Three studies of college students by Baylor University researchers indicate that humble people are more likely to offer time to someone in need than arrogant people. The researchers called this a “surprising” result, based on earlier studies of what motivates people to help others.
They published their research online this week (January 2, 2011) in the Journal of Positive Psychology.
Lead author Jordan LaBouff, Ph.D., a lecturer in psychology at the University of Maine, who collaborated on the research while a doctoral candidate at Baylor, said the researchers were surprised by this result:
The findings are surprising because in nearly 30 years of research on helping behavior, very few studies have shown any effect of personality variables on helping. The only other personality trait that has shown any effect is agreeableness, but we found that humility predicted helping over and above that.
Three studies of college students were carried out to reach this result:
In Study 1, 117 participants who reported themselves as humble also generally reported that they were helpful, even when other important personality factors, such as agreeableness, were statistically controlled. Because people can easily under-report or exaggerate their humility to create a desired impression, the subsequent studies used an implicit measure of humility.
In Study 2, 90 students evaluated a recording they were told might be broadcast later on the campus radio station. The recording described a fellow student who had injured a leg and could not attend class regularly. Each participant was asked how many hours over the next three weeks they would be willing to meet with the injured student to provide aid. Humble persons offered more time to help than less humble ones.
In Study 3, both implicit and self-report measures of humility were used in a study of 103 students, who were asked to associate as quickly as possible traits that applied to themselves. Among stimulus words in the humility association test were humble, modest, tolerant, down to earth, respectful and open-minded. Stimulus words in the arrogance portion included arrogant, immodest, egotistical and conceited. Again, humility was associated with amount of time offered to help a student in need, especially when pressure to help was low.
From a cultural or religious standpoint, this result – that humble people are more helpful – doesn’t seem surprising. After all, the word humility describes the quality of being modest, and respectful. Humility is seen as a virtue in religious and philosophical traditions. According to Wikipedia, the word even carried a connotation of being “connected with notions of transcendent unity with the universe or the divine, and of egolessness.”
If those connotations of the word humility sound in alignment with someone who would be helpful, science hasn’t borne out this connection up to now. Wade C. Rowatt, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology and neuroscience in Baylor’s College of Arts & Sciences, who led the study and co-authored the study, said that past studies have shown that a person’s decision to help someone in need is influenced by:
… temporary personal or situational factors such as time pressure, number of bystanders, momentary feelings of empathy or a person’s own distress.
The research indicates that humility is a positive quality with potential benefits. While several factors influence whether people will volunteer to help a fellow human in need, it appears that humble people, on average, are more helpful than individuals who are egotistical or conceited.
Bottom line: People who self-identify with traits associated with humility – such as modesty, tolerance and respectfulness – are also more likely to offer help to others, according to three studies of college students.