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Humility and helpfulness go hand-in-hand, study shows

Lindsay MacAdam
Shine On
May 4, 2012

Have you ever noticed that the most humble people are always the ones offering to lend a hand when you need it most? According to an American study led by psychologist Jordan LaBouff from the University of Maine, that's no coincidence.

A connection between being humble and helpful is not a new one, as evolutionary theory has previously suggested it.

However, the researchers from this study set out to explore this theory by defining humility and how to go about measuring it.

"We defined humility as being relatively down-to-earth and capable of understanding one's own strengths and weaknesses appropriately, not underestimating or overestimating them," says LaBouff to Time.

Related: The pursuit of happiness can make you less happy, say researchers

The experiment involved 117 college students who were each required to fill out an online questionnaire in return for academic credit. The questions were centred around the participants' levels of humility, their personality traits and their volunteer involvement.

The results: Of all the characteristics measured, helpfulness and humility were the most closely linked, reports Time.

But since people aren't always the best judges of their own character traits, the researchers also conducted an implicit association test for another 95 students, which determined their unconscious attitudes based on their reaction time to various words.

Again, the humility-helpfulness link remained strong -- students who ranked high for implicit humility were willing to offer 43 per cent more of their time to help others than the students who had low humility scores.

Related: Letting go of hard-to-attain goals improves quality of life: study

LaBouff weighs in on why this connection might exist.

"There are several reasons why humility might lead to more helpful behaviour," LaBouff tells LiveScience. "One aspect of humility is relatively low self-focus; humble persons may have more time, resources and attention to direct towards peers in need."

The final experiment by LaBouff's team looked at the impact of peer pressure on willingness to help, and it revealed that when social pressure was involved, implicit humility didn't make any difference.

Meaning, regardless of whether participants scored low or high on the humility ranking, wanted to appear helpful when their peers were paying attention.

"Americans overwhelmingly say that they value humility," says LaBouff to Time. "They want their friends to be humble and they say they want to be humble, but expressions of it tend to be rare."

While humility is proven to be valued in our society, self-promotion may be an important way to get ahead.

A follow-up study by the same research team found that humble people have a harder time moving up in their careers, even when they're in managerial positions where they produce more engaged and committed employees, reports Time.

How have you observed connections between humility and helpfulness in your own life?

Watch the video below about an extreme act of helpfulness -- a man rescuing a child from a horrific car crash.

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