A Social-Personality Perspective on Humility, Religiousness, and Spirituality

By Rowatt, C. Wade; Kang, L. Linda et al. | Journal of Psychology and Theology, Spring 2014 | Go to article overview

A Social-Personality Perspective on Humility, Religiousness, and Spirituality


Rowatt, C. Wade, Kang, L. Linda, Haggard, C. Megan, LaBouff, P. Jordan, Journal of Psychology and Theology


Two studies were conducted about humility and religiousness-spirituality dimensions of the self. In Study 1, a sample of adults self-reported their religious affiliation, humility, and narcissism. We found Protestant and Catholic adults self-reported being more humble-modest than non-religious adults. In Study 2, college students self-reported humility-modesty, humility-arrogance, and religiousness-spirituality and were rated on these same qualities by a person who knew them well. Positive correlations were found between self and other-rated humility and between self-reported humility, religious values/be-liefs, and religious-spiritual coping. Ratings of the participant as humble (relative to arrogant) were positively correlated with several facets of religiousness-spirituality. The magnitude of correlations was relatively unchanged when socially desirable responding was statistically controlled.

A close reading of sacred texts reveals interesting teachings about the importance of the psychological quality of humility. In a translation of Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching one finds sayings like, "He who brags will have no merit; he who boasts will not endure (Tzu, 1963, Ch. 24, p. 81)." In the Christian religious tradition, the New Testament parable of the guest at the feast (Luke 14: 7-11) illustrates the importance of humility for self-learning, spirituality, and social order (Barclay, 1970). Other biblical passages emphasize the importance of humility interpersonally (e.g., Philippians 2:3).

We are not the first to notice these connections between humility and religiousness-spirituality. Emmons (1999) uses trait humility as an example of spiritual intelligence. Bollinger and Hill (2012) also traced roots of humility in Buddhist and Christian faith traditions and concluded that across Eastern and Western religions, humility is a virtue marked by, "accurate self-knowledge, an acknowledgement of one's limitations and weaknesses, and opening oneself to the greater reality" (Bollinger & Hill, 2012, p. 36).

That humility is established by religions or scholars as a quality for which to strive does not necessarily make religious-spiritual persons humble. It could be that religious teachings about humility were attempts to temper self-righteousness among highly religious persons striving to be even more religious, spiritual, or holier than others. Deferring self-interest to the group, for example, may have advantages (Wilson, 1978). Hubristic pride or arrogance, on the other hand, could be detrimental to the individual or group.

In the current studies, we investigate potential connections between humility and religiousness-spirituality and ask "Are religious persons more humble or arrogant than people who do not identify with a world religion?" and "How are humility and religiousness-spirituality correlated?" At face value, both questions seem fairly easy to test. However, humility has proven to be a somewhat elusive, mercurial personality trait to define and measure (see Bollinger & Hill, 2012; Davis, Worthington, & Hook, 2010; Exline et al., 2004; Ex-line & Hill, 2012; LaBouff, Rowatt, Johnson, Tsang, & McCullough, 2012; Rowatt et al., 2006; Tangney, 2002). Religiousness-spirituality is also multi-faceted. As such, possible connections between humility and religiousness-spirituality will depend, in part, on how the concepts are operationally defined.

Humility Definitions and Measures

Conceptually, humble persons are down-to-earth, low in self-focus, and have an accurate view of self. Humble people usually do not brag and are not arrogant. Humility correlates positively with qualities like agreeableness and emotional stability, and negatively with narcissism (Rowatt etal., 2006)--but the absence of arrogance or narcissism would not necessarily make one humble (Edine et al., 2004). Existing measures often pair humility with theoretically related constructs like modesty (Exline et al. …

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