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Humility helps us cope with death, part 2

Work Hard Stay HumblePsychologist Pelin Kesebir (University of Colorado at Colorado Springs) wanted to investigate the relationships, if any, between humility and the ability to cope with death, as well as the relationship between humility and morality. In part 1, the initial study found great success: when pressed to disengage morally because of the anxiety of death, humble people rose to the challenge and were less likely to disengage. In other words, death did not deter them from doing the right thing. So far, so good, but Kesebir has conducted four additional studies to explore humility.

In the second study, Kesebir sought to make certain that humility and not some other factor truly explained the results of the first study. Kesebir reasoned that some personal trait may result in humility and that it is that trait, not humility, that mitigated death anxiety and kept the humble person morally engaged in the face of death. To narrow in on humility, the second study introduced other common existential anxiety buffers – specifically, self-esteem, secure attachment, and mindfulness. Additionally, the possibility exists that simple virtuousness or prosocial orientation, rather than humility, accounts for the results of the first study.

As with the first study, Kesebir gathered participants from Amazon’s Mechanical Turk (142 Americans total). The second study added three additional scales, each of which measured self-esteem, secure attachment, and mindfulness. First, the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale assesses self-esteem with items like “I feel that I am a person of worth, at least on an equal plane with others.” Second, to measure secure attachment, Kesebir chose the Experience of Close Relationships Scale, which focuses on avoiding close relationships and anxiety that comes from close relationships. Third, the Mindful Attention Awareness Scale handled mindfulness. Finally, Kesebir created an index of general virtues from the 40 virtues used in the first study. As with the first study, after completing the surveys, participants either had to find Internet pictures of a graveyard or a neutral object (in this case, a pen). Afterwards, they completed the Your Own Death section of the Collett-Lester Fear of Death scale.

The second study corroborated Kesebir’s hypothesis: humility – not self-esteem, secure attachment, mindfulness, or general viruousness – correlated with a reduction in a reactive response to one’s own death. However, Kesebir was not satisfied with stopping there. A third study focused on entitlement rather than humility to see whether similar results would turn up. Once again relying on Mechanical Turk, Kesebir recruited 78 Americans. They took the Psychological Entitlement Scale (which has items such as as “I honestly feel I’m just more deserving than others”), and then either wrote about how they feel about their own death or how they feel about visiting the dentist. Finally, participants completed a scalet that measures anti-Islam prejudice. As expected, when subjects were primed with thoughts of death, greater self-entitlement correlated with greater prejudice against Muslims, while lower self-entitlement did not.

In the fourth study, Kesebir directly compared humility and pride in terms of how they affect death anxiety. From Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, 165 participants were randomly assigned into the humility group, pride group, or neutral group. Before seeing the items on death anxiety, humility group had first to write about a time they were humbled. Likewise, the pride group first had to write about a time they felt proud, while the neutral group went straight to the Death Anxiety Scale. Contrary to popular belief, the results showed that pride did not mitigate death anxiety, whereas humility did.

The fifth and final study tested whether humility would protect self-control against the draining effects of death anxiety. Previous research has already established a connection between high death anxiety and low self-control, and so if humility truly does help one cope with death anxiety, a humble person should lose less self-control when faced with mortality. As before, Amazon’s Mechanical Turk helped Kesebir recruit 197 American participants. This fifth study followed study four, except that it included a temptation scale to measure self-control. Once again, those primed for humility did not experience weakened self-control in the face of death anxiety.

With these five studies to draw on for support, Kesebir concludes “that a quiet, humble ego buffers death anxiety.” Humility helps people face death and to resist the lapse of moral judgment and self-control that death anxiety causes. However, given society’s current bent towards pride, he afterwards laments that “If humility buffers death anxiety, as the current work indicates, its waning cultural importance does not bode well for individual and societal well-being.”

For more, see “A Quiet Ego Quiets Death Anxiety: Humility as an Existential Anxiety Buffer” in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.


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