Motivation and emotion/Book/2022/Humility

What is humility, what causes it, and is it desirable?


By definition, humility describes one's spiritual attitude of modesty that comes from understanding one's place in a larger order of matters. This chapter intends to discuss the true meaning of humility from its definition, its causes and its desirability. The importance of this chapter is to alter the wrong definition of humility in people's minds (for example, equating humility with lowliness, low self-esteem or vulnerable).

Focus questions:

  • What is humility?
  • What causes humility?
  • Is humility desirable?

  Example: Jacob is a high school student who enjoys helping his peers and teachers at school whenever they need his help. Though most people that had interacted with him in the past were grateful about his on-time assistance, Jacob soon discovered a group of kids who liked to order him around even when they could have done the task themselves and started to refuse their unreasonable requests. After a while, these kids started to call Jacob names. Though Jacob didn't understand why these kids were hostile toward him, he accepted the fact that these kids didn't like him and continued with his usual routine of helping others out.

Figure 1. Personated picture of humility and arrogance.

What is humility?Edit

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Humility in religious viewsEdit

Since the beginning of mankind's history, religions have acted as the guidance to the appropriate behaviors within the population across the world. Though specific accepted behaviors may differ in different religions, one common goal of the more popular religions is to help their believers to achieve a better self. These religions praised a number of virtues as goals to achieve this better self; and one of these virtues is humility(Peterson & Seligman, 2004). These religions often asked the believers to think in terms of the teachings from the docrines instead of in terms of their own thoughts to keep them humble-minded; and they often suggest their believers to be in others' service. For example, in the Christian Bible, Jesus warned his followers against hypocrisy in Matthew 23:12: "For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted." (, 2019); and in a Buddhist docrine[spelling?], Shantideva, a Buddhist master, wrote to his followers the following: "Ordering others around for my own self-aims, I'll experience being a servant and worse; but ordering myself around for the aims of others, I'll experience being a lord and better." ( These examples suggest an universal view by religions on humility: to lower oneself below others, both mentally and physically.

Humility in the modern daysEdit

Humility is no longer considered as a virture[spelling?] in the modern days, but rather a personality trait. According to the APA dictionary of psychology, Humility is defined as "the quality of being humble, characterized by a low focus on the self, an accurate sense of one's accomplishments and worth, and an acknowledgment of one's limitations, imperfections, mistakes, gaps in knowledge, and so on". This is consistent with the teachings on humility from religious doctrines; however, there are some differences presented: the modern view asks people to focus themselves less without the presence of a worshipped model and without having to lower oneself below others in mental or physical ways; rather, the modern view asks people to see and present themselves exactly as how they are, and view the self equally as others instead of dominating others.{{fact))

Peterson and Seligman (2004) suggested humility as a strength of the temperament. They concluded 6 characteristics of humility from Tangney's previous works:

  • An accurate sense of one's abilities and accomplishments;
  • Being able to acknowledge one's mistakes;
  • An openness to new ideas, even if they were contrary to the ideas of self;
  • An ability to keep one's abilities and accomplishments in perspective;
  • To be able to "forget oneself";
  • An appreciation of all things as valuable.

Has humility always been viewed the same?[awkward expression?]


What causes humility?Edit

Figure 2. Family environment plays a major part in fostering humility in children.

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Fostering humility in childrenEdit

Peterson and Seligman (2004) suggested the possible usefulness of secure attachment promoting strategies in fostering humility in children, as the sense of security may come from secure attachment and act as a buffer against the effects of negative feedback. However, they also noted that this sense of security may not foster humility on its own, as highly secured individuals may become arrogant without the presence of realistic feedback. They therefore suggested a few crucial elements in fostering humility in children: to convey the importance of both positive feedback and negative feedback in a caring and respectful atmosphere, to allow the child have awe-inspiring experiences, to educate the child about the limits of human knowledge, and to let the child encounter failures and disappointments.

Peterson and Seligman (2004) also suggested a "not to do" list in fostering humility in children, listed as below:

  • To put extreme emphasis on the child's external sense of self-evaluation (for example, performance, appearance or popularity), or to have perfectionist performance standards;
  • Making inaccurate, excessive praise or criticism;
  • To make frequent comparison of the child against siblings or peers, especially if this comparison is accompanied by competitive messages; and
  • Communicating to the child that he or she is superior or inferior to other people
Behind the childhood of a narcissistic killer"Murder of Jun Lin".

Luka Magnotta, probably became more widely known after the release of the Netflix series "Don't f**k with cats", is a Canadian narcissistic killer who recorded and uploaded his murder and dismemberment of a Chinese international student on May 24, 2012, and later mailed his victim's body parts to different authorities across Canada for the hope to become famous.

Just like any psychotic killer that's ever existed, Magnotta's childhood was not a desirable one. His parents had him when they were teenagers; he was kept out of school until grade 6; he experienced a number of mental issues in his youth; the list goes on. But what probably fostered the extreme narcissism in his personality was his mother's extreme obssession[spelling?] with cleanliness. He once described his mother as "a woman obsessed with cleanliness, often wearing a surgical mask, rubber gloves and repeatedly washing her children's hands(Montgomery, 2014)". This obssession[spelling?] was consistent with at least 2 factors from Peterson and Seligman (2004)'s list of factors that may work against fostering humility in children: extreme emphasis on appearance, and inaccurate, excessive criticism, sat the stage for the tragedy that followed later in Magnotta's life.

Fostering humility in adolescentsEdit

A person's personal [awkward expression?] identity is the soil for the stemming of humility, and a key period of identity development is adolescence[Rewrite to improve clarity]. Generally speaking, democratic parenting style(Peterson & Seligman, 2004) combined with connected family relations(Cooper et al., 1992; Cooper & Grotevant, 1989) and the presence of enabling behaviors like empathy giving and acceptance(Hauser et al., 1984) facilitates identity development in adolescents, while autocratic and permissive parenting styles(Peterson & Seligman, 2004) and the presence of constraining behaviors like devaluing and judging(Hauser et al., 1984) do not. It is notable that these factors are not direct in fostering humility development, as the direct influences still remain uncertain up to date(Peterson & Seligman, 2004).

  Case study: Eric is the youngest among the 5 children in his family. He has always received praise from his parents and older siblings, and his requests are rarely turned down. Because his father is a highly ranked official within the government, he often receives praises from his father's coworkers and employees. His father also uses his authority against the troubles Eric gets into, whether it to be stealing a few dollars from his classmates or getting into a fight with other children. After receiving this treatment for 22 years, Eric finally made a mistake that his father could not cover up: he spiked a girl's drink with a lethal dose of anesthetic and killing the girl by accident. The girl's parents did not agree to the monetary settlements proposed by his parents; they insisted to let Eric get the punishment that he deserved. The video of Eric spiking the girl's drink went viral on the internet later on. Eventually, Eric was sentenced to 4 years in prison and was registered as a sexual offender on the national list. He will be carrying the consequences of his impulsiveness for the rest of his life.

Is humility desirable?Edit

Generally speaking, humility is a desirable trait, as it is related to better work performance, and better psychological well-being[factual?].

Figure 3. Leader humility facilitates work performance among employees, including creativity.

Humility in the workplaceEdit

In the workplace, humility is associated with better work performances[factual?]. When the trait is present in the leader, humility increases employee performance through work engagement (Chiu et al., 2016; Li et al., 2021). Li and colleagues (2019) credited the effectiveness of leader humility to the increased willingness of employees to improve their performance and to provide useful feedback under challenges under humble leadership. When the trait is present in the employee, research has shown that humility benefits the relationships between same level coworkers(Lehmann et al., 2022). More specifically, it helps employees to build better relationships with their leaders, and may occupy a more visible position in the employee network (Li et al., 2021).

However, workplace humility is not all beneficial, as downsides to leader humility are present. Qin and colleagues (2020) suggested the possible appearance of undesirable effects, such as increased psychological entitlement and workplace deviance, when leaders practice leader humility, as employees may take the leader's humble treatment to their own uniqueness and contributions. To counter-strike this possibility of self-serving attribution, they suggested that humble leaders should "pay attention to to the employees' attribution tendencies and be more careful when expressing humility to subordinates who may make a high self-serving attribution".

Why should humble leaders apply leader humility carefully?

Because their employees may take the leader's humble treatment under their own contributions, or increasing[grammar?] workplace deviance.
Because their employees may eventually lose their respect towards the humble leader's leadership, jeopardizing the humble leader's performance objectives.

Humility and psychological well-beingEdit

Humility is associated with multiple well-being benefits(Verhaeghen & Aikman, 2022), including greater self-acceptance and stronger connections with others(Stellar et al., 2017). This is possibly because humility prevents or inhibits the presence of selfish intentions in those who possess the trait, making it possible for humble individuals to focus more on the bigger picture and therefore avoiding negative emotions toward the self.


This chapter discussed the key definition of humility in two perspectives (the religious view and the modern view). It then highlighted some key findings on some factors that foster humility, particularly in children and in adolescents. At last, it discussed the desirability of humility from its effects in the workplace and its relation with psychological well-being, which both showed positive outcomes[grammar?].

See alsoEdit

Motivation and emotion/Book/2019/Honesty-humility and work performance



APA Dictionary of Psychology. (n.d.).

Being Humble. (n.d.).

Chiu, C.-Y. (Chad), Owens, B. P., & Tesluk, P. E. (2016). Initiating and utilizing shared leadership in teams: The role of leader humility, team proactive personality, and team performance capability. Journal of Applied Psychology, 101(12), 1705–1720.

Lehmann, M., Pery, S., Kluger, A. N., Hekman, D. R., Owens, B. P., & Malloy, T. E. (2022). Relationship-specific (dyadic) humility: How your humility predicts my psychological safety and performance. Journal of Applied Psychology.

Li, R., Zhang, H., Zhu, X., & Li, N. (2021). Does employee humility foster performance and promotability? Exploring the mechanisms of LMX and peer network centrality in China. Human Resource Management, 60(3), 399–413.

Li, X., Li, M., Fu, J., & Ullah, A. (2019). Leader humility and employee voice: The role of employees’ regulatory focus and voice-role conception. Social Behavior and Personality: An International Journal, 47(6), 1–12.

Li, X., Xue, J., & Liu, J. (2021). Linking leader humility to employee creative performance: Work engagement as a mediator. Social Behavior & Personality: An International Journal, 49(6), 1–7.

Matthew 23:12 For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted. (2019).

Montgomery, S. (2014, November 14). Psychiatrist’s report chronicles the making of Luka Magnotta | Montreal Gazette. Montreal Gazette.

Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. (2004). Character Strengths and Values: A Handbook and Classification. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Qin, X., Chen, C., Yam, K. C., Huang, M., & Ju, D. (2020). The double-edged sword of leader humility: Investigating when and why leader humility promotes versus inhibits subordinate deviance. Journal of Applied Psychology, 105(7), 693–712.

Stellar, J. E., Gordon, A., Anderson, C. L., Piff, P. K., McNeil, G. D., & Keltner, D. (2018). Awe and humility. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 114(2), 258–269.

Verhaeghen, P., & Aikman, S. N. (2022). The I in mindfulness: How mindfulness relates to aspects of self and psychological well-being. Psychology of Consciousness: Theory, Research, and Practice.

Xu Hui Li, Mingze Li, Jingtao Fu, & Ullah, A. (2019). Leader humility and employee voice: The role of employees’ regulatory focus and voice-role conception. Social Behavior & Personality: An International Journal, 47(6), 1–12.

External linksEdit

Be humble -- and other lessons from the philosophy of water | Raymond Tang

Humility: the beginning and end of the virtues

Simplifying Humility And Integrity | Joe Sabini | TEDxUniversityofNevada