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Aw shucks! It wasn’t nothin’!

Monday, February 13, 2012
posted by Rita Handrich

Humble people are often seen as “salt of the earth” sorts with all manner of pro-social qualities. Historically, researchers used a “modesty scale” to assess humility. High scorers on this scale are described as “humble and self-effacing” while low scorers “believe they are superior people and may be considered conceited or arrogant by others”. Researchers in the current project decided to measure humility relative to arrogance or conceit and to examine if humble people were indeed more helpful than those who are not humble.

In the first two studies, they asked for self-reports of humility and looked at whether humble people volunteered to help others more. They found this to be true–humble participants were more likely to volunteer to help fellow students who requested assistance. So, the researchers wondered what motivated them: altruism or a desire to be seen as a helpful person? In other words, were they nice in order to ‘do good’ or to ‘look good’?

A second study looked at whether humble people would be more motivated to help those in the most need, or whether they are also prone to helping when asked, just as a matter of principle.

Overall, as in the previous two studies, more humble participants volunteered to help than others. Humble people help more.

Sincere altruism seems to be the motivator for humble people to help others.

What is important to note is that participants in this study were simply asked to report their own level of humility with questions such as “Some people would say that I have an over-inflated ego” [reverse-scored] or “I am an ordinary person who is no better than others”. These researchers indicate humility may be accurately self-reported.

For litigation advocacy, the implications appear straight-forward. Humble people help more.

Plaintiff attorneys will want to explore [via pretrial research] the tendencies of humble jurors to support their cases and find for the plaintiff. The risk could arise, though, that while they would want to help the person with economic losses, they themselves might not expect to be compensated for the non-economic impact, and could resist those elements of damages.

Conversely, defense attorneys should view the humble potential juror with trepidation. This is the kind of juror who would respond very well to acknowledgment of personal responsibility (‘I didn’t do anything wrong, but I wish I could have done more’), if not a direct apology.

This research doesn’t ‘prove’ humility is good for plaintiffs and bad for defense. It can be valuable for either side depending on the case facts and themes. But it certainly is worthwhile to explore the relationship of humility to how your case will be judged.

LaBouff, J., Rowatt, W., Johnson, M., Tsang, J., & Willerton, G. (2012). Humble persons are more helpful than less humble persons: Evidence from three studies The Journal of Positive Psychology, 7 (1), 16-29 DOI: 10.1080/17439760.2011.626787


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