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The Table Video

June Tangney

Scientific Study of Humility - June Tangney

University Professor and Professor of Psychology, George Mason University
July 13, 2017

Much progress has been made in conceptualizing humility as a multi-dimensional construct and in developing a broad range of measures that capture one or more elements of humility. June Tangney contrasts lay definitions of humility as low self-esteem with the emerging scientific definition of humility as a virtue. She then discusses advances in the assessment of humility, noting linkages between recent measures and various components of the larger construct. Finally, she offers several cautions as researchers forge ahead, armed with these new measures. Specifically, it’s important to select outcomes of humility that are distinct from characteristics or behaviors assessed by humility measures themselves. Relatedly, given the richness and complexity of the current psychological/ philosophical definition of humility, it is important to avoid the danger of “construct creep” – e.g., including consequences of humility (other related but distinct constructs) in the definition and assessment of humility per se.


So, this is a psychologist’s perspective on conceptual and methodological issues in the scientific study of humility, and I realize we have many philosophers, and I want to say I have been very, very much influenced by the opportunity to work with philosophers through the John Templeton Foundation, and much of what I’ll be talking about today I think links up and was informed by our experiences through Pete Hill’s multi-site study on intellectual humility. So, just a little bit of background.

For many years, 20th-century psychology was focusing on big problems. There was much concern about the two big wars, about the Holocaust, about the level of violence and aggression in society. And so, we spent a lot of time focusing on negative things. On bad behaviors. So, what you see up in the upper-right hand corner, the classic Bobo doll experiment of kids hitting Bobo dolls after watching violent television, the Milgram experiment, the Stanford Prison Experiment and such. And so we were really focused on the negative for many, many years.

And positive psychology arrived in psychology essentially in 1998, just maybe 30 years ago, 20 years ago. And this was Marty Seligman’s theme for his term as president of APA, and it brought along a new interest in, among psychologists, in character strengths and virtues, which had been largely just relegated to God knows what prior to that. And what we’ve seen is just really an explosion of research and forgiveness and gratitude and hope and optimism, and most recently, an intellectual and general humility, much of this funded by the John Templeton Foundation. So, humility, of all the character strengths and virtues, humility really stands out as one of the most humble and neglected.

And I think there’s, you know, a number of reasons for this. One key factor hindering scientific study of humility has been the problem of measurement. Until relatively recently, there was no widely accepted definition of humility among psychologists. I know that the philosophers will be debating this for millennia, but we try to get consensus so we can measure something. And then, because we didn’t have a definition, we didn’t have a widely accepted, reliable, valid measures of humility. And this really is a big problem, because if you can’t define it, you can’t measure it. And if you can’t measure it, you can’t study it.

So, what is humility? Many people have spoken about the low self-esteem view, and I think that’s held by many laypersons who are unfamiliar with the rich literature that we have been talking about here over the last couple days. And you’ve seen the Oxford English Dictionary definition, focusing on lowliness, humbleness, the opposite of pride or haughtiness. And in other dictionaries, I want to point out, humility is simply defined as the state of being humble. [audience laughs] Okay? And humble, as you’ve seen, really is pretty negative. I mean, we’re talking, of little worth, unimportant, common, lacking self-esteem, having a sense of insignificance, unworthiness, dependence, or sinfulness, meek, penitent. Not me! I don’t want that.

And I think we need a new word, actually. Humile would be helpful as an adjective describing humility as opposed to humble, which I think raises up all kinds of, um, baggage that, sort of linguistic baggage. Okay, so, in contrast to the low self-esteem view, theologists, philosophers, and more recently, psychological scientists portray humility in much more positive terms, and as a rich, multifaceted concept.

Back in 2000, I got together with a bunch of undergraduates, we did a directed readings and just read the literature in psychology. We also looked at the philosophy literature, theology, and then were really influenced by Sir John Templeton’s Laws of Life. And I want to point out that this is not the be-all and end-all definition of humility. Other people have their own definitions, but one common theme across different definitions of humility is that they tend to be multifaceted, and there’s a lot of overlap in the kinds of sort of subdimensions that seem to, people talk about as comprising humility.

Okay. So, today I’ll just be talking about my initial take on this, which is certainly open to revision. And based on our review of the literature, we thought that the key elements of humility that kept popping up across different disciplines, different writings and like that is, first of all, this accurate assessment of one’s abilities and achievements. Not underassessment but an accurate assessment. Secondly, a willingness to acknowledge mistakes, gaps in knowledge, and limitations. Third, openness to new ideas, to contradictory information, and also to advice.

And then, this low self-focus, this forgetting of the self, this focus more on the outside as opposed to on me, myself, what everything means about me and how it reflects on me. And then there’s this notion of keeping one’s abilities and accomplishments, one’s place in the world, in perspective. One may be very accomplished in one area, but there are other people who are well-accomplished too, and there’s other things that we can’t do as well or sometimes don’t do very well at all.

And along with that comes an appreciation of the value of all people. The notion that everyone has unique gifts and talents, even if they don’t match our own. So, that’s kind of my initial take, our initial take, on what comprises humility. And you’ll see that some measures focus on just one component of humility. For example, this accurate self-evaluation. That’s something that people can evaluate, so people, participants, will describe, rate themselves on some characteristic, and then you get an alternative source and look at how accurate they are. But one thing to note about this is that that’s just one piece of the pie.

And, actually, this is a construct where all of these different pieces are kind of interconnected and inform one another, encourage one another, and it’s really the whole that’s much greater than the sum of the parts. Another way to think about this in statistical terms, or conceptual statistical terms, is using latent variable kinds of models. And the typical model is on, that you see in latent variable models, is on the– I always get left and right wrong. The left side. Where humility is a whole that is reflected in multiple items. And we see this, like, for example, with self-esteem. That self-esteem is pretty nice, tight construct, and you can ask it in ten different ways. I feel good about myself, in general. I’m, you know, worth as much as other people. That kind of thing. And so this construct is reflected in the items.

I think humility really is more of a formative variable, where humility is not just reflected in these different pieces, but it is kind of the sum of the parts, the whole, or at least some subset of these multiple dimensions. Okay. So, an important question then is, we can talk about what humility is, it’s also important to know what humility is not. What are the boundaries around the construct? And that’s something Jason Bare spoke so eloquently about in yesterday’s morning session. So, humility is not low self-esteem.

It’s not an underestimate of one’s abilities or accomplishments or worth. Humility is related to but distinct from modesty. Modesty focuses on moderate estimates of personal merits or achievements, so kind of lower. And it also extends to propriety in behavior and dress, which is kind of irrelevant to humility as we talk about, so, physical modesty. And so, it’s really a construct that’s both too narrow, because it misses fundamental components of humility as we’re thinking about it, and it’s also too broad, because it relates to bodily exposure and other dimensions of propriety that really are irrelevant to humility per se.

One question is whether there’s an opposite to humility. I know this has come up a little bit yesterday. Is humility a unipolar construct, where people are either, you know, low, very low on humility or very high on humility, and there’s a range there, or is it bipolar, where humility is on the high end and something else is on the low end? There’s an opposite. For example, narcissism. And I want to argue that narcissism is really not the opposite of humility. Narcissists clearly lack humility.

Okay? There’s no question about that. They’re very self-focused and often self-aggrandizing. But the absence of narcissism can’t be equated with the presence of humility. So, there are people who are low on narcissism, who may or may not have an accurate assessment of their abilities and achievements. They may or may not have the capacity to become unselved. Well, they probably don’t. So, it’s just one piece, really, and, so, I don’t see it as exactly the opposite. That you have a continuum that’s bipolar. What about pride? There was a lot of discussion about pride, and I’m rethinking even as we speak based on Jason’s talk yesterday, but my thought is that pride is not really the opposite of humility.

I think a person with humility may experience well-deserved pride, first of all, and accurately assessing an achievement, or… behavior that, you know, selects the better, the good road, as opposed to the bad road that you’re attracted to and like that. And I think it’s also possible to feel pride in the group in what we accomplish together, in a very real, accurate, authentic sort of sense. And I think, most likely, pride in group/team, as well as self, is something that goes along with humility. What about arrogance? That’s another construct that’s been thought of as sort of the opposite of humility. And I want to give you an example of somebody who’s not arrogant but is not humile either.

So, a person who is very self-deprecating, self-focused, and… focused on seeking assurance, so, “Oh, I gave the worst talk today. You know, out of all the talks that were done at the humility conference, mine was really the worst. I was so nervous seeing all these philosophers that I just couldn’t even listen to them. I didn’t want to hear what they had to say. And don’t you think mine was, like, the worst?” [audience laughs] That’s not humility. Okay? That’s not arrogance, but that’s not humility. Okay, so. And I wonder if you all have any thoughts about other potential polar opposites of humility. Think about it.

It’s something we can talk about during discussion time. Okay. So, my best guess is that it’s unipolar. That we don’t have to look for an opposite, and that will keep us really tight on what the construct is. Okay, so, humility is not low self-esteem, it’s not modesty, it’s not simply a lack of narcissism or pride and such, and it’s a positive, multifaceted virtue that’s likely unipolar is my guess. Okay, so, how do we measure it? If we have some at least idea of what the construct is, why can’t we ask people straight out, how much humility do you have? Or how humble are you, on a 1-5 scale?

We can ask about other important constructs straight out. How satisfied are you with your life? People respond to that. Just a couple items will do it. How is your health? Single item. Best, really, really strong predictor of mortality. So, we can ask other things straight out, but why not humility? And one of the problems is that people are apt to misunderstand what we’re asking. So if people are thinking the low self-esteem account, we’re not talking about the same thing. We’re not assessing the same thing. And even worse with humble. How humble are you? That I think people are not going to be thinking about humile the way that we are thinking about it.

So, measurement by its nature, humility has real challenges in this area, and it’s something that I never had the guts to address and attempt, but I’m delighted that Pete Hill and many others have in the last few years, especially. And I do want to say, I’ve been very much influenced by this multi-site project funded by the Templeton Foundation to look at intellectual and general humility. And what I’ve seen from that project and from others who are doing work in the field now, it’s really starting to become a much more popular topic for research in psychology, is that people are using essentially five different approaches to measuring dispositional humility. So, I’m not gonna talk about state humility today.

So, generally, how much do people have humility on, you know, a continuum. And people use self reports, they use a comparison between self evaluations and other sources, informant ratings, behavioral observations, and the implicit association test. And I’ll go through each briefly and just talk about what they are and what some of the pros and cons are of each approach. So, self report. Beyond how much humility do you have. It’s possible to come up with self report measures that tap into these multiple components of humility.

And before we get into how to do that, I want to give a caution about several measures that, early measures, that pop up in the literature a fair amount. The values and action… measure and the HEXACO measure that comes out of, oh, I think IO psychology more than any place else. Industrial-organizational psychology. So, about the VIA strengths inventory. This is probably the first one developed by Peterson and Seligman. There’s a 10-item modesty-humility subscale, and I’ll give you an example of some of the items. People are drawn to me because I am humble. [audience laughs] I don’t know where that came from. I am proud that I am an ordinary person. I am always humble about the good things that have happened to me.

So, not the best measure of humility. It doesn’t hold together very well, and it doesn’t really match up much with, kind of, more contemporary or recent psychological conceptualizations. The HEXACO. You’ll see lots and lots of research on HEXACO, and this is sort of an extension of the five-factor personality model. They argue that there’s a sixth factor, which is labeled honesty-humility, and there are four facets. This is a large scale with four sub-scales, and the sub-scales are sincerity, fairness, greed-avoidance, and modesty. Modesty meaning sincere, fair, unassuming, not sly, greedy, or pretentious.

Okay, so, basically, it doesn’t really measure humility. Okay? Modesty– There’s no humility in there. Modesty is one of four facets, and somehow it got labeled humility-modesty, and so people, because the name is in the title, use it as a measure of humility, and it’s just a reminder that you really need to look at the items, not just the name of a measure. The name of a measure can be very misleading. You want to go down to item level. Is it getting at what you think of as humility? Okay, so, my recommendations are don’t use these.

Okay, so for self reports, there’s a range of new measures, many that came out of the Templeton Intellectual Humility initiatives, So, yes, you know, take a look at them. They’re coming out now in press, and… I think really offer a very rich array, and to pick one that matches what you want to measure. There are things like, not I’m humble, but things like, I admit when I don’t know how to do something. I take notice of other’s strengths. I’m willing to learn from others.

So, really operationalizing some of these pieces of the pie, the larger, conceptual pie for humility. So, what are the pros and cons of self report? I’m a little bias, ’cause I’m a self-report person. It’s easily administered. And it can simultaneously capture multiple components of humility as opposed to just one piece of the pie. Some of the cons are you tend to have low internal consistency. I think that’s because it’s a multifaceted construct.

There’s always the question of social desirability, so something to watch out for and control for, although initial results suggest that controlling for social desirability doesn’t change the results much at all. It does require some honest insight. You know, into one’s experiences on a day-to-day basis. And it is less applicable to young respondents and to people with limited vocabulary, English vocabulary. Okay, another approach. Discrepancies between self ratings and other sources, so, the other source could be an objective measure of achievement.

So, one person could rate, you know, themselves on how good they are academically, and then we could look at their grades. Coaches ratings of ability. Supervisor ratings of performance. Peer ratings. People have used a lot of different sources. So, the pros for this kind of approach is it’s a really, really good operationalization of accuracy if you’ve got a good other source.

No question about that. One of the cons is that it’s expensive. You have to get data from another source that is familiar with the participant or that’s relevant to what was rated. And you can only assess one piece of that humility pie, the accuracy and self-perception, not the other pieces that might be in your definition. Informant ratings.

This is another approach where a significant other, a friend, a teacher, an employer, or an employee completes a humility scale from the perspective of the target. So, how do you think so-and-so would answer this? Or, how do you see so-and-so that way? And that’s a really kind of exciting approach. One thing is that there seems to be a high convergence between self reports and romantic partner reports. There’s substantially lower correspondence for casual acquaintances, coworkers, and friends. So, in terms of the pros and cons of this approach, you can assess multiple components of humility simultaneously.

So, get different pieces of the pie. It circumvents social desirability problems. It circumvents that paradoxical dilemma of, you know, how much are you evaluating yourself and reflecting on yourself when part of humility is be not selved, and now I’m being so self-focused. But some of the cons are it is expensive. I mean, it’s expensive to go out and get significant others ratings, you know, as opposed to just ratings from self report. And it has to be somebody who’s really familiar with the person across multiple contexts, like a romantic partner. Just a casual acquaintance is not going to be very tuned into the level of a person’s empathy, uh, I’m sorry, humility. All right. Behavioral observations.

So, another thing we could do is instead of asking people or asking significant others, we can just observe people’s behavior and have behavioral markers of humility. So things like, acknowledges limits in knowledge. You know, in their maybe discussions with other people or in their writings. Attends to information that’s contrary to beliefs. That’s something you could do in an experimental study. Expressing appreciation towards others. So you could think of a lot of other behavioral observations that might be markers of some of these different pieces of the conceptual pie. Pros and cons.

Well, it circumvents social desirability bias. You know, you’re watching what people are doing. They’re not necessarily aware that you’re observing. It circumvents that paradoxical dilemma of reflecting on the self. But, again, this is an expensive approach, and it assesses only one piece of the humility pie. Each one of these. Now you could have multiple observations, but that would get awfully expensive. All right. And then, the implicit attitude test, or, I’m sorry, implicit association test. I don’t know how many people are familiar with this, probably not most of the philosophers.

It’s an attempt to get at implicit, not explicit, beliefs or attitudes, and it was first developed in trying to assess implicit racism, but it’s been expanded to use in a lot of different areas. So, it’s a computerized assessment. People see on the screen, words that are associated with humility or arrogance, and they’re briefly presented in conjunction with the self or some other person. And the measure is of reaction time, and so, if you think of yourself as being arrogant, you’ll hit much more quickly when self and arrogant are paired together than self and humility or vice versa.

So, the pros of this implicit association test, the IAT, is that it circumvents social desirability bias, the paradoxical dilemma. It’s relatively convenient and inexpensive. It can be done by a computer. It can be done, you know, long distance over the computer. Cons are, two-week stabilities are low, so, people who retake this two weeks later don’t get the same scores. It requires knowledge of the definition of humility, if you have humility words: humility, humble, that kind of thing. And it doesn’t correlate with informant reports, which is of some concern in terms of validity. Okay, so, what’s the best measure of dispositional humility? Can’t say.

I think it really depends on your definition of humility and what you want to zero in on, but you’ve got, you know, there are multiple, multiple approaches, and you just want to think about the match and how much of humility you’re getting in. Is that what you want? So, I’m gonna close with a few cautions going forward. One thing is to be careful to avoid redundancy between the measure of humility and the outcome of humility.

So, when we start looking at what humility predicts, we want to be careful that there’s not contamination between the independent variable and the dependent variable. So, for example, if I’m interested in… acknowledging limits, and one of the items on my self report measure is, I seek new information when uncertain. 1-5, okay? Rate that. That’s part of the measure. Then, what you can’t do is see how that measure predicts whether people are gonna seek new information when uncertain out in the world. Right? ‘Cause it’s just redundant with what you already asked them. So, these behavioral markers can’t be in the self report measure.

You have to be careful that the outcome is distinct from what it is that you’re measuring when you measure humility. Another caution is to be careful, and this was Jason’s point earlier, not to expand humility to included other related but distinct constructs is something that psychologists call construct creep. Thank you. So, one example is appreciation of others. Well, gee, if I appreciate others, the logic goes, well then I would have empathy for them, maybe? And so let’s include empathy in the measure of appreciation for others. Well, empathy is a different construct, and it’s got a whole literature, so that’s one thing.

Now we’re mushing together two things that don’t really belong together. These are distinct constructs. And what it does is it precludes our opportunity to look at if, in fact, empathy leads, or, I’m sorry, humility leads to empathy. We can’t do that if empathy is part of the assessment. Okay, so, summary and future directions. Humility is a rich, multifaceted construct with potential important implications for many aspects of life. Much recent work has been devoted to measurement development, and we really have the tools now to tackle some really, really big questions.

Questions that we’ve been dying to get at for, what, years now. And just a few that stand out for me: In what specific contexts is humility adaptive? And via what mechanisms? Are there circumstances in which humility is a liability? What are the implications of humility for leadership? How and in what domains certainly relevant today. Are there gender and/or cultural differences in the meaning and implications of humility? And then, how can we help parents and teachers and therapists foster an adaptive sense of humility?

So, I’d like to thank the John Templeton Foundation for the support in this adventure. Pete Hill, who has been a sort of mentor and guide, and the intellectual humility philosophers and psychologists in that group, and also Laura Wimer, who helped me with– I can’t do these pictures, so she was really helpful with that. So, thank you very much.