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It’s Time to Show Some Respect for Humility

New research suggests why it's worth looking at narcissism's opposite.

Do you ever become tired of hearing about narcissism and narcissists? Do you find it depressing to follow the exploits of people, either those you know or those in the media, who constantly brag about their greatness? Despite how annoying it is to see how selfish and self-centered they seem, somehow you can’t stop yourself from tracking their path of self-aggrandizing updates on social media. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a palate cleanser of someone who seems truly deserving of your time and attention?

Psychology seems to be drawing a similar conclusion, as indicated by new research on humility by Duke University’s Chloe Banker and Mark Leary (2020). Turning the tables on narcissistic entitlement, this research could provide exactly that reset needed for psychology to focus once again on the laudatory qualities in human nature.

As background, think about why the quality of humility fails to garner the same level of magnetic attraction as the entitlement shown by someone high in narcissism. People who are truly humble will avoid having attention drawn to them. Their accomplishments may be far greater than that of the entitled narcissist (in fact, they probably are) but because they prefer not to stand out, you most likely will not even know about those accomplishments.

The quality of narcissistic entitlement is not limited to prominent figures in the media but is one that you undoubtedly encounter in your own everyday life. An in-law who appears at every family gathering (virtual or otherwise) full of personal news embellished with long and detailed stories emphasizing how well-liked she is, successful at work, or just plain great.

You know for a fact that another one of your relatives has a far better track record and, on top of all that, is generously giving her time to the community. She volunteers at a soup kitchen, donates clothing and other essentials to a local charity, and has received several service awards. No one but you, and maybe a couple of other people, are aware of all this activity, and only then because one of you read something on a community Facebook page.

The Banker and Leary study provides insight into what drives those very different relatives of yours. Examining what the authors refer to with the elaborate term “hypo-egoic nonentitlement,” you can think of humility as the opposite of “egoic entitlement,” or a belief held by some “that other people should treat them differently as a person because of their accomplishments or positive characteristics” (p. 739).

Narcissistic or “egoic” entitlement, in other words, can occur when people who receive special treatment for their own accomplishments in a given field expect special treatment outside of that field. People who excel in their sport, for example, may expect that their victories on the field should translate into getting a wide range of perks off the field. In part, these expectations derive from the praise of their followers but especially their managers, agents, coaches, and others who offer them protection from the need to take care of their everyday necessities.

Egoic entitlement may also occur, however, when people who actually haven’t succeeded at anything in particular feel that they somehow merit special status. These may be the social media influencers who sometimes draw vast audiences based on nothing but charisma and expert marketing strategies.

Breaking down the concept of humility into scientific terms, Banker and Leary began their investigation by asking an online sample (213 people ranging from 18-72 years of age) to describe an accomplishment or characteristic of which they were proud and then rate their agreement with these five statements:

  1. This characteristic or accomplishment makes me a more special person than I would be if I did not have it.

  2. People should treat me differently because I have this characteristic or accomplishment.

  3. People should like me more because I have this characteristic or accomplishment.

  4. People should respect me more because I have this characteristic or accomplishment.

  5. People should give me special treatment because I have this characteristic or accomplishment.

Next, participants rated themselves on personality measures assessing humility, narcissism, and self-esteem. The humility scale included items such as “To be completely honest, I feel that I am better than most people” (reverse-scored) and “I feel that I do not have very many weaknesses” (reverse scored).” Additionally, this first sample of participants rated their own view and that of other people regarding their accomplishments or characteristics.

Try this experiment yourself.

What accomplishments do you feel particularly proud of?

Have you ever felt that your "specialness" should be rewarded with special privileges? 

You may feel that you're a humble person, but have any of those attitudes leaked into your interactions with others?

As the authors predicted, people high in the personality quality of humility also showed a low sense of entitlement toward being treated as special because of their accomplishments or characteristics. Surprisingly, perhaps, humility scores did not relate to self-esteem. The humble not only felt they weren’t particularly special, but that they also didn’t deserve to be treated as special.

Using a more extensive set of measures, the authors went on to gather data from another sample using the characteristics and accomplishments from the first study as prompts to jog the memories of this second sample. Some examples for participants to consider included such areas as academics, athletics, special knowledge, appearance, awards, career, or even just personality characteristics. As additional data-gathering procedures, participants also had to rate how hard or easy it was for them to name their own laudatory qualities. Again, the “treated as special” belief became a key focus of this second phase of the research.

In addition to self-esteem and humility, Banker and Leary administered personality measures pertaining to beliefs in collectivism vs. individualism, identification with humanity, and prosocial (or altruistic) relationships. 

Once again, the findings on entitlement supported the hypothesis that the humble rarely expect to get more than their fair share of attention. As Banker and Leary concluded, “People who believe they deserve preferential or special consideration appear more likely to place their needs ahead of those of others” (p. 749). Interestingly, area of accomplishment had little relationship to humility scores in general. The one major exception was in the area of athletic achievement. The authors mused, “Why people who claim athletic characteristics and accomplishments are generally less humble is not clear” (p. 749). By bringing humility into the spotlight, the Duke researchers indeed provide a much-needed counterpoint to psychology’s preoccupation with narcissism. There are people out there who aren’t clamoring for your attention. They see their accomplishments for what they are, and don’t feel that these give them the right to be afforded any more or any less than their fellow humans. Without feeling a need to blow their own horns, they may listen in on those calls or conversations where the more “egoic” try to take credit for their accomplishments. Isn't it much nicer to interact with them than with the self-aggrandizers in your social circle? To sum up, focusing on those who are humble rather than those who are narcissists can help you appreciate the brighter side of human nature. It may just be the best way to lift your own spirits when the events of the outside world sap your energy, allowing you to find fulfillment in their inspiring acts.

References Banker, C. C., & Leary, M. R. (2020). Hypo-egoic nonentitlement as a feature of humility. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 46(5), 738–753. doi: 10.1177/0146167219875144

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