It’s Hard (But Good For You) to be Humble

A new study reviews the scientific literature on humility. Researchers found that humility is good for us. Find out why.

I’m reflecting on a piece of music from 1980.  That was my freshman year in college.  I should probably be drawn to songs like Another Brick in the Wall, The Rose, Against the Wind or The Pina Colada Song.

My tastes and our topic are headed in a different direction right now.  The artist on my mind from that era is Mac Davis.  The song that’s playing in my head is Oh Lord, It’s Hard to Be Humble.

Others see him not as humble, but AS egotistical

The song was an odd departure into the novelty genre for him, but it was a huge hit.  It tells a satirical story about someone claiming he is “perfect in every way.” As the lyrics unfold, Davis slyly reveals that our hero has lost his girlfriend along with all his other friends.  Others see him not as humble, but egotistical.  Of course, he attributes this to their weaknesses and not his own.

That golden oldie is on my mind because of a review published in the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science.  They review the personality trait known as humility. 

The authors define humility as “an ability to accurately acknowledge one’s limitations and abilities and an interpersonal stance that is other-oriented rather than self-focused.” As Mac Davis’ song cleverly reveals, humility is all about accuracy.

To be humble is to have a reasonably accurate view of ourselves and others

To be humble is to have a reasonably accurate view of ourselves and others.  Those with humility know their strengths, weaknesses and limitations.  They are well aware that they just might be wrong about something. 

In terms of others, humility means being focused on what’s best for those around us rather than ourselves. When we talk about intellectual humility, it means that we have no problem changing our opinions when we see convincing evidence that we are mistaken. As Rene Levesque famously said, “Only an idiot never changes his mind.”

In dealing with other people, we are showing intellectual humility when we present our thoughts, modestly and respectfully.  We can also admit when we are wrong without being defensive. 

We don’t need to prove that we’re the smartest person in the room

As well, we show that we care more about relationships and learning from others than we do about being right all the time. We don’t need to prove that we’re the smartest person in the room. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t care what the truth is. It just means that we keep our own ideas in a healthy perspective and respect other peoples’ point of view.

The researchers also talk about cultural humility. I’ve found that the best way to pick this up is to do some travelling. Cultural humility means that we don’t automatically assume that our own society’s beliefs, attitudes and values are better than those of other groups.

This applies most to our political and religious beliefs and practices. We all learned as kids to avoid talking about religion and politics. Actually, we can raise these topics at home or abroad, but we have to do it with respect and an open mind.

Why would evolution generate a trait like humility?

Why would evolution generate a trait like humility? Wouldn’t it be better for the survival of the fittest if everyone was dominant and aggressive?  Not really.

We’re social animals. Within a group, humility is a signal to others that we are safe. Humble people are approachable and care about what we need. Like in the song, less egotistical people are more desirable mates in the long run, and so they are more likely to reproduce.

The researchers provide three prevalent ideas about the role of humility in societies.  They call the first one the social-bonds hypothesis.  Social bonding means that we put the benefits of good relationships ahead of our own self-interest.

We are more likely to want to make friends with people we think of as humble.  As the friendship goes on, we feel more gratitude and commitment.  This applies to bonds with our neighbours, business relationships and primarily our mates.

Humility is a social lubricant

Another idea is that humility is a social lubricant.  Some situations are prone to causing conflict and humility can smooth out these encounters. Other times, one person has more power or status than the other.  Leaders tend to be competitive and less intimidated by conflict.  Often, they have to be like that to get to the top. 

However, if they also display humility at times, they will have more charisma and more loyal followers. The research also shows that psychotherapists who display cultural humility have better patient outcomes than those who don’t. Humility is also an essential factor in religious tolerance.

Humility can make our lives more meaningful

The third idea is the well-being hypothesis. Humility is good for you. As we’ve seen, humility leads to better relationships. Being humble, both intellectually and culturally, leads us to learn more about other peoples’ beliefs and practices. That can make our lives seem more meaningful.

Being aware of our limitations can lead us to commit to lifelong learning. When humble people mess up, they repent, make amends and try to do better. This is healthier emotionally than ruminating about our many failings.

The study concludes by saying that some topics need more review.  One is that there hasn’t been much academic work done on the trait of humility.  As a result, the psychological characteristics that make up being humble aren’t well defined.

There might be a dark side to humility

Another is that there might be a dark side to humility.  Is it always good to be humble?  We also need to better understand how being modest works in other cultures.  Like a lot of psychological research, the work has tended to be done in the West, usually in the United States.

The study’s authors also recommend that evolutionary psychology delve more into how humility emerged as an adaptive trait in humans.  Academics should also work humility into social-psychological research.  Lastly, the literature showed that humility plays a significant role in counselling and clinical settings.  This refers to the counsellor or therapist as opposed to their patients.

It seems that even the study of humility needs to be approached humbly.

We always have more to learn if we dare to know.

Learn more:

New York Times
Current Directions in Psychological Science
Oh, Lord, It’s Hard to Be Humble
Benefits of Nature Confirmed by Science


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