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Hacking Self-Control With Humility

New research finds that humble humans may have more self-control.
(Photo: Serhiy Kobyakov/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Serhiy Kobyakov/Shutterstock)

As a publication that wonders why people do what they do, we write a lot about self-control here at Pacific Standard. Here's what we know: Self-control is greatly influenced by emotions; conservatives may have more of it; and reminding kids about goals can help them learn it.

Now, researchers have found a new piece to the self-control puzzle: According to a forthcoming study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, humility—the ability to tolerate failures without self-deprecation, and to view successes without developing a sense of superiority—may actually be predictive of higher levels of self-control.

Add this to the growing list of advantages for humble humans, alongside more effective leadership, better academic performance, and just generally more positive life outcomes. Self-control—essentially our ability to harness our physical and psychological resources to achieve goals or overcome impulses—has also been linked to similar benefits for education, relationships, and health status. In the new study, the authors wanted to know if these positive, humility-associated outcomes might be obtained thanks to higher self-control.

Over the years, scientists have devised multiple creative ways to measure self-control in the lab. This time, the research team combined many of those techniques across four studies—two separate handgrip tests to measure physical stamina control; a bowl of candy to test indulgence resistance; and an impossible tracing task to measure persistence—to find direct evidence that humility facilitated self-control.

If you want to maximize your self-control this holiday season, try a guilt-free slice of humble pie.

For each study, before the team measured participants' self-control, they primed the experimental groups to think about humility by instructing them to recall and describe an experience during which they felt humble. The control groups instead recalled a mundane day or routine, such as doing laundry.

In the first study of 46 undergraduates from the National University of Singapore, the team found that the humility-primed group could compress a handgrip for significantly longer than the controls. But was humility increasing the participants' self-control, or were they just highly motivated to succeed (i.e. overachievers) or to comply with instructions (i.e. suck-ups)?

"The question that hence remained was whether our hypothesis would be supported in a task that did not facilitate the expression of such achievement and compliance motives," the authors write, introducing study number two, in which the researchers replaced the handgrip test with a tempting bowl of M&Ms. "The chocolate task is suitable because consuming chocolates is hardly an endeavor one would feel proud of doing well in."

The humility participants consumed fewer chocolates than the controls, and were more likely to abstain from the candy entirely.

In the third study, 71 undergrads "undertook a tracing task which, unknown to them, was unsolvable," the authors write. The students were charged with tracing a figure without lifting the pencil from the page or retracing any lines within 10 minutes. The humility group prevailed again, proving themselves generally more persistent at the impossible task.

In the final study, the team brought back the handgrip test for a group of 135 undergrads to replicate the first study, and to find out how much other variables such as fear of failure, task enjoyment, and energy levels influenced outcomes.

Indeed, an important step in the handgrip studies was making sure the students were familiar enough with the handgrip to use it properly, but not so familiar that they tired themselves out before the study began. "In pilot testing, some participants reported that their hand felt tired and strained, which was of concern because the current undergraduate participants had mid-term tests when this study was conducted," the authors write. To protect the validity of the data (and the students from themselves), the authors instructed participants to compress the grip just enough to "appreciate the difficulty of sustaining the grip, but to reserve their strength for the main trial."

And in the end, none of the mediators the group considered, including energy levels, appeared to impact handgrip performance. "Together," the authors conclude, "the findings provide direct and conceptual replication that humility can enhance self-control."

So if you want to maximize your self-control this holiday season, try a guilt-free slice of humble pie.