Humility and the Ability to Receive from Others

By Exline, Julie J. | Journal of Psychology and Christianity, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

Humility and the Ability to Receive from Others


Exline, Julie J., Journal of Psychology and Christianity


Prior work suggests that humility predicts prosocial behaviors such as generosity. But how do humble individuals feel about receiving from others? Undergraduates (n = 217) recalled a situation in which another person had done something kind for them and then rated their emotional responses. Humility (assessed with a self-report measure) was associated with more positive emotions (gratitude; feeling loved) and fewer negative emotions (shame/weakness; mistrust) in response to recalling the act of kindness. Furthermore, in almost all cases, the predictive role of humility could not be better explained by other individual-difference factors such as the Big Five, self-esteem, low entitlement, religiosity, dispositional gratitude, social desirability, or gender. The one exception occurred for the negative association with shame/weakness, in which agreeableness (and, to some degree, self-esteem) overshadowed humility. Taken together, these results suggest that a humble disposition is an important predictor of the ability to receive from other people.

Recent research has shown that humility predicts prosocial behaviors such as generosity (Exline & Hill, in press; LaBouff, Rowatt, Johnson, Tsang, & McCullough, 2012) and forgiveness (e.g., Bollinger, Kopp, Hill, & Williams, 2006; Powers, Nam, Rowatt, & Hill, 2007). Earlier studies have focused on personality factors, including humility, as predictors of whether a person will behave in kind and generous ways. The study described in this article addresses a complementary issue, one that emphasizes the perspective of the receiver rather than the giver: Might humility predict more positive (and less negative) emotional responses to receiving acts of kindness from others? And if so, might some other personality factor be more important than humility in predicting these emotional responses to receiving?

Conceptual Background

Emotional Responses to Receiving an Act of Kindness

The psychological literatures on altruism and helping have typically focused on the giver's perspective (for reviews, see Batson, 2011; Fehr, Sprecher, & Underwood, 2009; Post, 2007; Post, Johnson, McCullough, & Schloss, 2003). The Bible, too, pkces considerable emphasis on giving, as recorded in verses such as II Corinthians 9:7b, "God loves a cheerful giver," and Psalm 37:21b, "The righteous give generously." (New International Version.) A ready willingness to help others is characterized as a spiritual gift, as recorded in I Corinthians 12:28, and kindness is listed as one of the fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22). This emphasis on encouraging people to give, help, and be kind may seem to imply that kind acts will have positive effects and be well received by others. Is this always the case?

Many literatures support the idea that people experience positive emotions when they receive acts of kindness from others. This is a foundational concept behind research on gratitude, for example. Many studies show that the positive emotion of gratitude is a common response to kind or generous acts (for reviews, see, e.g., Emmons & McCullough, 2004; McCullough, Emmons, & Tsang, 2002; Wood, Froh, & Geraghty, 2010). Research on attachment is also relevant: Being treated with warmth, kindness, and protection by an attachment figure can help people to feel loved and secure (e.g., Bowlby, 1969/1982; see Cassidy & Shaver, 2008, for a review). Those who witness notable acts of virtue may also feel emotions related to amazement, perhaps experiencing a sense of awe (e.g., Keltner & Haidt, 2003), inspiration (e.g., O'Grady & Richards, 2010; Thrash, Elliot, Maruskin, & Cassidy, 2010), or moral elevation (Haidt, 2003). These literatures clarify that positive emotion is a common response among those who receive or witness acts of kindness.

At the same time, people do not experience uniformly positive responses when they receive from others. …

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