The “So What” of Humility

We matter more to others by mattering less to ourselves.

Posted Apr 01, 2012

Source: Istockphoto: Used With Permission

Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it's thinking of yourself less. - Rick Warren

My colleagues and I have studied strengths of character for more than a decade (Park & Peterson, 2010; Peterson and Seligman, 2004). The most important conclusion from our work is that character is plural. Good character as we have studied it specifies several dozen character strengths, measures them (usually with self-report surveys), and then looks at the consequences of these strengths.

Character matters, we conclude, inasmuch as the measures of character strengths that we have devised end up predicting important outcomes, from happiness to health, from resilience to recovery, and from leadership to longevity (e.g., Park, Peterson, & Seligman, 2004). However, different strengths predict different outcomes, which is why it is important to regard character as plural and to describe good character in terms of a profile of strengths.

Among the strengths of character we have studied is humility (sometimes identified as modesty), defined as not thinking more highly of one's self than is warranted. The nuance here is that humble people are not self-deprecating but rather accurate in how they regard and present themselves.

If Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt were to say that he is not a speedy guy, that would not exemplify humility but rather ingenuousness if not craziness. He is after all the speediest of all speedy guys. If he were to say, as he reportedly has, that his accomplishments need to be placed in the context of Jamaican track-and-field emphasis and excellence and further that they relflect those who have helped him, that seems humble.

In any event, this nuance introduces problems for the empirical study of humility and its consequences. A self-report survey bluntly asking respondents if they were humble would be suspect, at least if they responded that they were. A way around this problem is to ask about thoughts, feelings, and actions that presumably reflect humility, like "I prefer to let other people talk about themselves." However, not only would the humble endorse this sort of statement, so too might those with depression, shyness, and/or low self-esteem.

Perhaps these challenges, inherent in all self-report measures of character strengths but especially so for humility, explain why our research to date has discovered few desirable consequences of humility (cf. Harvey & Pauwels, 2004).

I believe in taking data at face value, but "no results" are always unclear in what they imply. Perhaps humility is indeed not beneficial, but I fret about this apparent conclusion. As I am fond of saying, all strengths are strong. Folks throughout the ages have agreed that humility is a strength, and a strength should have benefits. So what is the "so what" of humility? To what desirable outcomes might it lead? Perhaps my own research has not looked at the right sorts of outcomes

So, it was with considerable interest that I read a research report by Jordan LaBouff and colleagues (2012) demonstrating that humble people are more helpful than those who are less humble. In three investigations, each using a different method, these researchers studied college students to test what they alliteratively dubbed the HHH: the humility-helping hypothesis.

In the first study, participants completed a self-report measure of humility, responding to items like "I am an ordinary person who is no better than others." Humility scores predicted self-report of the frequency with which participants performed specific helpful acts, like doing volunteer work for charity.

In the second study, participants completed an implicit measure of humility which entailed a reaction time task associating humility terms (e.g., humble, modest, down-to-earth) or arrogance terms (e.g., arrogant, egotistical, conceited) to themselves or to others. An implicitly humble person, by this test, should more quickly associate humility terms to the self than arrogance terms. This score predicted the participant's willingness to offer help to another student.

In the third study, self-reported humility predicted a participant's willingness to help another student when there was there was little external pressure to do so.

I have provided thumbnail sketches of the three studies conducted by LaBouff and colleagues (2012), glossing over procedural details and the statistical controls used. Suffice it to say that these studies were carefully done, and their results converged to the support the HHH. Particularly impressive about the approach of these researchers is that they used different methods to test their hypothesis. Conceptual replications deserve to be taken seriously.

One important "so what" of humility is therefore helpfulness to others. Other people matter, and we can matter more to others if we matter less to ourselves. "In humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others" (Philippians 2:3-4).

Hail to the humble.


Harvey, J. H., & Pauwels, B. G. (2004). Modesty, humility, character strength, and positive psychology. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 23, 620-623.

LaBouff, J. P., Rowatt, W. C., Johnson, M. K., Tsang, J., & Willerton, G. M. (2012). Humble persons are more helpful than less humble persons: Evidence from three studies. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 7, 16-29.

Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2010). Does it matter where we live? The urban psychology of character strengths. American Psychologist, 65, 535-547.

Park, N., Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2004). Strengths of character and well-being. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 23, 603-619.

Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. New York: Oxford University Press/Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

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