Science on Religion

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Humility helps one cope with death, part 1

PietaMost religions value the virtue of humility. Some of them even elevate humility as the premiere virtue, the key to happiness and moral living. While also interested in humility’s relationship to morality, psychologist Pelin Kesebir (University of Colorado at Colorado Springs) wondered whether humility could people deal with their own death. After conducting five studies, he found a correlation not only between humility and coping with death, but also between humility and morality.

Following social psychology, Kesebir defines “humility” as “an accurate assessment of one’s characteristics, an ability to acknowledge limitations, and a forgetting of the self.” A humble person looks at himself or herself honestly, accepting weaknesses and limits without defensiveness. This self-perspective tends cause the humble person to place himself or herself lower on a cosmic level than a proud person. That is, humble people accept their insignificance relative to more important things, and consequently feel more connected to such “more important things,” be they God, humanity, nature, or the cosmos.

By contrast, current terror management theory suggests that a strong sense of self provides the best remedy for fear of death. Under this theory, the higher value one gives oneself and the more one sees oneself as transcendent (rather than leaning on something greater), the better one can face death.

Contrary to terror management theory, Kesebir hypothesized that humility would provide a better buffer against death anxiety than pride. Kesebir reasons that humble people (a) have a more secure sense of self and therefore should feel the threat of death less than the prideful; and (b) see the big picture and therefore accept the finite nature of their own existence. To test the hypothesis that humility better guards against death anxiety than pride, Kesebir conducted a series of five experiments.

The first experiment examined how humility affected participants’ responses to reminders of their own mortality. As it turns out, previous studies had shown that triggers of one’s own death lead people towards morally questionable behaviors which act as a psychological defensive mechanism. According to Kesebir's hypothesis, then, humble people should not resort to immoral behavior when reminded of death.

Through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, an online service that recruits and compensates survey takers, Kesebir found 88 American participants. Each participant underwent several stages in the survey. First, they self-rated how strongly they possessed 40 virtues given to them in a list, only two of which were actually relevant for the study (“humility” and “humbleness”). The participants then had to find three Internet links of a particular picture: the experimental group had to find pictures of a graveyard (a death-related image) while the control group had to find pictures of a mug (a neutral image). Next, participants completed the Moral Disengagement Scale, a prompt that asks them to answer ethical questions, and importantly includes questions (six out of the eight) for which certain answers indicate an attempt to increase one’s “existential anxiety buffer.” The existential anxiety buffer protects one from threats to one’s existence (such as death) and includes elements such as self-esteem, relationships, beliefs about the world, and respect for authority. Finally, participants filled out the Balanced Inventory of Desirable Responding (BIDR) which consists of two subscales, one of which measures how accurately one perceives oneself, and the other of which measures an unintentional tendency to portray oneself positively to others.

After running the numbers, Kesebir found that humility indeed buffered death anxiety. Those who self-reported high on humility did not disengage from hypothetical ethical scenarios in order to protect their existential anxiety buffer. Not only that, but humble people were actually less likely to disengage from their moral obligations in the face of their mortality. Proud people, on the other hand, did disengage (as expected given previous research). In short, at least in this first study, humility not only helped people deal with death but correlated with more moral behavior in the face of death.

So far, Kesebir’s hypothesis seems on the right track, but, wanting to make sure it rested on solid ground, he conducted four more studies. They will be revealed in detail in part 2. 

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