Be Humble, and Proudly, Psychologists Say

Credit…Francesco Ciccolella

In their day jobs, research psychologists don’t typically need safety goggles, much less pith helmets or Indiana Jones bullwhips. There’s no rappelling into caves to uncover buried scrolls, no prowling the ocean floor in spherical subs, no tuning of immense, underground magnets in the hunt for ghostly subatomic particles.

Still, psychologists do occasionally excavate the habits of lost civilizations. In a paper published in the latest issue of Current Directions in Psychological Science, a team of researchers reviewed studies of a once-widespread personal trait, one “characterized by an ability to accurately acknowledge one’s limitations and abilities, and an interpersonal stance that is other-oriented rather than self-focused.” Humility.

“Research on humility has been growing, and fast,” said Daryl Van Tongeren, a psychologist at Hope College in Michigan and lead author of the new paper. “It was time to bring people up-to-date and lay out the open questions to guide further research.”

In an era that future historians might not immediately label “The Age of the Mensch,” the study of humility amounts to a bold contrary bet, like shorting the California cannabis market. The word “humble” travels so often now as a verb that embodying its gentler spirit, the adjective, can be an invitation to online trolling, professional invisibility or worse. Oscar Wilde wrote that, before he found humility, he spent two years behind bars experiencing “anguish that wept aloud” and “misery that could find no voice” — which sounds more like defeat than victory.