Helps to be humble

March 23, 2012


Media coverage of research carries the Baylor name far and wide.

What might seem obvious to some -- that humble people are more likely than arrogant people to give of their time to help someone in need -- wasn't a given for Dr. Jordan LaBouff, BA '05, MA '08, PhD '11.

"While it certainly seemed possible that humble people might be more focused on other people's needs and thus more willing to help a peer in need, it also seemed possible that traits associated with humility (like modesty) might discourage helping a peer in need," said LaBouff, who collaborated in researching the subject while a doctoral candidate at Baylor. Furthermore, he added, "in nearly 30 years of research on helping behavior, very few studies have shown any effect of personality variables on helping."

LaBouff, now a lecturer in psychology at the University of Maine, published his group's findings in The Journal of Positive Psychology. While at Baylor, he worked with psychology and neuroscience professors Dr. Wade Rowatt and Dr. Jo-Ann Tsang, doctoral candidate Megan Johnson, BA '07, MA '09, and undergraduate student Grace McCullough Willerton, BA '07, in the College of Arts and Sciences.

The research, funded by a grant from the John Templeton Foundation, involved three studies of college students:

  1. In Study 1, 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.
  2. In Study 2, 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.
  3. In Study 3, both implicit and self-report measures of humility were used. Students 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.

"Our discovery here is that the understudied trait of humility predicts helpfulness," Rowatt said. "Important next steps will be to figure out whether humility can be cultivated and if humility is beneficial in other contexts, such as scientific and medical advancements or leadership development."

The results of the study by LaBouff, Rowatt, Johnson, Tsang and Willerton caught fire in media outlets all over the country and even internationally. See these headlines, for example:

  • MSNBC: "Need a hand? Find someone humble"
  • National Geographic: "Humble People Are Helpful People"
  • United Press International: "Humble people more likely to help"
  • United Kingdom Press Association: "'Tis the season to be humble..."

And so it went, for weeks after the journal's release... From the Huffington Post to Technorati, MSN Health to CBC/Radio-Canada, the quintet's research carried the Baylor name into countless reports -- even into Spanish over on the National Institutes of Health website. And that doesn't even begin to include the countless science blogs out there that covered the story.