There’s been much debate about the “cheerleader effect,” the idea that men are wired to attract desirable mates by showing off in silly ways. The effect may not really exist, but either way, men might get better results by trying a different approach: New research suggests that both men and women prefer humble partners.

The studies are part of a push to define humility, a concept more typically associated less with science than religion. (In Matthew 11:29, Jesus says, "I am gentle and humble in heart.”) While research on narcissism—arguably the inverse of humility—has gained widespread attention, it’s been harder to define and measure humility. Researchers do agree that it isn’t just another word for modesty. A person who brushes off compliments isn't necessarily helpful, generous, respectful during conflicts, or accepting of criticism—all traits we can expect of the humble.

According to one model, the humble see their strengths and weaknesses accurately, and are inclined to altruism. Such people would be apt to treat romantic partners well, and to act in ways that support their bond. With that model in mind, a team led by Daryl Van Tongeren conducted three studies to test whether participants valued humility in a potential date and were more inclined to forgive a partner they perceived as humble.

In the first study, 41 students created dating profiles in response to a series of computer prompts, and also answered personality questions. They had been told that other participants would see their results and that, in return, they’d be able to review other students’ profiles. In fact, though, everyone was presented with the same mock profile to review, as well as the same mock personality test scores. The fictional potential date (unnamed, and potentially either male or female) had scores indicating that he or she was agreeable, extroverted, conscientious, not neurotic, and open. But in some cases the phantom was “highly humble” with a score in the 87th percentile—while other participants saw a score of “not humble” (24th percentile). Humility won out: The “highly humble” stranger got better ratings from participants, who were also more likely to say they’d give the “highly humble” their phone numbers and make a date.

Men and women were equally prone to favor the humble.

Since a score of “not humble” could have been a turnoff just because it came with a low number, in the second study, 133 participants didn’t see any scores. Instead, the team varied the language in the profile to seem more or less humble. Among other variations was, “I’m a pretty good student, but not a bookworm. Other people say I’m smart, but I don’t like the attention," and, "I’m a really good student and pretty smart, but definitely not a nerd or bookworm. I guess it just comes naturally.”

The profiler who claimed not to like attention was the favorite for both men and women.

The researchers went on to test whether humility was helpful in maintaining relationships. Long-distance romances are especially stressful, and the team hypothesized that perceptions of humility would buffer stress. This time the researchers drew on 416 student participants who were currently involved in exclusive relationships with an average duration of 18 months. Half of the relationships were long-distance, the others local. Participants completed standard questions measuring their tendency to forgive, their feelings about a recent offense by their partners, and their sense of their partners’ humility. The study confirmed earlier research showing that people were less forgiving of partners who lived far away. It also found that daters who viewed their partners as humble were more likely to forgive them, mitigating the stress of distance.

According to conventional wisdom, people most often get burned by arrogant charmers early in adulthood, so it’s surprising that even college students show the good sense to appreciate the humble. “We certainly think humility is worth cultivating because it is attractive to other people,” Van Tongeren says.

You’d have to be especially humble—and accurate in your self-assessments—to know how humble you are. Van Tongeren decided to experiment on himself. He guessed that his wife would rate him as slightly more humble than the “midpoint.” As it turned out, “When I asked her, she rated me as slightly below the midpoint; slightly more arrogant,” he says.

So how should we measure humility?

The John Templeton Foundation sees grants for “character virtue development” as part of its core mission. It has funded a study, led by Don Davis at Georgia State University, to find a “behavioral measure of humility,” van Tongeren says. Once a reliable measurement is in hand, he expects the field to flourish over the next five years.

This story originally appeared in the British Psychological Society Research Digest.

Van Tongeren, D., Davis, D., & Hook, J. (2014). Social benefits of humility: Initiating and maintaining romantic relationships The Journal of Positive Psychology, 9 (4), 313-321 DOI: 10.1080/17439760.2014.898317

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