2011. Vol.2, No.3, 155-161
Copyright © 2011 SciRes. DOI:10.4236/psych.2011.23025
Associations between Dispositional Humility and Social
Relationship Quality
Annette Susanne Peters1, Wade Clinton Rowatt2, Megan Kathleen Johnson2
1University of Northern Colorado, Greeley, USA;
2Baylor University, Waco, USA.
Received March 16th, 2011; revised April 18th, 2011; accepted May 19th, 2011.
Quality social relationships depend, in part, on deferring self-interest to another person or group. Being too ar-
rogant or self-focused could negatively affect relationship quality. In two studies we examined possible connec-
tions between trait humility and social relationship quality (SRQ). Participants completed survey measures of
each construct. Self and peer-reported humility correlated positively with SRQ, even when social desirability
(Study 1) and other relevant personality dimensions (e.g., Big Five, agency, communion) were statistically con-
trolled (Study 2). These findings indicate humility could be an important trait with regard to interpersonal rela-
tions. Implications are discussed for the cultivation of humility and its potential relevance in other social con-
Keywords: Humility, Relationship Quality, Positive Psychology, Well-Being
Forming and maintaining quality social relationships with
family, friends, and co-workers may depend, in part, on the
ability to humbly defer self-interest to others. Expressing too
much arrogance or self-focus could negatively affect relation-
ships. Building on previous research which connected Big Five
personality dimensions and relationship satisfaction (Malouff,
Thorsteinsson, Schutte, Bhullar, & Rooke, 2010), we investi-
gated the possible association between understudied trait hu-
mility and social relationship quality. We also examined
whether the association between humility and relationship qual-
ity persisted when other important personality constructs were
controlled. The primary purpose of this research, however, was
to examine the relationship between humility and social rela-
tionship quality. By social relationship quality (SRQ) we sim-
ply mean the degree to which one is happy or satisfied with
social relationship partners, such as friends or roommates.
SRQ is very similar to marital satisfaction (Norton, 1983) but is
more appropriate for study among non-married college students
who comprised our samples.
Humility Defined
Humility has been identified as a part of a sixth personality
dimension (Lee & Ashton, 2004) and conceptualized as a virtue
or character strength (Exline et al., 2004; Tangney, 2002, 2009).
Consistent with both conceptualizations, we define humility as
a characteristic and enduring way of being more humble, mod-
est, respectful, and open-minded than arrogant, self-centered, or
conceited. Like other theorists (Davis, Worthington, & Hook,
2010; Landrum, 2011; Tangney, 2009), we contend humility is
not simply the absence of negative qualities but also the pres-
ence of positive qualities. That is, a humble person does not
simply lack arrogance or self-focus, but also possesses humble
qualities like being modest or intellectually open (Roberts &
Wood, 2003).
The trait or virtue of humility may include several facets and
specific behavioral tendencies. For example, humble persons
are likely down-to-earth (i.e., easy with whom to relate), will-
ing to admit limits, not self-centered (Emmons, 2000; Exline et
al., 2004; Myers, 1995; Rowatt et al., 2006), rarely call atten-
tion to the self, and prefer not to stand out in a crowd (Peterson
& Seligman, 2004). Humble persons may also accurately assess
personal characteristics and abilities relative to others (Tangney,
2002) rather than inflate self-evaluations.
Possible Connections between Humility and Social
Relationship Quality
Why might humility and relationship quality be connected?
One team of scholars noted that humility includes important
relational characteristics, such as a recognition one cannot
control all social encounters, an attitude of patience- gentleness
with other people, and a sense of empathy (Means, Wilson,
Sturn, Biron, & Back, 1990). By being patient, gentle,
non-controlling, empathetic, or realizing similarities with others
(Worthington, 1998), humble persons may set the stage for
quality relationships.
That humble persons are probably liked more than their ar-
rogant counterparts could also impact relationship quality
(Landrum, 2011). When asked to describe a very humble per-
son, and why the person was viewed as humble, a majority of
participants mentioned humble individuals’ kindness or caring
toward others (Exline & Geyer, 2004). There are ties between
humility and other pro-social qualities as well that could in-
crease relational well-being. For example, Worthington (1998)
posited humility was critical in the process of forgiving a fam-
ily member. Powers et al. (2007) found that self-reported hu-
mility and forgiveness correlated positively. People have been
found to be cooperative in a bargaining game with a self-ef-
facing, humble person they expected to meet (Marlowe, Gergen,
& Doob, 1966). Honest-humble persons were observed to be
cooperative in an economic game (Hilbig & Zettler, 2009).
Humble persons have offered more help to a person in need
than less humble persons (LaBouff, Rowatt, Johnson, Tsang, &
McCullough, 2010). That humility has been associated with
positive qualities and behaviors (e.g. forgiveness, cooperation,
helping) provides further support for a possible humility-rela-
tionship quality connection.
Hypotheses and Predictions
Study 1 examined whether measures of dispositional humil-
ity and social relationship quality were related. We predicted
humility and relationship quality would correlate positively.
Whereas humility and relationship quality appear to be socially
desirable traits, it was important to include a measure of im-
pression management for use as a statistical control. Further-
more, because some humble persons might not self-report being
humble, we also assessed participant humility with peer-ratings.
Study 1
A sample of 109 college students (87 women; M age = 19
years) participated to fulfill a course requirement or for extra
credit. The sample was somewhat ethnically diverse (62%
Caucasian, 12% Asian, 12% Hispanic, 7.4% Black, 1% Ameri-
can Indian, 5.6% selected “other”). In addition, the humility of
63 participants was rated by a close acquaintance who returned
by mail a brief printed survey.
Measures and Procedure
Self- and other-reported trait humility was assessed with a
seven-item semantic differential scale (Rowatt et al., 2006). We
used this humility measure, in part, to assess humility inde-
pendently from honesty (cf. Lee & Ashton, 2004) or modesty
(cf. Peterson & Seligman, 2004). The following terms appeared
between 7-point rating scales: arrogant/humble, immodest/
modest, disrespectful/respectful, egotistical/not self-centered,
conceited/not conceited, intolerant/tolerant, and closed-minded/
open-minded. Higher scores indicated more humility. The sim-
ple statement, “I see myself as...,” was printed at the top of the
To obtain ratings of participants’ humility from other persons,
participants were asked to give an envelope containing the
same humility measure to someone who knew them well. An
instruction on the peer-report survey read, “Please circle the
number that best describes this person on each trait below.” The
peer-rater then returned the survey by mail.
To assess social relationship quality, we revised the Quality
Marriage Index (Norton, 1983) to apply to unmarried individu-
als. For example, the item “Our marriage is strong” was
changed to “My social relationships are strong.” Respondents
were instructed, “The following items refer to your social rela-
tionships (i.e., friends, roommates).” The following five items
were rated by the participant (1 = strongly disagree, 4 = neutral,
7 = strongly agree): I have good social relationships; My social
relationships are very stable; My social relationships are
strong; My social relationships make me happy; I feel like part
of a team in my social relationships. Higher scores indicated
higher perceived SRQ. Respondents also completed the 20-item
impression-management subscale of the Balanced Inventory of
Desirable Responding (BIDR-IM) (Paulhus & Reid, 1991).
Results and Discussion
As shown in Table 1, self-reported and other-reported humil-
ity correlated positively with social relationship quality (rs
= .27 and .31, respectively). However, both self- and other-
reported humility correlated with impression management (both
rs = .31), so we computed partial correlations. Both self- and
other-reported humility still correlated significantly with SRQ
when impression management was statistically controlled (par-
tial rs = .19 and .29).
No gender difference on self-reported humility was found
(Men: M = 5.24, SD = .78; women: M = 5.53, SD = .76),
F(1,107) = 2.33, p = .13. However, women were rated by others
to be more humble (M = 5.88, SD = .80) than men (M = 5.01,
SD = 1.56), F(1,59) = 7.35, p = .009. When controlling for
gender, the correlations persisted between social relationship
quality and self-reported humility (partial r = .27, p = .005) and
peer-reported humility (partial r = .32, p = .015). No gender
difference was found on SRQ.
We also found self-reported and other-reported humility cor-
related positively (r = .33, p = .02). This is important because it
could be argued humble persons do not self-report being hum-
ble. That self and other ratings of humility correlated positively
suggests some agreement of others with self-assessments of
Table 1.
Study 1: zero-order correlations and descriptive statistics.
1 2 3 Mean SD α
1. Humility (self-report, n = 109) - .31* .19* 5.47 .77 .75
2. Humility (peer-report, n = 63) .33* - .29* 5.71 1.05 .89
3. Quality of social relationships .27** .31* - 5.82 1.13 .93
4. Impression management .31** .13 .31* .30 .16 .70
Note: * p < .05; ** p < .01; partial correlations controlling for impression management appear above the diagonal and zero-order bivariate correlations appear below the
Study 2
Study 1 revealed a positive relationship between humility
and social relationship quality (SRQ) even when social desir-
ability and gender were statistically controlled. In Study 2 we
examined whether the humility-relationship quality connection
remained when statistically controlling for the Big Five person-
ality dimensions and other personality variables implicated in
social well-being (i.e., agency, communion; Bakan, 1966; Hel-
geson, 1994). We are not the first to suggest that a personality
dimension like humility might account for unique variability in
important social processes. Honesty-humility was found to
better predict negative qualities like self and other-reported
materialism, ethical violations, and criminality (all inversely)
than other personality dimensions (Ashton & Lee, 2008). This
is a preliminary indication that trait humility will account for
unique variability in relationship-relevant constructs when the
Big Five are statistically controlled.
Humility, the Big Five, and Subjective Well-being
Previous research has revealed connections between self-
reported humility, the Big Five personality dimensions, and
personal life satisfaction (Rowatt et al., 2006). In specific,
self-reported humility correlated positively with agreeableness,
openness, and personal satisfaction with life, negatively with
neuroticism, and negligibly with conscientiousness and extra-
version (Rowatt et al., 2006). In a large meta-analysis, neuroti-
cism was found to be negatively related to subjective well-
being measures, whereas extraversion, agreeableness, conscien-
tiousness, and openness were shown to be positively related to
subjective well-being (DeNeve & Cooper, 1998). Longitudinal
research has also implicated husbands’ and wives’ neuroticism
in marital dissatisfaction and divorce (Kelly & Conley, 1987).
Given these patterns, it could be the relationship between hu-
mility and SRQ we found in Study 1 was an artifact of the Big
Five or another personality dimension.
Humility, Agency/Communion, and SRQ
We also investigated whether the association between humil-
ity and relationship quality was due in part to personal qualities
like agency or communion. Somewhat unlike humble persons,
agentic individuals are self-focused, independent, and seek to
separate from others (Helgeson, 1994). Similar to humble per-
sons, communal people focus more on others than the self and
strive to connect with others (Helgeson, 1994).
Agency and communion can also be unmitigated (Helgeson,
1994). For example, agency unmitigated by communion or
unmitigated agency (UA) refers to “a focus on the self to the
exclusion of others” (Helgeson & Fritz, 1999: p. 132), and was
operationalized with terms like arrogant, boastful, and egotisti-
cal (see Spence, Helmreich, & Holahan, 1979). UA is a con-
ceptual opposite of humility. Unmitigated communion (UC)
refers to “a focus on others to the exclusion of the self” (Hel-
geson & Fritz, 1999: p. 132) and was assessed with items like,
“I always place the needs of others above my own” and “Even
when exhausted, I will always help other people” (see Helgeson
& Fritz, 1999).
Previous research has revealed that both UA and UC were
inversely associated with personal and relational well-being.
For example, UA and UC were positively associated with fre-
quency of negative social interactions when sex, agency, and
communion were statistically controlled (Helgeson & Fritz,
1999). UA and UC were also negatively related with general
well-being when sex and communion were controlled statisti-
cally (Helgeson & Fritz, 1999).
Hypothesis and Predictions
Whereas humble persons are less self-centered, we predicted
a measure of trait humility would correlate negatively with
measures of agency and unmitigated agency. Whereas humble
persons may strive to connect with others, we predicted a
measure of trait humility would correlate positively with com-
munion and unmitigated communion. Some humble persons
may be so humble they neglect the self relative to others. Fi-
nally, we hypothesized humility accounts for unique variability
in SRQ above and beyond the Big Five, agency, or communion.
Participan t s, M aterials, and Procedure
A convenience sample of 258 undergraduate students com-
pleted an online survey (198 women, M age = 19 years). The
sample was somewhat diverse with regard to ethnicity: 56%
Caucasian, 17% Hispanic, 14% Asian, 10% African American,
2% other ethnicity, and 1% Native American. Participants re-
ceived one credit that satisfied a course research participation
requirement or extra credit.
Trait humility, social relationship quality, and impression
management were assessed with the self-report measures de-
scribed in Study 1. The Extended Personal Attributes Ques-
tionnaire (Spence et al., 1979) was used to assess agency,
communion, and unmitigated agency. The Revised Unmitigated
Communion Scale (Helgeson & Fritz, 1999) was used to meas-
ure unmitigated communion (1 = strongly disagree; 5 = strongly
agree). On the Extended PAQ, two items appeared between a
5-point scale as a semantic differential (i.e., 1 = not at all arro-
gant, 5 = very arrogant). Example agency items included inde-
pendent, competitive, and feels very superior. Example com-
munion items included easy to devote self to others, gentle, and
aware of other’s feelings. Example unmitigated agency items
included: arrogant, boastful, and looks out for self. An example
unmitigated communion item was, “I always place the needs of
others above my own.” Gosling, Rentfrow, and Swann’s (2003)
measure of the Big Five was used to assess extraversion,
agreeableness, openness to experience, conscientiousness, and
emotional stability. An example extraversion item was: “extra-
verted, enthusiastic” (1 = disagree strongly, 7 = agree strongly).
Humility correlated positively with relationship quality (r
= .24; see Table 2), even when impression management was
controlled (partial r = .17, p < .05).1 This replicates Study 1. In
1Descriptive statistics and internal consistency estimates for Study 2 are
provided in Table 2 (last three columns). Because each Big Five facto
contained only two items, Cronbach alphas were not computed for those
subscales. With increased sample size, we found women self-reported more
humility than men (women M = 5.44, SD = .84; men: M = 5.10, SD= .69),
(1,257) = 10.07, p = .002. As in Study 1, no gender difference in relation-
was found.
addition, humility was negatively correlated with unmitigated
agency and neuroticism, and positively correlated with agree-
ableness, communion, unmitigated communion, and conscien-
Hierarchical regression analyses were used to investigate
whether humility accounted for unique variability in SRQ
above and beyond the Big Five. In the first step, the Big Five
personality factors were entered (see Table 3, Model 1 col-
umns). In the second step, humility was entered (see Table 3,
Model 2 columns). Humility accounted for unique variability in
relationship quality when the Big Five were simultaneously con-
trolled. Extraversion and neuroticism (inversely) were also asso-
ciated with SRQ in models one and two (see Table 3). When
gender was added to these regression models, the patterns were
virtually unchanged; gender was unrelated to relationship quality.
A similar approach was used to examine whether humility
accounted for unique variability in SRQ above and beyond
gender, agency, communion, unmitigated agency, and unmiti-
gated communion. Because men tend to be agentic and women
tend to be more communal, gender was included in these regres-
sion models.
In the first step of the regression analysis we entered gender,
agency, communion, unmitigated agency, and unmitigated
communion (see Table 4, Model 1 columns). Humility was
entered in the second step (see Table 4, Model 2 columns).
Both agency and communion were positively associated with
SRQ (see Table 4). The influence of humility on relationship
quality was marginally significant with a two-tailed signifi-
cance test. Given our a priori directional prediction (i.e., humil-
ity will be positively correlated with relationship quality) and
Table 2.
Study 2: zero-order correlations and descriptive statistics.
Measures 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 MeanSD
1. Humility Semantic
Differential -
2. Quality of Marriage Index .24***- 5.651.25.92
4. Agency .06 .24** -
5. Communion .39***.31*** .04 -
6. Unmitigated Agency .67** .20** .18* .47** -
7. Unmitigated Communion .22***.12 .06 .44***.30** -
8. Extraversion .05 .31*** .44** .22***.09 .14* - 8.703.25-
9. Agreeableness .40*** .25*** .12 .52***.56** .30***.02 - 10.732.43 -
10. Conscientiousness .18** .16** .25** .16** .29** .06 .04 .19** - 11.022.45 -
11. Neuroticism .19** .27*** .26** .03 .19** .16* .04 .25***.15* - 6.742.91-
12. Openness .11 .15* .27** .11 .00 .01 .25***.08 .05 .16* - 10.382.17-
13. BIDRIM .30*** .25*** .16* .20***.43***.21***.05 .27***.34***.18** .05 -
Note: * p < .05; ** p < .01; *** p < .001. * For Extraversion, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, Neuroticism, and Openness two item inter-correlations were reported in
the alpha columns.
Table 3.
Study 2: multiple regressions of relationship quality on big five traits (Model 1) and humility (Model 2).
Model 1 Model 2
β T β t F change R2 change
Extraversion .28 4.91*** .30 5.15***
Agreeableness .17 2.96** .12 1.96
Conscientiousness .09 1.57 .07 1.29
Neuroticism .20 3.38** .19 3.22**
Openness .04 <1 .03 <1
Humility - - .15+ 2.40*
R2 .20 .22
F 13.25*** 12.21**
5.74* .02*
Note: * p < .05, ** p < .01, *** p < .001.
Table 4.
Study 2: multiple regressions of relationship quality on agency, communion (Model 1) and humility (Model 2).
Model 1 Model 2
β t β t F change R2 change
Sex .01 <1 .02 <1
Agency .25 4.22*** .24 4.11***
Communion .24 3.39** .26 3.29**
UA .13 1.91+ .05 <1
UC .01 <1 .01 <1
Humility - - .13 1.74+
R2 .16 .17
F 9.52*** 8.50***
2.75* .01*
Note: + p < .10, * p < .05, ** p < .01, *** p < .001; sex (male = 0, female = 1), UA = unmitigated agency, UC = unmitigated communion. F change is a test for the differ-
ence between models one and two (when humility was added).
direct observation of this in Study 1, it was appropriate to use a
one-tailed significance test (i.e., p < .099/2 < .05). As such, we
concluded humility accounts for unique variability in relation-
ship quality when the Big Five or agency/communion variables
were statistically controlled.
General Discussion
The positive correlation between humility and social rela-
tionship quality observed in Study 1 replicated in Study 2. We
also found self-reported humility correlated positively with
SRQ, even when the Big Five and agency-communion vari-
ables were controlled in separate regression models. These
findings indicate trait humility could be important for social
relationships. It should also be noted that extraversion, neuroti-
cism (inversely), agency, and communion also account for
unique variability in social relationship quality. These patterns
fit with previous research about extraversion and happiness
(DeNeve & Cooper, 1998) and agency/communion and well-
being (Helgeson, 1994).
We encourage psychologists and researchers in other related
disciplines to consider the role of humility in relationships and
other domains. As psychological science has developed, more
attention has been placed on negative traits like narcissism,
which affect interpersonal relationships, and for good reasons.
In contrast to humility, some people think and act like they are
the center of the universe (i.e., narcissists). Narcissists have an
unstable overly positive sense of self that could, over time, be
relationally repulsive. Narcissism is not the exact opposite of
humility, but measures of the two constructs are inversely re-
lated (Rowatt et al., 2006). Furthermore, as narcissism increases,
perceptions of humility as a positive quality decrease (Exline &
Geyer, 2004). Unlike humility, however, narcissism is associ-
ated with a variety of relationship problems. For example, nar-
cissism correlates with qualities linked to exploitation of others
(Paulhus & Williams, 2002). Facets of narcissism, such as enti-
tlement or arrogance, appear to contribute to unstable or poor
social relationships and other self-defeating behaviors (Vazire
& Funder, 2006). Although narcissists were perceived initially
by others as agreeable and well-adjusted, they were rated more
negatively after group interactions (Paulhus, 1988).
Potential Benefits of Humility Relative to Narcissism
In contrast with narcissism, we suggest humility has potential
personal, relational, and organizational benefits. At the personal
level, humility has been found to correlate positively with aca-
demic performance even when other known correlates of good
grades were controlled (Owens, 2009; see Rowatt et al., 2006,
Study 2). Realizing that one does not know and being open to
learning could facilitate intellectual growth and progress. At the
relational level, Studies 1 and 2 reveal humility correlated with
relationship quality even when other personality dimensions
were controlled. Humbly recognizing one cannot control others
and being patient, gentle, and empathic with others (cf. Means
et al., 1990) may also facilitate relational well-being. At the
organizational level, Collins (2001, 2005) discovered compa-
nies with CEOs who possessed a paradoxical combination of
humility and strong professional will went from being merely
“good” to being “great” (as measured by stock performance).
Johnson, Rowatt, and Petrini (2011) found that honesty-humility
predicts supervisor ratings of job performance. Humility could
have other benefits for organizations as well (see Owens, Ro-
watt, & Wilkins, 2011).
Future Direc t io ns a nd Cautions
Future research should examine how humility affects out-
comes in business, industry, education, law, medicine and other
contexts. We suspect humility is important for some, but not all
contexts. For example, humility might not predict performance
in competitive sales environments or public performers who
depend on self-promotion for success.
A few limits and possible alternative interpretations also
merit brief discussion. Given the correlational design, we can-
not determine the causal nature of the humility-relationship
quality connection. We suggest humility increases relational
quality, but the reverse is possible. Experiencing quality social
relationships could engender humility in individuals. Perhaps
being among close friends leads to less focus on the self that
increases personal humility.
Measurement of humility also merits brief discussion. De-
spite its perceived value (Exline & Geyer, 2004), agreement
among theorists that humility is a positive quality (Exline et al.,
2004; Tangney, 2009), and representation in many languages
(Ashton et al., 2004), the construct of humility has received
very little empirical attention from personality researchers. Part
of the challenge appears to be there is not a gold-standard
measure of humility (Davis et al., 2010; Tangney, 2009). We
used a brief measure of humility that is relatively independent
from modesty or honesty. Other existing scales assess humility
in combination with qualities like modesty (i.e., Peterson &
Seligman, 2004) or honesty (i.e., Lee & Ashton, 2004), or indi-
rectly through estimates of the degree to which humble quali-
ties are liked (Landrum, 2011).
At this time, our purpose is not to say one definition or
measure is best. Each conceptualization captures some of the
essence of humility. Trait humble persons are likely modest
(Exline et al., 2004), honest (Ashton & Lee, 2008), and less
arrogant (Rowatt et al., 2006) than less humble persons. Meas-
ures of humility-modesty, humility-honesty, and humility-ar-
rogance likely correlate positively. A gold-standard measure
may emerge as data and findings accumulate. Readers who plan
to study humility are encouraged to consult Davis et al. (2010)
for a more thorough discussion of measurement issues.
In closing, perhaps paradoxically, humility appears to be an
important quality. Future research is needed to determine
whether state or trait humility is connected with other positive
outcomes and whether state or trait humility can be cultivated.
We speculate state humility can be induced by broadening
one’s perspective and contemplating how small (but not neces-
sarily insignificant) one is relative to the known universe. If
trait humility can be developed, it could have even more lasting
and enduring personal and social benefits.
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