A concept known as hypo-egoic nonentitlement might be the defining characteristic of humility, according to a new study published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

The research found that humility is unrelated to downplaying your positive traits and accomplishments. Rather, what separates the humble from the nonhumble is the belief that your positive traits and accomplishments do not entitle you to special treatment.

“One of my interests for many years has involved ways in which excessive self-preoccupation and egotism can create personal and interpersonal problems for people. I published a book on this topic in 2004 called ‘The Curse of the Self,'” said Mark Leary, professor emeritus of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University and the corresponding author of the study.

“More recently, I became interested in ‘hypo-egoic’ phenomena in which people devote less attention to themselves than they typically do, and humility falls in that category (along with other hypo-egoic phenomena such as flow, mindfulness, awe, and mystical experiences).”

“In reading the small research literature on humility, I found that, although we have a good idea of what humble people are like, no one had had tried to identify the central feature of humility – the one thing that characterizes all humble people. So, that’s what piqued our interest in humility,” Leary explained.

In two studies, 419 participants described personal characteristics or personal accomplishments they were proud of, and then rated how they believed that their characteristics or accomplishments compared with those of other people. They also rated how others should treat them because of their characteristics and accomplishments.

The participants then completed measures of humility, self-esteem, narcissism, psychological entitlement, self-interest, identification with humanity, individualism/collectivism, and social desirability.

The researchers found that people who scored higher on measures of humility were less likely to believe that their accomplishments or characteristics entitled them to special treatment.

But humility was unrelated to participants’ evaluations of their accomplishments and characteristics. In other words, humble people viewed their characteristics and accomplishments as special, but they did not believe they deserved to be treated differently because of their special characteristics and accomplishments.

“In our view, humility is not about underestimating or downplaying your accomplishments or positive characteristics. Everyone who has studied humility agrees that humble people probably see themselves more accurately than the average person, so they know that they’re good at whatever it is they’re good at,” Leary told PsyPost.

“The central feature that characterizes humble people, in my view, is ‘hypo-egoic nonentitlement’ — they do not think that they are entitled to be treated special as a person because of their accomplishments or positive characteristics.”

“Humble people recognize that, their special accomplishments or attributes not withstanding, they are just like everybody else, with a host of shortcomings, weaknesses, hang-ups, and failures. So, they don’t expect extra attention, interest, favors, or special treatment from other people,” Leary explained.

But, as with all research, the study includes some caveats. The participants for the current study were all recruited from Amazon’s Mechanical Turk.

“All research findings need to be replicated, so the role of hypo-egoic nonentitlement in humility needs to be examined in other ways, using different methods and measures, on other populations,” Leary told PsyPost.

“And, we need to know more about how and why hypo-egoic nonentitlement leads to the behaviors that are associated with humility. As I noted, researchers have generated a laundry list of characteristics and behaviors that tend to be associated with humility. How are these characteristics related to hypo-egoic nonentitlement?”

Previous research has found that humble people are more likely to offer time to someone in need, and the new findings shed more light on why humility is valued in society.

“Humility has long been regarded as a virtue in most cultures and religions. But why? If it were simply a matter that humble people don’t think too highly of themselves, it’s not clear why it would be so widely valued. (Who cares that some arrogant person is too high on him- or herself?)” Leary said.

“The nonentitlement angle answers this question. People who think that they are entitled to be treated special as a person – for whatever reason – impose on other people, gain an unwarranted share of positive outcomes, feel entitled to use other people, take more than they give in interactions and relationships, and go through life with a generally selfish perspective.”

“Humility is a virtue because it reflects a fair and egalitarian approach to interpersonal relations in which people don’t use their accomplishments and positive characteristics to get more than their share from other people. By setting their positive attributes aside, humble people treat everyone more as equals than nonhumble people do,” Leary said.

The study, “Hypo-Egoic Nonentitlement as a Feature of Humility“, was authored by Chloe C. Banker and Mark R. Leary.