Empowering People through Behavioral Science
Purpose in Goal Pursuit Practical Tools for Purpose Purpose & Prosocial Behavior

Only humble wishes: How humility fosters self-control

By Janina Steinmetz


Humility is the solid foundation of all virtues.“ - Confucius


We all admire the famous scientist Albert Einstein for his extraordinary discoveries in physics. Einstein was not only a genius; he was also a truly humble man. He is known for claiming that he had no special talents or gifts, but was merely driven by his curiosity. Undoubtedly, such humility makes the genius scientist even more likable. But maybe Einstein’s humility was one of the reasons for his outstanding success?

Past research has shown that humility allows people to be more forgiving and more altruistic in interactions with others. We all know that forgiveness and altruism don’t always come easy, and all of us have felt the impulse to retaliate or to be selfish. However, self-control allows us to suppress such negative impulses and to behave in accordance with our values and goals. Researchers Eddie Tong and colleagues from the National University of Singapore reasoned that self-control might be the reason why humility helps people to be more forgiving and altruistic. In other words, they set out to test whether humility fosters self-control per se, which then gives people the strength to show many other positive behaviors.

Image ©: Hafiz Issadeen 2011

To test the fascinating hypothesis that humility increases self-control, the researchers asked people to vividly recall in situation in which they felt humble, or, in the control condition, simply asked about mundane events (e.g., what people ate for breakfast). To measure peoples’ self-control, the researchers asked people to engage in activities that require willpower, such as compressing a handgrip, or resisting tempting chocolates, or persisting on frustrating tasks. Consistently, the researchers found that when people were in a humble mind-set because they had just thought about an episode of humility in their lives, they were better at self-control. More specifically, the participants who had been reminded of their humility ate fewer chocolates, showed greater physical stamina in the handgrip task, and worked longer on unsolvable and thus frustrating problem sets.

This research resonates well with earlier work by NPP member Ayelet Fishbach, who shows that self-control in one important aspect of cooperation. The capacity for self-control is increased by humility. This may be one reason why humble people can distance themselves from the negative impulses that we all feel; the impulse to behave selfishly, to be self-centered, uncooperative, and to look down on others. But, the humble manage to overcome these impulses and focus on their values and beliefs instead. Humility gives people the strength to battle temptations and overcome short-time desires in order to pursue their purpose in life. Thereby, humility lets people find true strength in themselves. 


Janina Steinmetz is a Research Professional (post-doctoral fellow) in the NPP Network, based at the Center for Decision Research at Chicago Booth.

Associated Project Theme: Purpose in Goal Pursuit Practical Tools for Purpose Purpose & Prosocial Behavior

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