” says LaBouff. “There’s a call in every major world religion to help those in need and also a call for humility, and so I was interested in: if [people were] less self-focused, might [they] be more likely to help?”

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In the first experiment, 117 college students were surveyed online in return for course credit. In addition to the researchers’ humility test, they also took personality tests and reported on their engagement in various volunteer and altruistic activities. The researchers found that of all the personality traits measured, humility was the most strongly linked with helpfulness. Being an extrovert but also being conscientious was also associated with increased altruistic behavior.

Of course, relying on self reports to measure helpfulness and humility is problematic because arrogant people may try to appear humble, while humble people may downplay themselves — and everyone might try to make themselves look better by reporting more good works than they actually do. “If I ask people whether they’re humble and they say yes, that’s tricky to interpret,” LaBouff says.

To counter this bias, in another study researchers measured humility by using an implicit association test (IAT), which measures people’s unconscious attitudes by examining their reaction time in certain word tasks. For example, a person might take longer to categorize scientific or mathematical words as being related to women than to men — suggesting that the person has unconscious sexist leanings. Similarly, if you unconsciously consider yourself as being humble, you would be more likely to react faster in connecting words linked to humility with yourself than with someone else.

Researchers administered the IAT to another 95 students and found that those who rated high on implicit humility were also willing to give 43% more time to help a student in need, compared with those who scored low on humbleness. Overall, humility explained about 10% of the variability in helping behavior, LaBouff says, noting that this is a large effect given all the factors that go into choosing whether or not to help at any particular time.

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In the researchers’ final experiment, they examined whether peer pressure affected participants’ willingness to help. In this study, 103 students listened to a purported campus radio broadcast about a woman whose parents and sister had died in a car accident and who was having difficulty staying in college while supporting her remaining siblings.

The students were given a sign-up sheet, which they were told had already been filled out by seven prior participants; the student was to be the eighth and final volunteer on the schedule to help. For half the students, the form showed that five of the previous seven participants had volunteered, making it seem as though “everyone else was doing it” and that it would be seen as socially unacceptable not to help. In the other group, only two students had apparently signed up.

The question was, Would social pressure affect students’ decisions? The answer became apparent in the low-pressure condition: 77% of those who rated highest on implicit humility volunteered their time when no one else did, compared with 48% of those rated lowest. When there was social pressure to help, however, implicit humility didn’t affect the percent of people who volunteered.

“Americans overwhelmingly say that they value humility. They want their friends to be humble and they say they want to be humble, but expressions of it tend to be rare,” LaBouff says.

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Indeed, in a culture that increasingly rewards self-promotion and essentially punishes those who refuse to engage in it, humility seems endangered. Yet LaBouff cites earlier research suggesting that humble people tend to outperform egoists, if they rise in organizational hierarchies. One recent study, which surveyed CEOs and middle managers across a range of areas, from the military to health care, found that humility was a highly important component of effective leadership.

However, displaying humility was a double-edged sword for anyone who wasn’t an older white man. When youth, women or minorities humbly admitted errors or gave credit to others, their competence was called into question. White men, in contrast, were rewarded for owning up and praising the efforts of underlings.

A larger follow-up study of nearly 1,000 workers (around 200 of whom were in leadership roles) found that organizations with humble leaders had more engaged employees and less voluntary turnover. Unfortunately, however, La Bouff notes that because humility isn’t recognized or prized, humble people have a harder time moving up.

QUIZ: Are You and Extrovert or an Introvert?

Maia Szalavitz is a health writer for Find her on Twitter at @maiasz. You can also continue the discussion on TIME Healthland‘s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIMEHealthland.