Moses, according to the biblical book of Numbers, was more humble than any other person on the face of the earth. But for the rest of us, how can we know — aside from divine declaration — where we rank on the humility scale?
That’s one of the basic questions behind a major new research effort being led by Biola professor Peter Hill, who said humility is both a fertile and difficult topic for psychology research, partly because it has been so challenging to measure.
“If I ask you, “How humble are you?” and you really are humble, how are you going to answer that?” said Hill, a professor at Biola’s Rosemead School of Psychology. “That creates a little bit of a dilemma. How do we measure humility? Can truly humble people self report that they are humble?”
In June, Hill and a team of professors from across the nation launched a three-year research project aimed at finding valid and reliable ways to measure humility — intellectual humility, in particular. Funded by a $1.5 million grant from The John Templeton Foundation, the research will involve four separate studies at Biola, Baylor University, Duke University and State University of New York at Buffalo. As principle investigator for the overall project, Hill is overseeing each professor’s work, while also conducting his own study at Biola.
Each project will explore a different set of approaches for measuring and understanding intellectual humility, Hill said. For his particular piece of the research, Hill plans to develop a series of multidimensional tests that measure both the general humility and intellectual humility of participants, allowing researchers to examine correlations and differences between the two.
General humility, Hill said, involves having an honest perspective of one’s own limitations and strengths and having a low concern with status. Intellectual humility, meanwhile, relates more specifically to acknowledging the limitations of one’s beliefs or knowledge levels, he said.
“The idea is that intellectual humility is probably a subset of humility in general, but we don’t know that,” he said. “Somebody could be pretty humble overall but not in the intellectual realm, or vice versa, so we want to explore that.”
The Templeton Foundation grant will allow two years to be spent conducting, analyzing and collaborating on research. A third year will be spent disseminating the results, with Hill and others writing for publications and offering educational seminars around the country.
When finished, Hill said the research could have a number of practical applications. One use might be for pastors who want to assess themselves or their churches in terms of how well they are living out the biblical call to be humble. The measurement being developed at SUNY, which involves comparing people’s self-reported humility scores against the scores given by others, could be a particularly interesting experiment for churches, he said.
“Sometimes I think Christians get a rap — either a bum rap or we deserve it, I don’t know — that we talk about being humble but we don’t come across as being very humble,” Hill said. “What if a church was willing to put their reputation on the line with people in the community, where everybody asks their friends at work to complete this measure about themselves? How would we come out?