Although each of us has a fairly intuitive idea of what makes a person humble and are able to recognize these traits easily, there has been surprisingly little research into the psychological traits of humility. One of these few such studies suggests that, unlike what some might think, humble people don’t downplay their accomplishments and positive traits. Instead, they are perfectly aware of their positive characteristics but feel that their success does not entitle them to special treatment.
Humility: an egalitarian approach to interacting with people
Mark Leary is professor emeritus of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University, who is most famous for his work on self-esteem and self-esteem motivation. He proposed a sociometer theory that suggests that our self-esteem is an internal psychological gauge that monitors the degree to which the individual is being included versus excluded by other people. In other words, self-esteem is an internal representation of social acceptance and rejection.
Another huge subject that interests Leary is egotism, also known as excessive self-preoccupation. But in the last couple of years, Leary has been investigated the other side of the coin: hypo-egotism, a psychological phenomenon that can be described as devoting less attention to one’s self than people typically do. Humility, Leary says, falls within this broader hypo-egoic phenomenon.
In a new study, Leary and colleagues performed two experiments involving 419 participants who had to describe their personal accomplishments and how they believe these compare with those of other people. Each participant also had to rate how others should treat them based on their past accomplishments.
The researchers also gauged personality traits, including measures of humility, self-esteem, narcissism, psychological entitlement, self-interest, identification with humanity, individualism/collectivism, and social desirability.
They concluded that there was no relationship between humility and participants’ evaluation of their accomplishments. So, humble people are very much aware of their previous success and accomplishments — they just don’t feel like this elicits any special treatment.
“In our view, humility is not about underestimating or downplaying your accomplishments or positive characteristics. Everyone who has studied humility agrees that humble people probably see themselves more accurately than the average person, so they know that they’re good at whatever it is they’re good at,” Leary told PsyPost.
“The central feature that characterizes humble people, in my view, is ‘hypo-egoic nonentitlement’ — they do not think that they are entitled to be treated special as a person because of their accomplishments or positive characteristics.”
So, the crux of humility seems to be an awareness that, no matter how grand our accomplishments might be (or simply our impression of grandeur), at the end of the day we are all people — and we are more alike than different.
In the future, Leary and colleagues would like to find out more about what drives humility and how this may be mediated by hypo-egoic non-entitlement. Such research might, for instance, reveal why humility is valued in society.
Leary thinks that humility is regarded as a virtue precisely because of the non-entitlement angle. When people don’t feel entitled to special treatment, they won’t seek to impose their views and agenda on other people. Humility also reflects a fair and egalitarian approach to interacting with other people.
The findings appeared in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.