Getting to the Psychological Core of Humility
New research may identify the basic belief that makes people humble.
Posted Dec 04, 2019
When I first wandered into the psychological research on humility a few years ago, I had no idea that I would end up on a quest to understand the psychological core of humble people. We know a great deal about what humble people are like, but what is the key psychological ingredient that makes someone humble?
Most scholarly discussions of humility provide descriptions of humble people, many of them based on June Tangney’s ground-breaking analysis. For example, most researchers suggest that humble people have an accurate view of themselves, acknowledge their mistakes and limitations, are open to other viewpoints and ideas, keep their accomplishments and abilities in perspective, have a low self-focus, and appreciate the value of all things, including other people.
This offers a good summary of what humble people are like, but a description of humble people's characteristics does not identify the psychological construct that lies at the core of humility. Indeed, Tangney did not intend her description as an explanation or theory of humility. Furthermore, none of these characteristics appears to be either a necessary or sufficient indicator of humility.
Take, for example, the idea that humble people have an accurate view of their strengths and weaknesses. Whether this is true, I don’t know — people’s self-views are notoriously off-target — but even if it is, self-accuracy does not distinguish humble from nonhumble people.
Consider two equally accomplished people, both of whom have accurate views of their abilities and accomplishments. Although these individuals do not differ in either their accomplishments or the accuracy of their self-views, they might certainly differ in humility. One might display low humility, reveling in his or her achievements and expecting to be glorified and treated specially, while the other (humble) person might take the same achievements in stride, being disinterested in attention, recognition, or being treated different because of them. In this example, the accuracy of people’s self-views does not distinguish a humble person from an arrogant one.
After wrestling with the existing characterizations of humility in the research literature, my student, Chloe Banker, and I wanted to go beyond the variables that distinguish people who are low vs. high in humility to identify the psychological characteristic that lies at the core of humility. Our question was: What is the one thing we would want to know about someone, psychologically speaking, that would tell us that he or she is responding in a humble fashion in the current situation (state humility) or is generally a humble person (trait humility)?
Our hypothesis was that humility is characterized by the belief that, no matter how great one’s accomplishments or positive characteristics may be, they do not entitle one to special treatment as a person. So, for example, a renowned actor may know that he is exceptionally skilled, have a highly successful career, receive many awards, and be adored by millions of fans but not believe that he should be treated special overall, as a person, because of his exceptional ability and accomplishments.
The phrase “as a person” is critical here. In certain areas of life, people who perform at a high level or who have exceptionally positive characteristics deserve special attention, respect, deference, rewards, and privileges — in the domain in which their accomplishments or characteristics are relevant. For example, the best athletes should be given more playing time than less skilled players, accomplished scientists may deserve higher grant funding, the best actors and authors are entitled to more recognition, and the best employees are entitled to higher salaries, better offices, or other perks.
When such norms are operating, expecting to receive special treatment commensurate with one’s accomplishments is irrelevant to humility. Even humble people think they deserve a promotion when they are an exceptional employee.
But, although norms often stipulate that people be treated special within the domain of their accomplishments, norms do not generally dictate that exemplary people should be accorded special treatment outside of those domains. The best athletes, scientists, actors, authors, and employees are not generally entitled to be treated differently in situations in which their accomplishments are not involved.
Yet, people sometimes believe that they should be treated differently in general because of who they are, what they have done, or what they are like. This belief that other people should treat them special as a person because of their accomplishments or positive characteristics – which we call egoic entitlement – is the cornerstone of low humility.
In contrast, humble people do not expect to be treated special as a person no matter how outstanding their accomplishments or personal characteristics may be. Humble people may recognize, and even acknowledge, that their accomplishments or characteristics are exceptional in some respect, but they don’t think that other people should treat them differently as a person.
To test this idea, we conducted two studies in which we asked research participants to identify their most important personal accomplishments and characteristics, rate those accomplishments or characteristics, indicate how they believe they should be treated because of them, and complete measures of humility.
As we expected, participants who scored higher in humility were significantly less likely to believe that they should be treated special because of their exemplary accomplishments and characteristics than less humble participants did. Interestingly, however, humility was not related to participants’ ratings of the positivity of their accomplishments or characteristics or of themselves. So, humble people didn’t downplay their accomplishments or characteristics; they simply didn’t think they should be treated special because of them.
Banker, C. C., & Leary, M. R. (2019). Hypo-egoic nonentitlement as a feature of humility. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. Published on-line September 20, 2019.
Leary, M. R., & Banker, C. (2019). A critical examination and reconceptualization of humility. In J. Wright (Ed.),
Humility. New York: Oxford University Press.