How Can You Tell How Humble Someone Is?

Measuring humility is one of the most difficult aspects of its study. Several approaches have been suggested, such as well-validated self-report measures like the Values in Action Inventory. But several researchers have agreed with June Tangney and argued that humility may be uniquely difficult to measure through self-report.

This difficulty has encouraged researchers to develop alternatives to self-report, like computer programs that use a person’s reaction time to measure the way they view themselves non-consciously (the implicit association test). Finally, Don Davis and his colleagues have suggested that humility be measured by asking informants who know a person well whether or not the person is humble. In our studies, we use multiple techniques and combine the different perspectives they provide on humility into an aggregate that we use to predict differences in helping behavior. In those studies, humble people were most likely to help a peer in need, even when there was little social pressure to do so.

Outside of the laboratory, how might we tell how humble someone is? First, you could use some of the techniques above—simply ask them about their humility, or ask their friends and family about their humility. There is some evidence, however, that even incredibly humble people will not report their own humility. A study of 37 Cistercian monks and nuns demonstrated that only 5 percent reported being very successful at exhibiting humility.

So outside of the laboratory, you might observe their behavior for yourself; humble people are relatively down-to-earth, intellectually open-minded, less focused on themselves, and have a relatively accurate view of their own abilities. Then, given recent research on humility, you might look at some of their outcomes to verify your hunch. Humble people have been found to be more helpful, more successful in the workplace, and more forgiving and thankful.

Jordan LaBouff is a CLAS-Honors Preceptor of Psychology at the University of Maine.

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