Tasty humble pie

written by Terry Robson


Humility goes a long way: it is why we still remember the name Ghandi and why the names of most of today’s politicians will be forgotten like crust around the neck of a bottle of tomato sauce once the bottle is discarded. The thing about humility is that it tends to bring along with a host of other qualities and now new research has highlighted another pleasing attribute of the humble.

As the first part of this research subjects were asked to evaluate themselves. Those that self-reported as being humble (is this really possible?) also reported themselves as being more helpful than others.

Given the slight tendency that humans have to embellish their own qualities, the researchers went a step further. They had subjects (all university students) listen to a recording that they were told would later be broadcast on a university radio station. The broadcast told the story of how a student with a leg injury was unable to attend class regularly. When students were asked how often they might be able to meet the student to give him assistance, those who reported as humble offered significantly more time than the less humble.

In a final experiment, the researchers used key words and associations in quick succession to have the subjects analyse themselves. Stimulus words in the humility section included modest, tolerant, down-to-earth, respectful, and open-minded. By contrast, stimulus words in the arrogance section included immodest, egotistical, and conceited. Again, subjects who showed up as more humble had been more helpful in the previous study.

What this shows is that humility is a predictor of helpfulness. This is a big deal in psychological circles as previously the only other psychological trait that has been shown to predict helpfulness is “agreeableness”. The finding in this study is that humility is a better forecaster of helpful behaviour than being agreeable.

It’s true then, blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the Earth, which is quite a large inheritance really. Oh well, perhaps they can share it with the cheesemakers?

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Terry Robson

Terry Robson is the editor-in-chief of WellBeing.