Selections from: Snyder-Lopez, Handbook of Positive Psychology, (Oxford 2002)
June Price Tangney
(Snyder-Lopez, ch 19, pp.411-419)
ALTHOUGH humility is commonly equated with a sense of unworthiness and low self-regard, true humility is a rich, multifaceted construct that is characterized by an accurate assessment of one’s characteristics, an ability to acknowledge limitations, and a “forgetting of the self.” In this chapter, I describe current conceptions of humility, discuss the challenges in its measurement, and review the scant empirical work addressing it directly and indirectly. I also will discuss briefly interventions for enhancing humility.
History of the Psychology of Humility: Still at the Point of Humble Beginnings
Scientific study of humility is still in its infancy. A review of the empirical literature from the last 20 years yields only a handful of research studies with any consideration of this long-revered construct. Furthermore, in virtually every case where humility is addressed, it has been tangential to the main research focus.
Why has humility been neglected so long? Two factors come readily to mind. First, the concept of humility is linked to values and religion in many people’s minds. As a field, for many years, mainstream psychology steered clear of such value-laden topics as religion, virtue, and (with the exception of Kohlberg’s work on forms of moral thinking) morality. In their zeal to establish psychology as a bona fide science, psychological scientists embraced notions of objectivity and fact. Indeed, it is worth noting that the virtues as a group have been relatively neglected in psychology. Until very recently, wisdom, gratitude, and forgiveness, for example, all represented “black holes” in the literature based on a century of psychological science.
A second factor undoubtedly contributing to the neglect of humility is the lack of a well-established measure of this construct. If you can’t measure it, you can’t study it. Psychology and the sciences in general are chock full of examples of how an advance in measurement can lead to a dramatic expansion in empirical research. For example, after years of neglect, the scientific study of shame virtually exploded in the early 1990s—shortly after the development of several psychometrically sound, easily administered measures of individual differences in proneness to shame (Harder & Lewis, 1987; Hoblitzelle, 1987; Tangney, 1990). As discussed in greater detail later, measurement remains a significant challenge in the area of humility.
Contrasting Conceptions of Humility
Another challenge facing psychological scientists interested in humility centers on the varying definitions of the construct. For many, humility simply means holding oneself in low regard. For example, in the Oxford English Dictionary (1998), humility is defined as “the quality of being humble or having a lowly opinion of oneself; meekness, lowliness, humbleness: the opposite of pride or haughtiness.” In other dictionaries, humility is defined largely as a state of being “humble,” which in turn is defined, for example, by Funk & Wagnalls Standard College Dictionary (1963) as “lowly in kind, state, condition, etc.; of little worth; unimportant; common. .. . Lowly in feeling; lacking self-esteem; having a sense of insignificance, unworthiness, dependence, or sinfulness; meek; penitent” (p. 653). From this “low self-esteem” perspective, humility certainly does not stand out as one of the more attractive virtues. For example, most of us would have difficulty appreciating a friend’s efforts to strengthen our character by “humbling” us (e.g., making us lower in state or condition, reducing possessions or esteem, abasing us).
The “low self-esteem” conception of humility is prevalent not only in dictionaries but also in the psychological literature (e.g., Klein, 1992; Knight & Nadel, 1986; Langston & Cantor, 1988; Weiss & Knight, 1980), as well as in common parlance. Nonetheless, it is clear that when “experts” (e.g., philosophers, theologians, sociologists, psychologists, and other “wise” persons) delve into the broader significance of humility, they have a different—and much richer—notion of this construct.
Emmons (1998) clearly articulated this alternative view of humility by stating:
Although humility is often equated in people’s minds with low self-regard and tends to activate images of a stooped-shouldered, self-deprecating, weak-willed soul only too willing to yield to the wishes of others, in reality humility is the antithesis of this caricature. To be humble is not to have a low opinion of oneself, it is to have an accurate opinion of oneself. It is the ability to keep one’s talents and accomplishments in perspective (Richards, 1992), to have a sense of self-acceptance, an understanding of one’s imperfections, and to be free from arrogance and low self-esteem (Clark, 1992) (p. 33).
Templeton (1997) presents a similar conceptualization of humility:
Humility is not self-deprecation. To believe that you have no worth, or were created somehow flawed or incompetent, can be foolish. Humility represents wisdom. It is knowing you were created with special talents and abilities to share with the world; but it can also be an understanding that you are one of many souls created by God, and each has an important role to play in life. Humility is knowing you are smart, but not all-knowing. It is accepting that you have personal power, but are not omnipotent. ... Inherent in humility resides an open and receptive mind. .. . it leaves us more open to learn from others and refrains from seeing issues and people only in blacks and whites. The opposite of humility is arrogance—the belief that we are wiser or better than others. Arrogance promotes separation rather than community. It looms like a brick wall between us and those from whom we could learn. (pp. 162–163)
For many, there is a religious dimension to humility—the recognition that “God infinitely exceeds anything anyone has ever said of Him, and that He is infinitely beyond human comprehension and understanding” (Templeton, 1997, p. 30; see also Schimmel, 1997). Here, too, the emphasis is not on human sinfulness, unworthiness, and inadequacy but rather on the notion of a higher, greater power and the implication that, although we may have considerable wisdom and knowledge, there always are limits to our perspective. Humility carries with it an open-mindedness, a willingness to admit mistakes and seek advice, and a desire to learn (Hwang, 1982; Templeton, 1997).
Also inherent in the state of humility is a relative lack of self-focus or self-preoccupation. Templeton (1997) refers to a process of becoming “unselved,” which goes hand in hand with the recognition of one’s place in the world. A person who has gained a sense of humility is no longer phenomenologically at the center of his or her world. The focus is on the larger community, of which he or she is one part. From this perspective, the excessively self-deprecating person can be seen, in some important respects, as lacking humility. Consider the person who repeatedly protests, “Oh, I’m not really very good in art. I never did very well in art class at school. Oh, this little painting that I did really is nothing. I just whipped it together last night. It (my painting) is really nothing.” Such apparently humble protests betray a marked self-focus. The person remains at the center of attention, with the self as the focus of consideration and evaluation.
In relinquishing the very human tendency toward an egocentric focus, persons with humility become ever more open to recognizing the abilities, potential, worth, and importance of others. One important consequence of becoming “unselved” is that we no longer have the need to enhance and defend an all-important self at the expense of our evaluation of others (Hall-ing, Kunz, & Rowe, 1994). Our attention shifts outward, and our eyes are opened to the beauty and potential in those around us. As Means, Wilson, Sturm, Biron, and Bach (1990) observed, humility “is an increase in the valuation of others and not a decrease in the valuation of oneself” (p. 214). Myers (1979) effectively captured these latter two elements of humility, stating:
The true end of humility is not self-contempt.. . . To paraphrase C. S. Lewis, humility does not consist in handsome people trying to believe they are ugly, and clever people trying to believe they are fools. . . . True humility is more like self-forgetfulness. .. . It leaves people free to esteem their special talents and, with the same honesty, to esteem their neighbor’s. Both the neighbor’s talents and one’s own are recognized as gifts and, like one’s height, are not fit subjects for either inordinate pride or self-deprecation. (p. 38)
In the theological, philosophical, and psychological literatures, therefore, humility is portrayed as a rich, multifaceted construct, in sharp contrast to dictionary definitions that emphasize a sense of unworthiness and low self-regard. Specifically, the key elements of humility seem to include:
· an accurate assessment of one’s abilities and achievements (not low self-esteem, self-deprecation)
· an ability to acknowledge one’s mistakes, imperfections, gaps in knowledge, and limitations (often vis-a`-vis a “higher power”)
· openness to new ideas, contradictory information, and advice
· keeping one’s abilities and accomplishments— one’s place in the world—in perspective (e.g., seeing oneself as just one person in the larger scheme of things)
· a relatively low self-focus, a “forgetting of the self,” while recognizing that one is but part of the larger universe
· an appreciation of the value of all things, as well as the many different ways that people and things can contribute to our world
What Humility Is Not
Humility is a rich psychological construct that is related to, but conceptually distinct from, familiar constructs such as narcissism, modesty, and self-esteem. Clearly, from the foregoing discussion, humility is not low self-esteem (Ryan, 1983), nor is it an underestimation of one’s abilities, accomplishments, or worth. Furthermore, as explained subsequently, humility is related to, but distinct from, modesty and narcissism.
The concept of modesty focuses primarily on a moderate estimate of personal merits or achievements. As such, modesty does not capture other key aspects of humility such as a “forgetting of the self” and an appreciation of the variety of ways in which others can be “worthy.” Rather, use of the term “modesty” often extends into issues of propriety in behavior and dress, where the notion of humility is less relevant. Thus, modesty is both too narrow, missing fundamental components of humility, and too broad, relating also to bodily exposure and other dimensions of propriety. One might view modesty—in the sense of an accurate, unexaggerated estimation of one’s strengths— as a component of humility. But it does not tell the whole story.
The construct of narcissism is perhaps most closely related to humility. People who are narcissistic clearly lack humility. It is not clear, however, that an absence of narcissism can be equated with the presence of humility. In conceptualizing narcissism, social psychologists tend to focus on grandiosity, an exaggerated sense of self-importance, and an overestimation of one’s abilities. But there’s much more to the clinical conceptions of narcissism. Clinical theorists, drawing on a long history of “object relations,” typically use the term narcissism to refer to a distinctly pathological form of self-focus and fluctuating self-regard, which stems from fundamental defects in the self system (e.g., Kohut, 1971). When clinicians refer to a person with narcissism, they generally have in mind a seriously disturbed individual who exhibits pervasive adjustment difficulties that go hand in hand with a DSM-IV (American Psychiatric Association, 1994) diagnosis of personality disorder. This is not simply an overconfident, conceited dolt, but rather someone with a damaged sense of self. Attempts to shore up the self with unrealistic fantasies of grandiosity inevitably alternate with a grinding sense of emptiness and self-loathing. Other hallmarks of narcissism include a pervasive self-focus and a corresponding inability to focus on and empathize with others.
Narcissistic individuals clearly lack many of the essential components of humility. But it is not clear that people who score low on a measure of narcissism necessarily embody humility. People low on narcissism may or may not make accurate assessments of their abilities and achievements. For example, low-self-esteem, self-deprecating individuals are neither narcissistic nor paragons of humility. Similarly, people without narcissistic tendencies may or may not have the wisdom to keep their places in the world in perspective (e.g., seeing themselves as one person in the larger scheme of things). They may or may not have a deep appreciation for the unique gifts and talents of others.
In defining complex constructs such as humility, as well as in developing measurement instruments, it is important to specify how the focal construct differs from other related but distinct concepts. As underscored by Campbell and Fiske (1959), discriminant validity is a critical component of measurement validation. It is important to know not only that a measure correlates well (positively or negatively) with (measures of) other relevant constructs in a theoretically meaningful way. It is also important to demonstrate that the measure does not correlate too highly with (or behave identically to) established measures of some other construct.
Measures that are “confounded” by items tapping other nonfocal constructs not only present conceptual ambiguity but also impede science by blurring the boundaries between constructs, inadvertently precluding the possibility of studying functional relations among them. For example, in the case of forgiveness, it is impossible to examine meaningfully the functional relationship between empathy and forgiveness if one uses a forgiveness measure that includes items tapping empathy. In short, it is important to decide where to draw the conceptual line.
Measurement of Humility: Two Levels of Measurement, Two Levels of Questions
Halling et al. (1994) observed that doing research on humility is humbling. Quite possibly, the quest for a reliable and valid measure of humility is the most humbling aspect of research on this topic. By its very nature, the construct of humility poses some special challenges in the area of measurement. As a consequence, psychological scientists have yet to develop a well-validated tool for assessing humility. This is a glaring gap in the literature, because without a solid assessment method, the science pretty much comes to a halt. It is also worth noting that psychologists are most likely to develop strong, meaningful measures when those measures are informed by theory. Although we have some clear definitions of humility, comprehensive theories or models need to be developed and refined, which in turn would form a solid foundation for assessment.
Theoretically, humility could be assessed at two distinct levels—at the level of states and at the level of dispositions. A dispositional assessment would focus on stable, individual differences in humility. In this context, humility would be viewed as a component of one’s personality, as a relatively enduring disposition that a person brings to many different kinds of situations. In contrast, a state measure would focus on feelings or experiences of humility “in the moment.” Personality and individual differences aside, most of us have humility in some situations but not in others.
Regarding dispositional humility, a few options presently are available to researchers, but each has significant drawbacks. In several earlier studies, humility has been operationalized as low self-esteem (e.g., Weiss & Knight, 1980), but this clearly is inconsistent with broader conceptualizations of humility. In fact, theoretically, scores on self-esteem measures such as the Rosenberg (1965) and Janis and Fields (1956) scales should be positively correlated with (although not identical to) individual differences in humility. Consider the types of items included on the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale (rated on a scale of 1 to 5, from “always false” to “always true”): “I feel that I’m a person of worth, at least on an equal plane with others” and “I feel I have a number of good qualities.” The person with a true sense of humility would be expected to endorse such items positively, not negatively.
Taking a different approach, Farh, Dobbins, and Cheng (1991) and Vu and Murphy (1993) operationalized workers’ “modesty” by comparing self-ratings to ratings made of them by knowledgeable others (e.g., supervisors and coworkers). Those who rated themselves lower than their supervisors were viewed as showing a “modesty bias.” Here, too, there are some conceptual ambiguities with such “self versus knowledgeable other” comparisons. Given that humility theoretically entails an accurate assessment of one’s abilities, one could argue that high humility should be indexed by high levels of agreement between self and other, not self-deprecating discrepancies.
Emmons (personal communication, December 4, 1998) attempted to develop a self-report measure of humility. Using a forced-choice format to circumvent social desirability biases, Emmons developed an array of theoretically derived items tapping the diverse components of humility described previously. The measure is well crafted in design and content. Unfortunately, Emmons’s initial analyses of the mea-sure’s internal reliability were disappointing, and he is now rather skeptical that this construct can be adequately assessed via self-report.
With regard to experiences of humility “in the moment,” currently there is no established self-report measure of state humility. But Ex-line, Bushman, Faber, and Phillips (2000) recently developed a technique for experimentally inducing a sense of humility by asking people to write about “a time when they felt humble or experienced a sense of humility” versus “a time when they felt important or had a sense of importance.” Based on results from an initial study, some complications arise in using this technique to prime humility. Specifically, people receiving humility instructions wrote two very different types of narratives. The majority of persons described instances in which they felt bad about themselves for doing something stupid or wrong. For this group, the instructions seemed to prime a sense of humiliation or shame rather than a sense of humility. A smaller subset of respondents described events that seemed more directly to the experience of humility—for example, situations that evoked a “forgetting of the self” or that caused respondents to see themselves in a broader context. Thus, in using the Exline et al. (2000) priming technique, it is important to distinguish between stories involving humiliation versus humility themes. In addition, some modifications to the instructions may be necessary in order to more consistently elicit stories of “true” humility rather than shaming experiences.
No doubt, psychologists will continue efforts to develop psychometrically sound measures of both state and dispostional humility in the years to come. It is worth noting that researchers generally rely on self-report methods for assessing personality traits. In the case of humility, however, there is a potentially serious catch. To the degree that a key component of humility is a “forgetting of the self,” self-reflection and self-report of one’s level of humility may be oxymoronic. What do we make of a person who views him- or herself as someone with “unusually high humility”? As Halling et al. (1994) point out, “One can reflect on one’s own experience of fear, isolation, or self-rejection, but the attention during the experience of humility is directed toward others” (p. 121). Similarly, Singh (1967) observed that “true humility is freedom from all consciousness of self, which includes freedom from the consciousness of humility. The truly humble man never knows that he is humble” (p. 4).
There are good reasons for psychologists’ preference for self-report measures of personality traits. Traits such as humility are not easily inferred from quick observation. Also, systematic behavioral observational methods are cumbersome and time-consuming. So there is a strong preference for paper-and-pencil questionnaires that require little time and training to administer and score. But humility may represent a rare personality construct that is simply unamenable to direct self-report methods. Thus, the present bottom line is that the measurement of humility remains an unsolved challenge in psychology.
Psychological and Social Implications of Humility: Relevant Empirical Research
Researchers have yet to directly address the psychology of humility and develop a theory-based, reliable, and valid measure. Some insights can be gleaned, however, from related areas of psychological research. In this section, I provide a brief review of relevant findings from related literatures.
Basic research on the self and its operations suggests that humility may be a relatively rare human characteristic. The pervasiveness of “self-enhancement biases” is underscored in the social psychological literature (Baumeister, 1998; Greenwald, 1980). From this literature, we learn that the self is remarkably resourceful at accentuating the positive and deflecting the negative. For example, research consistently shows that people are inclined to take credit for “their” successes but blame other factors for “their” failures and transgressions (Baumeister, Stillwell, & Wotman, 1990; Snyder, Higgins, & Stucky, 1983; Zuckerman, 1979). As another example, people are more likely to notice, think about, and remember positive information about themselves, with negative information being “lost in the shuffle” (Mischel, Ebbesen, & Zeiss, 1976). Indeed based on this self-enhancement literature, one might infer that humility is quite antithetical with human nature.
Nonetheless, people apparently can control the degree to which they self-enhance in response to situational demands. On this point, Tice, Butler, Muraven, and Stillwell (1995) demonstrated that people adjust their self-enhancement according to the nature of the social setting, showing more modesty in the company of friends than strangers.
Whether with friends or strangers, some degree of humility may be beneficial. The benefits of modesty—especially “moderate” modesty— have been underscored in numerous studies (Baumeister & Ilko, 1995; Bond, Leung, & Wan, 1982; Forsyth, Berger, & Mitchell, 1981; Jones & Wortman, 1973; Robinson, Johnson, & Shields, 1995). People like and feel less threatened by others who are modest about their achievements, whereas boastful, arrogant behavior often results in social disapproval. The benefits of modesty seem to extend beyond positive evaluation in purely social contexts. In answer to the objection that “you can’t get ahead without tooting your own horn,” Wosinka, Da-bul, Whetstone-Dion, and Cialdini (1996) have provided some evidence that modesty can be attractive in work contexts, as well.
Likewise, tendencies toward self-enhancement, grandiosity, and narcissism bode poorly for long-term adjustment, especially in the interpersonal realm (Ehrenberg, Hunter, & Elter-man, 1996; Means et al., 1990). Although much has been written about the benefits of various “positive illusions” (Brown, 1993; Taylor & Brown, 1988, 1994), researchers also have shown repeatedly that tendencies toward self-enhancement are problematic. Specifically, psychological maladjustment is associated with the degree to which people rate themselves more favorably than others rate them (Asendorpf & Ostendorf, 1998; Colvin, Block, & Funder, 1995). Joiner and Perez (2000) also found that people who are immodest (relative to how others rate them) are more inclined toward physical aggression than are their more modest peers. Along the same lines, researchers have shown that narcissistic individuals are sensitive to interpersonal slights, quick to anger, and less inclined to forgive others (Exline & Baumeister, 2000; Exline, Campbell, Baumeister, Joiner, & Krueger, in press; Sandage, Worthington, Hight, & Berry, 1999; Tangney, Boone, Fee, & Reinsmith, 1999). From these findings, one might infer that a sense of humility inhibits anger and aggression and fosters forgiveness.
In one of the few studies to explicitly address the psychology of humility, Exline et al. (2000) found results suggestive of a link between humility and forgiveness. People who were successfully primed to experience humility (e.g., who wrote personal accounts of a non-self-deprecating humility experience) were slower to retaliate in response to provocation on a laboratory task. In contrast, individuals primed to feel morally superior judged another person’s transgression more harshly and as less forgivable.
Humility not only implies an accurate assessment of oneself (neither unduly favorable nor unfavorable) but also entails a “forgetting of the self,” an outwardly directed orientation toward a world in which one is “just one part.” This process of becoming “unselved” may have significant psychological and physical benefits. Clinicians have long noted the links between excessive self-focus and a broad range of psychological symptoms, including anxiety, depression, social phobias, and so on. As Baumeister (1991) argues, there are many advantages to “escaping the self,” not the least of which is a relief from the burden of self-preoccupation (Halling et. al., 1994) and the “Western” imperative to defend the vulnerable self. Even in the area of physical health, researchers suggest that excessive self-focus is a risk factor for coronary heart disease (Fontana, Rosenberg, Burg, Kerns, & Colonese, 1990; Scherwitz & Canick, 1988).
Interventions to Enhance Humility?
Psychologists have not developed interventions aimed specifically at promoting humility, although many therapies include components that may do so. A focus on “humility promotion” is most likely to be observed in the treatment of narcissistic personality disorder. For example, cognitive-behavioral therapy of the disorder may include efforts to reduce the cli-ent’s egocentric bias—correcting “cognitive distortions” regarding the centrality and importance of the self relative to others, reducing self-serving biases, and so forth. Beyond the treatment of narcissism per se, many psychotherapies inevitably touch on philosophical and existential issues centrally relevant to a sense of humility. Insight-oriented, humanistic, and existential therapies are especially likely to include examination and exploration of one’s place in the world. Finally, a common goal in virtually all “talk” therapies is to help clients develop a realistic assessment and acceptance of both their strengths and their weaknesses.
Outside of the therapist’s office, parents, teachers, heroes, and community leaders all play a role in modeling (or not modeling) a sense of humility for the subsequent generation. Throughout their early years, children learn important lessons about themselves, the world, and their place in the world. As they mature, a sense of humility may be further fostered by exposure to different peoples and cultures, by life-changing events (a life-threatening illness, a serious accident, birth of a child, dissolution of a marriage), by religious beliefs, or via other types of “transcendental” experiences.
As one of the classic “virtues,” humility has a well-deserved place in positive psychology. Although little research has directly examined causes and consequences of humility, psychological science provides a good deal of indirect evidence supporting its presumed virtues. Consistent with age-old wisdom, a sense of humility appears beneficial for both the individual and his or her social group. But this is nearly virgin territory, and many intriguing questions remain. In what specific domains is a sense of humility adaptive? And via what mechanisms? Are there circumstances in which humility is a liability? Are there important gender and/or cultural differences in the meaning and implications of humility? How can parents, teachers, and therapists foster an adaptive sense of humility? Certainly at the top of the research agenda is the need for continued efforts to develop a well-articulated theoretical framework and associated psychological measures of both state and dispositional humility. Armed with a solid conceptual and measurement base, scientists will no doubt develop a clearer picture of this long-neglected source of human strength.
Acknowledgments Many thanks to members of our “humility” reading group—Luis ClaviJo, Rosangela Di Manto, Andy Drake, Ronda Fee, Ramineh Kangarloo, Jean No, and Justin Rez-nick—for their invaluable insights, and to Bob Emmons for his wisdom and advice. Preparation of this chapter was supported in part by a grant from the John Templeton Foundation. Portions were adapted from Tangney (2000).
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This Webpage was created for a workshop held at Saint Andrew's Abbey, Valyermo, California in 2000