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The Table Video

Peter C. Hill

The Functional Utility of Humility in Grace

Professor of Psychology at Rosemead School of Psychology, Biola University
June 2, 2017

Empirically oriented psychologists benefit greatly from digesting the philosophical literature on the topics of humility and intellectual humility. But, as philosophers dig deeply and try to get at the core of the concept, there comes a point where psychologists no longer need to deeply invest themselves in the philosophical justification of core considerations because it yields diminishing returns for psychological study. Instead, the empirical study of humility will move forward by focusing on the philosophical accounts (and other theoretical accounts) as markers, indicators or correlates of humility. Such an approach will often consider humility in terms of its functional value. This presentation will focus on the role of humility in relation to the embodiment of grace.


I’ve had kind of a unique relationship, I guess you might say, with the CCT, in that, last fall I was a fellow in the CCT, which was, I’m here at Biola, and so I was an internal fellow, and enjoyed that entire semester. And then I was back in the spring for only one afternoon. They only let me come for one day in the spring. And where I was a visiting scholar for that one afternoon.

And so I’ve got sort of this differential, I guess you might say, connection with the CCT, and that actually influenced some of my thinking about what to talk about today with you. And some of it is being a psychologist in an interdisciplinary format such as what CCT provides. And my role as a psychologist meant that I had to kinda get out of my solitary confinement in my discipline, and start to expand and try to understand things from other perspectives. And in our group, we had certainly a number of philosophers. And, of course, many of the folks who are leaders at CCT are philosophers. But we also had, we had folks from the fields of literature, from communication. I know here in the spring semester, a historian.

So it really is a rich fertilization. But sometimes it creates, then, the experience like, how am I going to take all of this and pull it back to my work? Okay? And some of the challenges of that, now these were fun challenges. As a matter of fact, I mean, I could just stay at CCT for the rest of my life, if somehow somebody could afford me to do that, and just be perfectly happy. Just a blast. And I would encourage folks to consider, if a topic comes along, that you’re particularly interested in, to consider applying. But it’s also a challenge, okay.

And so I’m gonna talk a little bit, kind of experientially a bit, about that. And it also ties in with some things that John Recto, I don’t know if he’s here now, but what he said this morning, because it does get at some of the social issues, I think, that are involved as we work on this topic of humility. So, as that, to kinda get things started, there is a handout. If you didn’t receive one, there’s some people in the back that have copies, and just raise your hand. But I would like to first identify, a film clip.

Colonel Jessup, okay, now some of you might remember that name out of film history. But probably not. But if I suddenly said, “You want answers, you can’t handle the truth,” then you probably know, especially if you’re, I found out a lot of my, whoop, I’m losing this, yeah. I found out that a lot of my undergraduate students don’t know that. I’m assuming many of you will know what I’m talking about. I’m talking about the fictional character played by Jack Nicholson in the 1992 movie, “A Few Good Men.”

And probably one of the most famous lines in movie lore history was that statement, “You want answers, you can’t handle the truth.” So we’re gonna look at that scene here for just a moment. I do have to apologize, there’s some rough language in there, and I certainly hope that’s not offensive to folks. But let’s go ahead and get started here. So some interesting things out of that. I need to credit Evan Rosa, the director at CCT, because when he saw this clip, he said, “Ugh, Aristotle’s magnanimous man. “Honor, code, loyalty, “the backbone of a life spent defending something.”

What a great example. It’s one I did not think of. The personification that I thought of was what I would say, being personified by Colonel Jessup, was one that lacked humility. And probably many people, in fact, now I’ve shown that clip to some students, and I asked them, what’s your impression of this individual? And arrogant or lack of humility or something like that is frequently mentioned right off the bat. But on what basis do we make those calls? And I think that’s one of the interesting questions and that’s one that I want to address today. And we’ll come back to Colonel Jessup a little bit later as well.

So there is a thesis, and this is now part of the handout that you have. And I’m not following that handout verbatim. I have some other things to say in addition to what’s there. But the key points are there. That empirically-oriented psychologists, I think, benefit greatly certainly from digesting the philosophical literature on humility and intellectual humility. But as they, as the philosophers dig deeply, and try to get at the core of the concept, I think there comes a point, and this was some of my experience now as a fellow at CCT, that psychologists can simply rely upon some of this philosophical justification of some of these core aspects or considerations of what humility is.

And now, maybe what we need to do as psychologists is to focus primarily on the markers or indicators of humility that’s being proposed through these philosophical accounts. And not worry quite so much of one philosophical justification of the core versus another. Now this is not to say that the philosophical work on humility should be disregarded by psychologists. In fact, I’m saying just the opposite. There’s tremendous value for the psychologist to be well-grounded in this literature.

And that’s one of the neat things about something like the CCT or really any interdisciplinary effort that’s sustained over time. ‘Cause I think you have to have some of that time to really work through some of these issues. And it does provide new understanding and a new way of thinking about something. And we usually just don’t have that luxury so it’s really quite a unique experience that those of us who have been involved in this this past year have to try to understand humility from other than maybe just our own disciplinary perspective. So I think there are a number of coherent structures that are in place now from the philosophers. Some might be better than others. Roberts, Bob Roberts, and Scott Cleveland, in a chapter in the book, “The Handbook of Humility,” that has just come out here this year.

They identified in their chapter, eight different accounts. I’m primarily familiar with the five that are listed there in the handout. And I’m not gonna go through all of those but just kinda highlight them for you. The low concern for status or self-importance. This is the Roberts and Wood account. It seems to me, more and more, especially from Bob Roberts, that maybe this should be renamed the lack of vices of pride account, because that I think is, seems to be much more the central theme now.

And I know we, in the fall semester, we were looking at Bommarito’s discussion of the virtue of modesty that looked quite similar, if you’re at all familiar with his work. Then, of course, there’s the limitations owning account that we heard about this morning from Jason Behr. I’m calling it here, this accurate view of one’s self, or sort of the combination of looking at both strengths and weaknesses, what Jason referred to as the wide view this morning. Versus the narrow view, that’s been offered by Ian Church, and there’s different articles out, but one of the most recent ones is along with Justin Barrett, in the 2017 account, in “The Handbook of Humility.”

Then there’s this other, and I’m having trouble finding really a source that I would point directly to, but there seems to be this theme that’s kinda floating around about another orientation. It was certainly discussed a lot in the fall semester among the fellows. Sort of this willingness to, or disposition or willingness to be with someone for the purposes of their benefit, even if it means lowering one’s social status. This approach might be, some people would say, is wanting in terms of the core of humility, but it certainly is perhaps an important marker or indicator of humility for us psychologists to consider. And then there’s the underestimation of strength approach, which I think has been somewhat, I don’t know, debunked, or a lot of concerns about that particular approach.

And here’s really what I want to say about this. And that is that I think all of these accounts, perhaps except for the last one that’s listed. And, by the way, just a reminder, as I said there’s about eight accounts slightly, just some of them are variants of these that Bob Roberts and Scott Cleveland list in their chapter. I think each one of these, except for perhaps that last one, there’s plenty of fertile soil there for empiricists, okay. There’s plenty to do. So I like to start thinking of, well maybe we should talk about and use some of the names of these different accounts as adjectives, okay. So, a limitation owning humility.

Or a lack of vicious pride humility. Or a low concern for status humility. And simply identify the kind of humility that we’re talking about rather than trying to argue, necessarily, that one is more, is going to, should be the one that we’re going to consider as the definitional criterion of what humility is. In fact, I think once we start doing that, and there’s some reasons why I think that this is important to do it, not the least of which is that, when I hear each one of these accounts, man, there’s a whole bunch of new hypotheses that pop into my head, okay, that I could be testing then. That, and if I was only hearing, well this is what we finally arrived at, not that we probably will arrive at one, but if we ever did, that this is the account of humility, my concern is we would forget about some of the valuable things that some of these other accounts are providing for empirical work. So, with that in mind, I’d like to shift now. Woops, I forgot all about this part of it. Okay. Anyway. [audience chuckles]

Now I’m caught up. Okay. I tend to do that. Psychological accounts. So psychologists are inclined to conceptualize constructs such as humility in kind of a multidimensional or polythetic fashion. June Tangney’s list of different components of humility, or markers of humility, or indicators of humility. That’s the way us psychologists often tend to think of it, in very multidimensional fashion. And there are some drawbacks to this approach in that it can kinda lead to a hodgepodge of ideas without a coherent understanding of the phenomenon under investigation. And sometimes some of those directions can lead us in the wrong direction. That said, there are a number of reasons, given the psychological nature of doing research, and I’ll mention three of these here. Probably that the first two I’m only gonna mention in passing.

One is psychology’s adherence to empirical methodology which requires operational definitions. In other words, by operational definition, probably most of you are aware, but in case not everybody is, it’s a concept that’s defined by the way it is measured. Now usually, once we have developed a measure, hopefully it’s been based on some good conceptual work. Psychologists are aware of the need for a good concept to develop measures by. But just the nature of, sometimes, of how this works, for instance, when we’re trying to develop a good measure, it’s particularly the kind of measure that’s most frequently used, which are multiple items getting at a construct. So multiple questions.

You might have 20 questions that are really trying to get at just one or two ideas out of those questions. But as we do that, usually when we develop this, we develop it with hundreds of items. And then we go through a statistical process, we test all of those items out and we go through a statistical process and we start winnowing it down, looking at those that seem to hang together, correlate with each other, and then we’re trying to say, well what’s that getting at? You see. And, wow, it looks like, in the case of humility, this is kinda getting at well, limitations owning. And here’s a bunch of questions that are perhaps getting at something else.

Maybe it is the vice of pride. Now, the problem is, sometimes they don’t always match up with what we conceptually thought we were getting at in the first place. And then we’re kinda left with a dilemma. ‘Cause wow, the people are telling us these items hang together, we didn’t think they necessarily hung together. As a matter of fact, some that I thought would be vices of pride, they hang with the limitations owning, and you got all these sorts of problems then. But most psychologists will say, “All right, I do want the data to speak here “and I’ve got to try to make sense out of this.”

And so we refer to the operational definition primarily in terms of its measurement value, okay. And that’s how we often do much of our work. And sometimes that creates, because often we’ll have questions, maybe we even intended for those questions just to try to get at one core idea, a uni-dimensional measure. But what fell out of it was three or four dimensions that we had to make sense out of. Okay, that’s one issue.

Another is that, quite simply, oftentimes we find, I mentioned this earlier, multiple dimensions of a construct are often of greater heuristic value in that they generate more ideas that are empirically testable. So often that’s one of the things that was so wonderful about June’s work that it gave us a whole lot of different ideas to consider with regards to this concept of humility. But there’s this third reason and it’s a reason to which I want to give some greater attention to now, and that is that psychologists usually tend to be more interested empirically in how a construct functions, and there may be multiple functions in a person’s life, rather than a detailed empirical analysis of the substance of the construct itself.

That is what matters in the psychological study of humility is primarily the functional value that humility yields. Again, I don’t want to downplay the importance of understanding the substance. In fact, in that “Handbook of Humility” that I mentioned earlier, that Ev Worthington who’s here is the first editor on, along with two of his very bright and energetic former graduate students, Don Davis and Josh Hook, they start out in their introductory chapter, and rightfully so, they say, okay, here are, I don’t remember, five or so, essential questions that have to be answered. And, you guessed it, question number one is what is humility?

So I’m not downplaying the substance of what we’re talking about here, but we have to somehow also see and make a connection with its functional utility as well. At least from a psychological perspective. So, in almost all of the discussion, ah that’s probably an overstatement, most of the discussion, that at least I was familiar with at CTT, focused around the substance of the construct. And we didn’t talk a lot about the functional impact of the construct itself. But it is important to think of humility in terms of its virtuous, or not, function. And so with that in mind, I would like for us to consider three functional topics in our understanding of humility. One is the impact of humility on community.

Secondly, and that is one that we had discussed some, I remember, as fellows this past year. Second is humility as a mediating trait. And I’ll try to explain that in a little more detail. Then humility as a stress-buffering agent. So let’s first talk about community impact. Humility may have its most direct functional impact on the community of people as they collectively operate together. Aquinas thought that humility was an especially important characteristic for those people who are in positions of authority, the politically and socially dominant. Neither a moral narcissism nor a self-annihilating servility is to be desired, according to Aquinas, for the human community. Neither is to be desired for the human community.

Both needs people to act authoritatively and to know when to stop acting authoritatively. Indeed, in helping us to see where, and how, and why power should be limited, humility can assist with the effective exercise of authority. Now if this is at all accurate, then one important way in which to measure humility may be through the perceptions of other people. This is precisely the approach that’s being taken, in our grant team looking at humility in leaders, empirical work looking at humility in leaders, by Brad Owens at BYU. He’s looking specifically at leader effectiveness in corporations and the people who are providing the data aren’t the leaders themselves as much as it is the people, the mid-management people, who are under leaders.

There is research suggesting that humility in leaders establishes a communal social bond in that we are more likely to be motivated to be committed to a relationship if we judge the other person as humble. That has been well-established empirically now. So if you have a boss, for instance, that you perceive as being a humble person, you’re more likely to be committed to working with that person. Or working maybe in a slightly different way with that person. It’s also proposed that humility serves as a social oil in that it helps buffer the frictional wear and tear on social relationships due to competitive tendencies. And again, these are points that have received some empirical documentation.

So, here are some important questions. And those, forgot that, let’s move on. On what basis do we perceive humility in other people? Back to Colonel Jessup. On what basis do we draw a pretty quick impression of whether he’s a humble guy or not? Second, even so, well, let me follow up with that a little bit. Is the community impact, based upon that person, is it due to his or her owning limitations? is it due to some sort of accurate assessment of the self, including one’s strengths? Is it due to an openness on learning? Which nobody, I think, has said, that’s a core characteristic, but it might be an important marker. Is it due to a lack of improper pride? Is it a low concern for status? Is it another orientation?

These, I think, can be very useful empirical questions all touching on humility whether or not it really gets at the core of the construct or not. So even if one of these stands out, can we learn something by investigating any of these markers? And I would suggest that we can. Furthermore, do the markers of humility have a different impact on those being affected? For example, does a limitations owning humility of a corporate leader have a different impact on team performance than does a low concern for status humility? I think, and not necessarily saying one has a stronger impact, they might just have qualitatively different impacts that we don’t know about, but these are all, I think, interesting questions.

So back to Colonel Jessup for just a moment. He felt justified in expecting unquestioning obedience to his authority. Even to the point of covering up his own indirect involvement in the death of a young Marine through what he perceived as necessary disciplining procedures that unfortunately went tragically wrong. Reflecting an unwillingness to acknowledge his own limitations, that, if you would go back and watch the film, you would see that was a theme throughout, as a military leader as well as his inability to admit his preoccupation with status. Some themes that we’ve been talking about here.

And that reflected a misguided or inappropriate pride. Jessup believed that he was the only one capable of handling the truth. And what’s interesting throughout that movie, that it chronicles the negative influence that his arrogance had on subordinates. The community impact. Okay, second functional importance here is mediation. This is, the idea that humility might be a mediating variable. Now, there’s been quite a bit of research that says, yes, humility is an important predictor variable. But it doesn’t seem to have quite the power as a predictor variable that other virtues have. At least in most of our research. For instance, forgiveness or gratitude seems to be a more, a stronger, predictor of things.

At least that’s been my experience with my own research and I think a number of researchers have pointed that out. Humility is important but it’s not a major predictor. So all of that is to say that, well, it might be what we call a mediating variable here. So let me give you a real quick example. And by the way, again, Ev Worthington has referred to humility as the quiet virtue. And if it is indeed a quiet virtue, well maybe [chuckles] it’s gonna be harder for us to tap its influence on human behavior. At any rate, the association of gratitude with well-being has been quite well-established in the literature.

But just as a simple example, we may find that while that impact follows a particular pathway, and it might be that gratitude’s influence on well-being is really gratitude’s influence on humility which influences well-being. See. So the more gracious that we feel, that might actually induce a sense of humility. The more thankful we are might induce a sense of humility which might have an impact then on our sense of well-being. So that’s also a possibility. Another functional value is that it’s a buffer of stress. And with this, I’ll just quickly mention, we have some research, just got published, that says that when people, it’s based upon a national sample, over 3,000 people were studied here. And when people are facing stress, quality of life, the experience of many of our measures of quality of life, go down.

Okay, that’s not surprising. For instance, in this study, there were four measures. Happiness, sense of happiness, life satisfaction, depressed effect, and general anxiety disorder. But what we found was that there is a, here we use the term moderation, a little bit different than mediation, but it interacts with, humility interacts with these findings. That means that people who are low in humility, okay, when they’re facing stressful situations in this national sample, they don’t experience as much of a drop in happiness or as much of a drop in life satisfaction or as much of a drop in, or increase in this case, of depression or generalized anxiety. Okay, so in that sense, humility may, we think, be a buffer of stress.

Five reasons that are listed there and maybe I’ll just, since they’re on your handout, I think all five are there, are they not? The five reasons as a buffer of stress. I probably won’t go over them just to save some time. Because what I’d like to do now is just to shift in the last few minutes here to the topic of grace, okay, which is a growing interest that I have. And I’m particularly interested in the functional importance of humility on the embodiment of grace. Grace is an understudied phenomenon by psychologists of religion, however, a recent paper on the topic that was written by Bob Emmons and myself and Justin Barrett and Kelly Kapic.

And it just dawned on me, all four of us have been tied in with CCT over the last few years in one form or another. And we just got a paper accepted in a secular APA journal. The title of the journal is “Psychology of Religion and Spirituality” but it’s still a secular journal. And it’s actually a special issue that Sarah Schnitger, is that right? You’re involved in, or, what’s that?

Woman: Coming out in August.

Okay, August, that’s news to me, I didn’t know that. Okay, great. So, but in doing that, we discovered in doing some research on this, we discovered, well, first of all, grace isn’t just strictly a Christian concept. It’s a concept in other religious traditions. Although I think it can clearly be argued that, well, I don’t know if I, clearly be argued, it can be argued, that it’s probably a more central concept in Christianity than it is in some other religious traditions. And, of course, we can’t study grace directly, especially divine grace, but we can study perceptions of grace and how those perceptions function in daily living.

Once again, a functional approach. So in that paper, we define grace as the gift of acceptance given unconditionally and voluntarily to an undeserving person by an unobligated giver. Now, by the way, I presented this last fall and, to the fellows at CCT, and I got a lot of pushback on this definition. As a matter of fact, one said, “A definition like that just begs for a debate among philosophers.” [audience chuckles] But at any rate, that’s the definition that we were working with. And in that definition, the term obligation, as it says here, refers to social expectations concerning how the agent and recipient should normally act due to differences in status, role, or whether the recipient has wronged the agent.

Indeed, actually, grace involves the agent being anti-obligated to act. That was, I think, the term that really got the philosophers all hot and bothered. But anyway. Not merely un-obligated in that it operates under conditions of complete discharge of such social obligations. Now, psychologists have studied a lot of things related to grace, but not really grace itself, and this is where the substance of the definition really does start getting important. ‘Cause we study things like altruism, love, compassion, mercy, forgiveness, justice, gratitude. All that are somewhat related to grace but really we don’t think are quite tapping the concept of grace itself. So there’s all sorts of promising areas of grace research.

There’s important implications for mental health functioning. [exhales deeply] Boy, when you think about this in Christian theology, the doctrine of grace is inextricably linked with the doctrine of sin, such that without a proper understanding of sin, the benefits of grace may not be fully realized. So the person who believes that sin does not leave one in despair but rather has been redemptively handled by a gracious God may be less inclined to suffer from a shame-based distress. There’s actually some research that seems to support that notion.

There’s also many ironies regarding grace. Obstacles to grace that we could discuss. I’m out of time, but, and let me just, given the transforming power of grace, Too-lee-an, I can never pronounce his last name, Too-jiv? You can pronounce it, Josh. I remember you correcting me before.

Josh: Tru-vid-ee-an.

Tru-vid-ee-an. Okay, he wrote a book in 2013, and he talked about Zacchaeus, the biblical character. And one of the things that we don’t know about, or don’t, we know about it but we don’t often emphasize it, about Zacchaeus is he was really reviled, okay [chuckling], in his community. He was a tax collector for Rome so he was viewed as a traitor. Tax collectors were never well-received just as they aren’t today. But back then, it was usually viewed as a lot of criminal activity that was going on. So, I’ll just call him Too-lee-an. He called Zacchaeus the Bernie Madoff of his day, okay. You remember Bernie Madoff, the man who bilked $65 million from his clients and is now serving 250 years in prison. And yet Christ didn’t chew Zacchaeus out, He just said, “I want to come to your house.”

And the transforming power in that to where what eventually arrived was this statement from Zacchaeus. “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor “and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, “I restored fourfold.” So grace, I think, has a great transforming power, but yet there are obstacles. Why is that we are not willing to often receive grace? And this is where I think the topic of humility can come in. Does the reception of grace, does the reception of grace violate, for instance, our sense of control of our own lives by placing ourselves at the mercy of another? A person who’s humble may be less prone to think that way. Does grace create an uncomfortable sense of obligation to the un-obligated giver?

Does humility, a sense of humility, help in processing a question such as that? If grace is directed toward someone else, are we likely to develop a sense of unfairness as exemplified by the older brother in the parable of “The Prodigal Son?” Maybe a humble person is less likely to think that way. So this, and this interaction might be different, whether we’re talking about limitations owning, whether we’re talking about improper pride, other-oriented accurate sense of self, and so forth. So with that, I’ll just conclude and be done here.

And that is that determining the core characteristics of humility is helpful but not absolutely crucial. Many of the philosophical accounts already established provide, it’s certainly an adequate coherent theoretical structure. And functional utility is what will fuel psychological research on humility. And I think it’s a potentially very important variable for understanding how grace is embodied or resisted. Thank you very much.