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A Quiet Ego Quiets Death Anxiety: Humility as an Existential Anxiety Buffer

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Five studies tested the hypothesis that a quiet ego, as exemplified by humility, would buffer death anxiety. Humility is characterized by a willingness to accept the self and life without comforting illusions, and by low levels of self-focus. As a consequence, it was expected to render mortality thoughts less threatening and less likely to evoke potentially destructive behavior patterns. In line with this reasoning, Study 1 found that people high in humility do not engage in self-serving moral disengagement following mortality reminders, whereas people low in humility do. Study 2 showed that only people low in humility respond to death reminders with increased fear of death, and established that this effect was driven uniquely by humility and not by some other related personality trait. In Study 3, a low sense of psychological entitlement decreased cultural worldview defense in response to death thoughts, whereas a high sense of entitlement tended to increase it. Study 4 demonstrated that priming humility reduces self-reported death anxiety relative to both a baseline and a pride priming condition. Finally, in Study 5, experimentally induced feelings of humility prevented mortality reminders from leading to depleted self-control. As a whole, these findings obtained from relatively diverse Internet samples illustrate that the dark side of death anxiety is brought about by a noisy ego only and not by a quiet ego, revealing self-transcendence as a sturdier, healthier anxiety buffer than self-enhancement. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2014 APA, all rights reserved).
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PERSONALITY PROCESSES AND INDIVIDUAL DIFFERENCES
A Quiet Ego Quiets Death Anxiety: Humility as an Existential
Anxiety Buffer
Pelin Kesebir
University of Colorado at Colorado Springs
Five studies tested the hypothesis that a quiet ego, as exemplified by humility, would buffer death
anxiety. Humility is characterized by a willingness to accept the self and life without comforting
illusions, and by low levels of self-focus. As a consequence, it was expected to render mortality thoughts
less threatening and less likely to evoke potentially destructive behavior patterns. In line with this
reasoning, Study 1 found that people high in humility do not engage in self-serving moral disengagement
following mortality reminders, whereas people low in humility do. Study 2 showed that only people low
in humility respond to death reminders with increased fear of death, and established that this effect was
driven uniquely by humility and not by some other related personality trait. In Study 3, a low sense of
psychological entitlement decreased cultural worldview defense in response to death thoughts, whereas
a high sense of entitlement tended to increase it. Study 4 demonstrated that priming humility reduces
self-reported death anxiety relative to both a baseline and a pride priming condition. Finally, in Study 5,
experimentally induced feelings of humility prevented mortality reminders from leading to depleted
self-control. As a whole, these findings obtained from relatively diverse Internet samples illustrate that
the dark side of death anxiety is brought about by a noisy ego only and not by a quiet ego, revealing
self-transcendence as a sturdier, healthier anxiety buffer than self-enhancement.
Keywords: humility, entitlement, terror management theory, self-transcendence, virtue
Humility—the ability to see the self in true perspective— has
long been extolled by religious and philosophical traditions. Writ-
ers ancient and modern have considered it a virtue, while deploring
and mocking its absence (Lewis, 1952/2001;Marlowe, 1604/1995;
Shelley, 1818/1994). Recent empirical research similarly reveals
humility as a widely valued and highly regarded personality trait
(Exline & Geyer, 2004;Landrum, 2011). The current research
program examined the desirability of humility from a previously
unexplored angle and put to test the idea that a sense of humility
buffers death anxiety. Humility involves a willingness to accept
the self’s limits and its place in the grand scheme of things,
accompanied by low levels of self-preoccupation. As such, it
should render the self less vulnerable to threats, of which death
constitutes a major and perpetually present instance. Five studies
tested the idea that high levels of trait and state humility would be
associated with lower death anxiety and lower defensiveness in the
face of death thoughts.
His Majesty the Self
It has been said that the self is at once our greatest ally and
fiercest enemy (Leary, 2004). A highly developed sense of self and
the attendant capacities for self-awareness, self-control, and self-
evaluation are invaluable tools for goal attainment. Their emer-
gence must have conferred game-changing evolutionary advan-
tages to our ancestors, allowing the development of culture and
civilization. Despite its extraordinary affordances, however, hav-
ing a self is not an unmitigated blessing: The self has a way of
distorting the way we perceive reality (Greenwald, 1980;Taylor &
Brown, 1988), and self-generated thoughts and feelings are re-
sponsible for a great deal of human suffering (Ingram, 1990). The
self can be psychologically so burdensome at times that the urge to
escape it takes self-destructive forms such as drug and alcohol
abuse, binge eating, and even suicide (Baumeister, 1991).
A robust phenomenon associated with having a self is the desire
to see it in a positive light. The intertwined motives for self-
esteem, self-enhancement, and self-protection are exceptionally
strong (Alicke & Sedikides, 2009;Sedikides, 1993), and engender
what has been referred to as “a self-zoo full of self-defense
mechanisms” (Tesser, 2001, p. 66). Attesting to the dramatic way
in which reality is perceived from behind self-serving lenses,
people overestimate their virtues and underestimate their vices,
take more credit for positive outcomes and less responsibility for
negative outcomes than they deserve, judge their possessions and
people close to them exceptionally favorably, and think they are
better than average on almost any desirable quality (Dunning,
2005).
These self-serving biases and a high self-esteem in general are
linked to happiness and mental health (Baumeister, Campbell,
Krueger, & Vohs, 2003;Taylor & Brown, 1988;Taylor, Lerner,
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Pelin
Kesebir, Psychology Department, University of Colorado at Colorado
Springs, 1420 Austin Bluffs Parkway, Colorado Springs, CO 80918.
E-mail: kesebir@gmail.com
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Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2014, Vol. 106, No. 4, 610– 623
© 2014 American Psychological Association 0022-3514/14/$12.00 DOI: 10.1037/a0035814
610
Sherman, Sage, & McDowell, 2003), yet they do come at a price.
For one, the hunger for perceiving “me and mine” favorably is
bound to lead to inaccurate perceptions of ourselves, others, and
the world (Gilovich, 1991). Furthermore, relentlessly striving to
maintain and present a certain image of the self can prove destruc-
tive or self-destructive. Research finds that the pursuit of self-
esteem can reduce learning and prosocial behavior, impair self-
regulation, increase aggression in the face of ego threats, and end
up proving detrimental to one’s mental and physical health
(Baumeister, Smart, & Boden, 1996;Blaine & Crocker, 1993;
Crocker & Park, 2004;Leary, Tchividjian, & Kraxberger, 1994).
The recognition of this dark side of the self has generated an
interest in the “quiet ego” in recent years (see Wayment & Bauer,
2008, for a review). Research on topics such as self-compassion
(Neff, 2003), ecosystem versus egosystem perspectives (Crocker,
2008), and hypoegoic self-processes (Leary & Guadagno, 2011)
explored ways of transcending self-preoccupation and arriving at a
less defensive stance toward the self and others. The theme uni-
fying these diverse threads of research was that a quieter ego
would be less under the “curse of the self” (Leary, 2004), less
prone to self-flattering and self-comforting yet costly behavior
patterns, and ultimately more conducive to well-being.
Humility: The Quiet Self
Humility is a personality trait that substantially overlaps with
the notion of a quiet ego.
1
Aided by the positive psychology
movement, recent years have witnessed a growing interest in
humility as a research topic (Peterson & Seligman, 2004, Chapter
20; Tangney, 2000). This body of work portrays humility very
positively—as a virtue, a character strength, and an expression of
spiritual intelligence (Emmons, 1999). Specifically, humility has
been related to forgiveness, generosity, helpfulness, better social
relationships, and excellence in leadership; and found to be neg-
atively associated with some less desirable personality traits such
as neuroticism and narcissism (Collins, 2001;Davis et al., 2013;
Exline & Hill, 2012;LaBouff, Rowatt, Johnson, Tsang, & Willer-
ton, 2012;Owens & Hekman, 2012;Peters & Rowatt, 2011;
Rowatt et al., 2006;Vera & Rodriguez-Lopez, 2004).
What is humility, and what does it entail? As conceptualized by
contemporary social psychologists, “an accurate assessment of
one’s characteristics, an ability to acknowledge limitations, and a
forgetting of the self” constitute the core attributes of humility
(Tangney, 2002, p. 411). A humble person is first and foremost
capable of tolerating an honest look at the self and non-defensively
accepting weaknesses alongside strengths (Exline, 2008). This
does not represent a sense of inferiority or self-denigration, but
rather lack of self-aggrandizing biases. The propensity for seeing
the self in true perspective is typically accompanied by an aware-
ness of the self’s smallness in the grand scheme of things. Humble
people tend to be more sensitive and feel more connected to forces
larger than themselves, be this force God, humanity, nature, or the
cosmos (Worthington, 2007). Finally, and relatedly, those who
stand in humility exhibit a remarkable lack of self-focus and a
talent for self-forgetfulness, for becoming “unselved” (Tangney,
2000). They are easily able to take themselves out of the middle of
the picture and direct attention toward the greater world beyond. In
seeing, honoring, and potentially contributing to something bigger
than themselves, they transcend egotistical concerns and the atten-
dant urge for defensive, self-serving maneuvers.
The Mortal Self
One of the most onerous burdens that come with self-
consciousness is the anticipatory anxiety about death. All humans,
as all living organisms, are going to die; however, unlike the rest
of these organisms who lack the capacity for self-conscious, tem-
poral, and abstract thought, humans are condemned to go through
life fully aware of the reality of death. This awareness can be a
source of terrorizing anxiety for the self-aware animal that is
biologically wired for self-preservation. Terror management the-
ory (TMT; Greenberg, Pyszczynski, & Solomon, 1986) was
erected on this insight, and posited that to be able to function
effectively in the world, people need to keep the terrorizing knowl-
edge of inevitable mortality at bay. This is accomplished through
an existential anxiety buffering system, the key ingredients of
which are a sense of value, meaning, security, and transcendence.
These ingredients are oftentimes provided by self-esteem, faith in
one’s cultural worldview, and close interpersonal relations. Since
its inception, hundreds of studies have tested and supported hy-
potheses derived from TMT, and have demonstrated that death
anxiety is a central motivating force for the human psyche, playing
a role in domains as diverse as religion and spirituality, legal
decision making, human sexuality, materialism, and psychopathol-
ogy (for an overview, see Kesebir & Pyszczynski, 2012).
The question of why people need self-esteem so ardently was
one of the original questions that begot TMT, and the role that
self-esteem plays in terror management processes has been studied
extensively (for overviews, see Arndt, 2012;Pyszczynski, Green-
berg, Solomon, Arndt, & Schimel, 2004;Pyszczynski & Kesebir,
2013). A large body of research supports the notion that self-
esteem is a critical component of the existential anxiety buffer.
Both experimentally induced and dispositionally high self-esteem
have been shown to be associated with lower levels of anxiety,
worldview defense, and death-thought accessibility in response to
mortality reminders (Greenberg et al. 1992;Harmon-Jones et al.,
1997). Research also finds that death-thought accessibility in-
creases when people think about their “undesired self” (Ogilvie,
Cohen, & Solomon, 2008), or when their self-esteem is directly
threatened (J. Hayes, Schimel, Faucher, & Williams, 2008). In
further support of the existentially protective function of self-
esteem, death thoughts have been demonstrated to amplify striving
for self-esteem in domains one is invested in (e.g., Goldenberg,
McCoy, Pyszczynski, Greenberg, & Solomon, 2000;Taubman
Ben-Ari, Florian, & Mikulincer, 1999;Vess & Arndt, 2008).
The evidence points to self-esteem as a fundamental resource in
dealing with the fragile and finite nature of life. Yet the desirability
of high self-esteem as an existential anxiety buffer remains dis-
1
In the current work, the phrase quiet ego is used in a broad and
metaphorical sense, and not to refer to any psychometrically specified
construct. However, Wayment and Bauer (2008), who first introduced the
term, posit four prototypical qualities of a quiet ego: (a) detached aware-
ness, (b) interdependence, (c) compassion, and (d) growth. Accordingly,
the quiet ego is a self-perspective that sustains non-defensive self-
awareness and constructive self-criticism, balances concerns for the self
and others, views the self and others interdependently and with compas-
sion, and values personal growth.
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611
HUMILITY AS AN EXISTENTIAL ANXIETY BUFFER
putable. A number of studies document that high self-esteem
participants respond to mortality reminders in more defensive and
potentially destructive ways than low self-esteem participants,
displaying increased risk-taking, for instance, or increased ingroup
bias and outgroup derogation (Baldwin & Wesley, 1996;Landau
& Greenberg, 2006;McGregor, Gailliot, Vasquez, & Nash, 2007).
In fact, these results echo the finding that people with high self-
esteem respond to self-threats in particularly defensive and aggres-
sive ways (e.g., Bushman & Baumeister, 1998;Crocker, Thomp-
son, McGraw, & Ingerman, 1987). Such parallelism is not
astonishing, if we conceive of death as the ultimate threat to the
self. In keeping with the general theme that the pursuit of self-
esteem can be costly (Crocker & Park, 2004), in the context of
terror management too, a focus on asserting the self’s unique value
seems to be associated with mixed consequences. Could there be
other ways for the self to exist that would allow for healthier, more
constructive ways of dealing with death anxiety?
Humility as an Existential Anxiety Buffer
The current research program set out to test the idea that a quiet
ego, as exemplified by humility, can buffer death anxiety. A
humble outlook, as we have seen, is characterized by a propensity
for seeing the self in proper perspective against the bigger picture
and by low levels of self-focus. These qualities cast humility as an
effective source of existential comfort and protection. To start
with, those who possess humility have a relatively less intrusive
ego that is secure in its reality—the self, to the extent that it is
possible, is a non-issue for them. It follows that threats to the self,
including the prospect of death, should be less alarming for humble
people. They should be less likely to overreact and resort to
unsavory defenses to fend off the threat. Furthermore, humility
entails a penchant for seeing the larger context and accurately and
non-defensively appraising one’s place in it. It would stand to
reason that as a result humble people would be more at peace with
the nature of existence, including the finiteness of every life. Given
this interrelated set of reasons, humility is expected to shield death
anxiety and obviate destructive modes of dealing with the knowl-
edge of one’s mortality.
Overview of Studies
Against this theoretical background, five studies tested the hy-
pothesis that humility will buffer death anxiety and render de-
fenses aimed at defying death anxiety less likely. Studies 1–3
examined how trait humility and a sense of entitlement moderate
reactions to mortality reminders. Study 4 directly assessed the
impact of a humility manipulation on death anxiety and compared
it to the impact of a pride manipulation. Finally, Study 5 tested the
prediction that an experimentally induced humility mindset would
thwart the depleting effects of mortality salience (MS) on self-
control. As a whole, these studies lie at the intersection of self and
identity, TMT, and positive psychology literatures. The intended
goal is to contribute to all three, by showing that the character
strength of humility—possessing a quiet ego capable of seeing the
self and life in proper perspective— can soothe death anxiety and
hinder potentially harmful behavior.
Study 1
Study 1 tested the hypothesis that humility as an individual
difference variable would buffer death anxiety. Participants indi-
cated the extent to which they possess humility and were then
exposed to an MS manipulation. The dependent variable was
moral disengagement, referring to a proclivity to endorse ethically
problematic self-serving behaviors. Previous research has estab-
lished that mortality concerns fuel endorsement of morally ques-
tionable behaviors that serve to defend or bolster the components
of one’s existential anxiety buffer (Kesebir, Chiu, & Pyszczynski,
2013). If humble people have a less needy ego that is more
accepting of its limitations, then reminders of the fragility of life
and the self should not elicit defensive reactions from them. It was
thus hypothesized that individuals higher in possession of humility
would not display increased moral disengagement in the face of
mortality thoughts.
Method
Eighty-eight American participants (34 males, 54 females) with
a mean age of 33.73 years (SD 11.46) were recruited on
Amazon’s Mechanical Turk and completed a short online survey
in exchange for 60 cents.
At the beginning of the survey, participants were given 40 virtue
words (taken from Kesebir & Kesebir, 2012) and asked to rate how
much they possess each. Specifically, the instructions read: “In this
task we want you to indicate how much you think you possess the
following virtues. Please give spontaneous answers in this task.
We are not here to judge you; we are only interested in your honest
opinions of yourself.” Scattered among the other virtue words were
two words intended to capture humility: humility and humbleness.
Participants indicated on a 7-point Likert scale, ranging from 1
(not at all like me)to7(just like me), how much they thought they
possessed these virtues. Internal reliability for the two items was
satisfactory (r.67).
Next, participants were randomly assigned to an MS or control
condition. They were asked to come up with three Internet links to
pictures of either a death-related (“graveyard”) or neutral (“mug”)
concept, using the following instructions: “For the next task, you
will be given a word and then asked to come up with three Internet
links to pictures that depict the contents of this word. You can use
any web search engine (e.g., Google, Yahoo, Bing) of your choice.
You can choose any picture, as long as it accurately depicts
what is asked from you.” In the next step, participants assigned
to the MS condition were told: “Please enter in the textbox
below three separate web addresses, at which we can see
pictures of a GRAVEYARD.” In the control condition, GRAVE-
YARD was replaced with MUG. The MS manipulation was suc-
ceeded by the Positive and Negative Affect Schedule (PANAS;
Watson, Clark, & Tellegen, 1988) and an anagram puzzle. These
were meant to provide distraction and delay: Previous TMT re-
search has consistently shown distal death defenses to occur more
robustly after some distraction (Greenberg, Pyszczynski, Solomon,
Simon, & Breus, 1994).
The dependent variable was assessed with Moral Disengage-
ment Scale (Moore, Detert, Treviño, Baker, & Mayer, 2012),
which consists of eight items that measure an individual’s incli-
nation to morally disengage. Participants rated on a 7-point scale
(1 strongly disagree,7strongly agree) their agreement with
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612 KESEBIR
some ethically problematic statements. Six of these eight state-
ments inquired about behaviors that represent attempts at defend-
ing or bolstering the components of one’s existential anxiety
buffer. These items referred to previously well-established (e.g.,
Hirschberger, 2006;Landau et al., 2004;Mikulincer, Florian, &
Hirschberger, 2003;Pyszczynski et al., 2004) ingredients of the
existential anxiety buffer, such as self-esteem (“Considering the
ways people grossly misrepresent themselves, it’s hardly a sin to
inflate your own credentials”), relationships with close others (“It
is okay to spread rumors to defend those you care about”), just
world beliefs (“People who get mistreated have usually done
something to bring it on themselves”), and respect for authority
(“People shouldn’t be held accountable for doing questionable
things when they were just doing what an authority figure told
them to do”). It was thus expected that MS would lead to higher
endorsement of these items. For two items on the Moral Disen-
gagement Scale (“Taking something without the owner’s permis-
sion is okay as long as you’re just borrowing it”; “Some people
have to be treated roughly because they lack feelings that can be
hurt”), there were no theoretical grounds to expect that death
thoughts would increase their endorsement. These two items were
therefore not included in the data analysis.
Finally, participants completed the Balanced Inventory of De-
sirable Responding (BIDR). Self-presentational concerns could
affect participants’ reports of moral disengagement and the anal-
ysis aimed to statistically control for this. The 40-item BIDR
consists of two subscales, Self-Deceptive Enhancement and Im-
pression Management (Paulhus, 1988). Self-deceptive enhance-
ment reflects an unintentional tendency to portray oneself in a
favorable light, whereas impression management involves inten-
tional distortion to portray oneself favorably to others. On a scale
ranging from 1 (not true)to7(very true), participants indicated
their agreement with statements such as “I never regret my deci-
sions” (self-deceptive enhancement; ␣⫽.72) and “When I hear
people talking privately, I avoid listening” (impression manage-
ment; ␣⫽.83).
Results and Discussion
Participant ratings for how much they possess the virtues of
humility (M5.08, SD 1.28) and humbleness (M5.30, SD
1.13) were averaged to create a composite score for humility (M
5.20, SD 1.10). Neither self-deceptive enhancement (M4.20,
SD 0.60) nor impression management (M3.87, SD 0.85)
correlated significantly with self-reported humility (ps.10).
Participants’ positive and negative affect did not differ as a
function of having been assigned to the MS or control group (ps
.56). As noted above, on the basis of theory, only six out of the
eight items in the Moral Disengagement Scale were predicted to be
affected by death anxiety; hence, a composite moral disengage-
ment score was created from these six items (␣⫽.77; M2.34,
SD 0.88).
2
To test the hypothesis that humility will buffer against moral
disengagement in the face of MS, a hierarchical regression analysis
was conducted on moral disengagement scores. Humility scores
(mean-centered) and condition (coded: 1control condition,
1MS) were entered simultaneously in a first step, followed by
the two-way interaction in the second step (Aiken & West, 1991).
The analysis yielded no main effect for humility, ␤⫽⫺.12,
t(84) ⫽⫺1.15, p.25, or condition, ␤⫽.006, t(84) 0.05, p
.96. However, there was the predicted Humility Condition
interaction, ␤⫽⫺.32, t(84) ⫽⫺3.09, p.003 (see Figure 1).
Subsequent simple slope analyses demonstrated that for those low
in humility (1 standard deviation), mortality reminders signifi-
cantly increased moral disengagement (␤⫽.33, t2.22, p
.029). For those high in humility (1 standard deviation), on the
other hand, mortality thoughts significantly decreased moral dis-
engagement (␤⫽⫺.32, t⫽⫺2.17, p.033). To put it another
way, in the control condition, humility was not associated with
moral disengagement, r(42) .20, p.20. Yet in the MS
condition, humility and moral disengagement were significantly
negatively associated, r(42) ⫽⫺.44, p.003.
A final analysis factored in the role of self-deceptive and self-
presentational concerns in responding. Self-deceptive enhance-
ment did not predict moral disengagement, F(1, 86) 0.85, p
.36, whereas impression management strongly did, F(1, 86)
13.21, p.001. As a result, only the Impression Management
subscale of the BIDR was used in the subsequent analysis as a
covariate. An analysis of covariance revealed that the Condition
Humility interaction effect was still significant after controlling for
impression management, F(1, 83) 11.31, p.001,
2
.10.
The results of Study 1 supported the hypothesized role of
humility in buffering death anxiety. Whereas people low in self-
reported humility responded to death reminders with increased
willingness to morally disengage in the service of their existential
anxiety buffer, people high in humility did not resort to this
defense. Quite the opposite, they became less likely to morally
disengage in the presence of death thoughts. Humility thus was
associated not only with an absence of terror management de-
fenses, but with a veritable shift of MS responses into a more
desirable direction. One possible explanation is that humble peo-
ple, having better insulation against death fear, get to experience
mortality thoughts as a perspective provider—a reminder of what
life is and how it should be lived. As a consequence, death makes
2
Creating a composite score for the full eight-item Moral Disengage-
ment Scale and submitting it to the same analysis as the six-item scale
revealed a similarly significant interaction effect, ␤⫽⫺.30,
t(84) ⫽⫺2.89, p.005.
1.5
2.5
3.5
Low Humility High Humility
Moral Disengagement
Control
Mortality Salience
Figure 1. Moral disengagement as a function of mortality salience and
humility.
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613
HUMILITY AS AN EXISTENTIAL ANXIETY BUFFER
them want to live up to universal standards of value and behave in
morally worthy ways, bringing out the best in them.
Study 2
Study 1 provided initial evidence that humility is linked to
greater protection from death anxiety. The purpose of Study 2 was
to conceptually replicate this finding and rule out the possibility
that the effect could be explained by personality traits potentially
related to humility. Specifically, the study aimed to establish that
the known existential anxiety buffers of self-esteem (Harmon-
Jones et al., 1997), secure attachment (Mikulincer & Florian,
2000), and mindfulness (Niemiec et al., 2010) were not responsible
for the observed buffering role of humility. A final consideration
was to ascertain that it was not overall virtuousness, or a general
prosocial orientation, that shielded from death anxiety, but specif-
ically humility. With these intentions, Study 2 first assessed par-
ticipants’ humility, self-esteem, secure attachment, mindfulness,
and general virtuousness and then exposed them to an MS manip-
ulation. The dependent variable was fear of death—an explicit
measure of existential anxiety. It was hypothesized that MS would
increase fear of death only for those low, but not for those high, in
humility. This effect was expected to hold even after controlling
for self-esteem, secure attachment, mindfulness, and general vir-
tuousness.
Method
Participants were 142 Americans (58 males, 82 females, two
unknown) with a mean age of 37.73 years (SD 12.33), who were
recruited on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk and paid 75 cents for
their work. After providing demographic information about them-
selves at the beginning of the questionnaire, they completed the
following measures in a counterbalanced order.
Humility. Humility was assessed in the same manner as in
Study 1. To disguise the true purpose of the study, participants
were given 15 words describing various virtues, scattered among
which were humility and humbleness. On a 7-point Likert scale
ranging from 1 (not at all like me)to7(just like me), participants
indicated how much they thought they possessed each of these
virtues. Internal reliability for the two items was identical to that
found in the previous study (r.67).
Self-esteem. The widely used Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale
assessed how positively or negatively participants regard their own
worth (Rosenberg, 1965). Participants rated on a scale ranging
from 1 (strongly disagree)to4(strongly agree) their agreement
with statements such as “I feel that I am a person of worth, at least
on an equal plane with others” (␣⫽.92).
Secure attachment. Quality of adult attachment was mea-
sured with the 36-item Experience of Close Relationships Scale
(Brennan, Clark, & Shaver, 1998). The scale separately captures
the avoidance and anxiety dimensions of attachment. Participants
responded to 18 items appraising avoidant attachment (e.g., “I get
uncomfortable when a romantic partner wants to be very close”)
and 18 items appraising anxious attachment (e.g., “I need a lot of
reassurance that I am loved by my partner”). Responses were given
on a 7-point scale ranging from 1 (strongly disagree)to7(strongly
agree). Internal reliability for both the avoidance (␣⫽.97) and
anxiety (␣⫽.94) dimensions was excellent.
Mindfulness. Mindfulness refers to a state of being attentive
to and aware of what is taking place in the present (K. W. Brown
& Ryan, 2003). People differ in trait mindfulness—their ability or
willingness to sustain attention on the present. In the current study,
trait mindfulness was evaluated with the 15-item Mindful Atten-
tion Awareness Scale (K. W. Brown & Ryan, 2003). On a 7-point
scale, participants indicated their agreement with items such as “I
find it difficult to stay focused on what’s happening in the present”
and “I do jobs or tasks automatically, without being aware of what
I’m doing.” Responses were coded such that higher scores indi-
cated higher trait mindfulness (␣⫽.91).
Virtuousness. Participants’ degree of humility was assessed
with two virtue words (humility and humbleness) embedded within
a list of 15 virtues. To capture participants’ general level of virtue,
an index was created using the 13 remaining virtue words in this
list after excluding humility and humbleness. On a 7-point Likert
scale, ranging from 1 (not at all like me)to7(just like me),
participants thus rated how much they thought they possessed the
virtues of honesty,patience,compassion,integrity,honor,loyalty,
kindness,sincerity,trustworthiness,courage,forgiveness,gener-
osity, and wisdom (␣⫽.87).
After completing these measures, participants were randomly
assigned to an MS or control condition. As in Study 1, participants
in the MS condition were asked to come up with three Internet
links to pictures that depict a “graveyard.” Participants in the
control condition, on the other hand, were instructed to come up
with three Internet links to pictures of a “pen.” The manipulation
was followed by PANAS (Watson et al., 1988) and an anagram
task meant to distract and delay.
Finally, the dependent measure, fear of death, was captured with
the Your Own Death subscale of the Collett–Lester Fear of Death
Scale (Lester, & Abdel-Khalek, 2003). Participants indicated on a
scale from 1 (not at all)to5(a great deal) how much they fear
different aspects of their personal death such as “never thinking or
experiencing anything again” or “the disintegration of your body
after you die.” The subscale consists of seven items; however, in
light of the age range and distribution of the current sample, with
about 40% of participants being above the age of 40, the item
“dying young” was dropped.
3
Cronbach’s for the remaining six
items was .91.
Results and Discussion
As in Study 1, participant ratings for how much they possess the
virtues humility (M5.25, SD 1.31) and humbleness (M
5.20, SD 1.28) were averaged to create a composite humility
score. Composite scores were also created for the variables of
self-esteem, anxious attachment, avoidant attachment, mindful-
ness, and virtue. Please refer to Table 1 for descriptive statistics
and intercorrelations. Analyses confirmed that being in the MS or
control condition was not associated with differential positive or
negative affect (ps.28).
To test the hypothesis that humility will buffer the anxiety
following mortality reminders, a hierarchical regression analysis
was conducted on death fear scores (M2.57, SD 1.16).
Humility scores (mean-centered) and condition (coded: 1
3
Analyses including this item still yielded a significant Humility
Condition interaction, ␤⫽⫺.20, t(138) ⫽⫺2.39, p.018.
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614 KESEBIR
control condition, 1 MS) were entered simultaneously in a first
step, followed by the two-way interaction in the second step. The
analysis yielded no main effect for humility, ␤⫽.08, t(138)
0.93, p.35, or condition, ␤⬍.001, t(138) 0.004, p.997.
Yet, as expected, the Humility Condition interaction was sig-
nificant, ␤⫽⫺.22, t(138) ⫽⫺2.63, p.009 (see Figure 2).
Simple slope analyses to decompose the interaction revealed that
for those low in humility (1 standard deviation), mortality re-
minders marginally increased death fear (␤⫽.22, t1.86, p
.065), whereas for those high in humility (1 standard deviation),
they marginally decreased it (␤⫽⫺.22, t⫽⫺1.89, p.061).
Probing the interaction using the Johnson–Neyman technique
(A. F. Hayes, 2013) allowed to pinpoint the standardized values of
humility in the data set at which MS started to increase and
decrease fear of death significantly: For participants 1.35 standard
deviation below the mean in humility, mortality thoughts signifi-
cantly increased fear of death, whereas for those 1.31 standard
deviation above the mean they significantly decreased it.
To rule out the hypothesis that some other construct related to
humility was responsible for the observed effects, an analysis of
covariance was conducted. The model included MS, humility, and
the Humility Condition interaction. Additionally, self-esteem,
mindfulness, anxious attachment, avoidant attachment, and virtu-
ousness were entered as covariates (all mean-centered), after ver-
ifying that they fulfilled the homogeneity of regression slopes
assumption. From the five covariates, anxious attachment signifi-
cantly predicted death fear, F(1, 133) 29.66, p.001, and
avoidant attachment marginally predicted it, F(1, 133) 3.68, p
.057. Self-esteem, mindfulness, and general virtue did not exert
any main effect on death fear (ps.62). Most importantly, the
Humility Condition interaction emerged as significant from this
analysis, F(1, 133) 13.83, p.001. Indeed, the effect was
stronger (
2
.08), compared to a model that did not include the
covariates (
2
.05).
The current study provided additional evidence for the existen-
tial anxiety buffering function of humility by demonstrating that
MS increases death fear only for those who are low in humility. In
contrast, for participants high in humility, thinking about one’s
mortality was associated with lower death fear. Thus, as in Study
1, when humility was combined with mortality thoughts, it not
only failed to increase reactive responses, but effectively reduced
them. Study 2 furthermore revealed the unique predictive power of
humility over the constructs of self-esteem, secure attachment,
mindfulness, and general virtuousness. After controlling for these
variables, humility still moderated the effect of mortality remind-
ers on death fear.
Study 3
To provide further support for the hypothesis that humility
shields against death anxiety, Study 3 focused on a variable rep-
resenting the absence of humility—a sense of entitlement. Psycho-
logical entitlement is a key component of narcissism, and is
defined as “a stable and pervasive sense that one deserves more
and is entitled to more than others” (Campbell, Bonacci, Shelton,
Exline, & Bushman, 2004, p. 31). Entitlement is negatively related
to humility, especially to certain operationalizations of it (Rowatt
et al., 2006). In stark contrast to humble people, entitled people are
deeply preoccupied with their own needs and convinced that they
deserve special treatment. Entitlement has also been shown to
predict a number of undesirable outcomes such as greedy inten-
tions in a commons dilemma, selfish approaches to romantic
relationships, and higher aggression following ego threat (Camp-
bell et al., 2004). If entitlement, with its relentless focus on the self
and its lack of concern for other people’s rights and needs, em-
bodies the “noisy ego,” then it should be associated with height-
ened defensive reactions to mortality thoughts.
The dependent variable for the study was chosen as cultural
worldview defense, operationalized as anti-Islam prejudice. TMT
research has shown repeatedly that reminders of death increase
discrimination, hostility, and aggression toward those who do not
share one’s cultural worldview (e.g., Greenberg et al., 1994;
McGregor et al., 1998;Pyszczynski, Abdollahi, Solomon, Green-
berg, & Weise, 2006), including those who do not share one’s
religion (Greenberg et al., 1990). In light of the hypothesized
protective function of the quiet ego, it was predicted that those
2
2.5
3
3.5
Low Humility High Humility
Fear of Death
Control
Mortality Salience
Figure 2. Fear of death as a function of mortality salience and humility.
Table 1
Descriptive Statistics and Intercorrelations for the Trait Measures in Study 2
Variable MSD123456
1. Humility 5.23 1.18 — .08 .001 .18
.12 .51
ⴱⴱ
2. Self-esteem 3.20 0.61 .55
ⴱⴱ
.49
ⴱⴱ
.54
ⴱⴱ
.46
ⴱⴱ
3. Anxious attachment 3.16 1.29 .36
ⴱⴱ
.43
ⴱⴱ
.34
ⴱⴱ
4. Avoidant attachment 2.69 1.26 .46
ⴱⴱ
.48
ⴱⴱ
5. Mindfulness 4.72 1.13 .41
ⴱⴱ
6. Virtuousness 5.73 0.73
p.05.
ⴱⴱ
p.01.
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615
HUMILITY AS AN EXISTENTIAL ANXIETY BUFFER
with a low sense of entitlement would not respond to MS with
increased worldview defense in the form of anti-Islam prejudice.
Method
Seventy-eight American participants (40 males, 38 females;
mean age 34.94 years, SD 15.11) were recruited on Amazon’s
Mechanical Turk to complete a short survey and received 45 cents
in return.
Participants first completed the nine-item Psychological Enti-
tlement Scale (Campbell et al., 2004). They rated on a 7-point
Likert scale ranging from 1 (strongly disagree)to7(strongly
agree) their agreement with items such as “I honestly feel I’m just
more deserving than others” and “I feel entitled to more of every-
thing” (␣⫽.88). Next, they were randomly assigned to an MS or
control condition. Those in the MS condition responded to the
question “Please write two sentences about what you feel when
you think about the fact that you will die someday,” while those in
the control condition responded to “Please write two sentences
about what you feel when you think about experiencing intense
pain during a visit to the dentist.” As in the previous two studies,
the MS manipulation was followed by PANAS (Watson et al.,
1988) and an anagram task, intended to delay and distract.
The dependent variable, anti-Islam prejudice, was captured with
a six-item measure. On a 7-point scale (1 strongly disagree,7
strongly agree), participants indicated their agreement with state-
ments about Islam and Muslims (␣⫽.79). Adapted from Imhoff
and Recker (2012), sample items included “Compared to other
religious and philosophical approaches Islam is rather primitive,”
“Any critique of the West brought forward by representatives of
Islam is exaggerated and unjustified,” and “Hostility against Mus-
lims is an intolerable form of discrimination” (reverse-coded).
Finally, participants provided some demographic information
about themselves.
4
Results and Discussion
Participant responses to the Psychological Entitlement Scale and
the Anti-Islam Prejudice measure were averaged to create com-
posite scores of entitlement (M3.57, SD 1.09) and anti-Islam
prejudice (M3.56, SD 1.11). Entitlement was significantly
related to age, with younger people reporting higher entitlement,
r(75) ⫽⫺.23, p.042. There was also a non-significant trend for
men to feel more entitled, t(75) 1.60, p.115. Anti-Islam
prejudice, on the other hand, was not predicted by age or sex (ps
.15). Negative or positive affect did not differ as a function of
experimental condition either (ps.45).
To test the hypothesis that a low sense of entitlement would
buffer against cultural worldview defense in the face of death
thoughts, a hierarchical regression analysis was conducted on
anti-Islam prejudice. Entitlement scores (mean-centered) and con-
dition (coded: 1control condition, 1 MS) were entered in
a first step, followed by the two-way interaction in the second step.
The analysis yielded no main effect for condition, ␤⫽⫺.06,
t(73) ⫽⫺0.50, p.62. Entitlement was not significantly asso-
ciated with anti-Islam prejudice either, ␤⫽.15, t(73) 1.40, p
.17. There was, however, the hypothesized Condition Entitle-
ment interaction, ␤⫽.33, t(73) 3.01, p.004 (see Figure 3).
Probing the interaction revealed that for those high in entitlement
(1 standard deviation on the Psychological Entitlement Scale),
reminders of mortality marginally increased anti-Islam prejudice,
␤⫽.28, t1.80, p.077. For those low in entitlement (1
standard deviation), on the other hand, mortality thoughts signif-
icantly decreased anti-Islam prejudice, ␤⫽⫺.39, t⫽⫺2.47, p
.016. Looked at differently, entitlement did not predict anti-Islam
prejudice in the control condition, ␤⫽⫺.17, t(36) ⫽⫺1.06, p
.30. Yet in the MS condition, a higher sense of entitlement signif-
icantly and strongly predicted higher anti-Islam prejudice, ␤⫽.49,
t(37) 3.39, p.002.
These findings lend support to the hypothesis that a low sense of
entitlement protects against death anxiety. Exposed to mortality
thoughts, those high in entitlement tended to feel more prejudice
toward Islam, presumably in an attempt to ward off death anxiety
by asserting the superiority of their own worldview. Those low in
entitlement, on the other hand, not only did not exhibit such
defensive reactions, but went the opposite route and became sig-
nificantly less prejudiced. Thus, as in Studies 1 and 2, when a quiet
ego was combined with mortality thoughts, it brought out arguably
more desirable behaviors. These results, taken together, suggest
that a quiet ego not only shields death anxiety but also drives those
who possess it toward less defensive and more tolerant modes of
coping. In other words, humility appears to be not only a buffer,
but also a source of perspective and insight in the face of death
anxiety.
Study 4
Using an individual differences approach, the first three
studies demonstrated that higher levels of self-reported humility
and lower levels of self-reported psychological entitlement
predict lower anxiety and defensiveness in response to mortality
thoughts. Although these findings were promisingly consistent
with the idea that a quiet ego quiets death anxiety, Study 4
4
The demographic items, regrettably, did not inquire about participants’
religious affiliation, which would have allowed us to rule out the presence
of Muslim participants in the sample. The rate of Muslims in the general
American population, as well as observed in previous Mechanical Turk
samples, is less than 1%, however, rendering it unlikely that this limitation
would threaten the validity of the results in a significant way.
2.5
3
3.5
4
4.5
5
Low Entitlement High Entitlement
Anti-Islam Prejudice
Control
Mortality Salience
Figure 3. Anti-Islam prejudice as a function of mortality salience and
entitlement.
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616 KESEBIR
employed a more direct test of this hypothesis. Specifically,
participants were primed with humility and then asked to report
their fear of death. If humility indeed protects against death
anxiety, a straightforward prediction would be that participants
primed with humility would experience lower death anxiety
than participants in a neutral condition. In addition to a neutral
condition, the design adopted a pride priming condition. Pride
predicts self-esteem better than any other emotion (J. D. Brown
& Marshall, 2001) and has oftentimes been contrasted with
humility (e.g., Comte-Sponville, 2001;Sandage & Moe, 2011).
Pride is predicated on attributions of value and importance to
the self, and these attributions, while boosting the ego and
granting some armor against anxiety, could simultaneously
make threats to the self more disturbing—for the more valuable
and important the self is perceived to be, the more unbearable
a fate death should become. It was hence hypothesized that
humility would prove a more effective soother of death anxiety
than pride.
Method
One hundred sixty-five participants (88 males, 77 females) were
recruited on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk and participated in the study
in exchange for 40 cents (mean age 32.18 years, SD 12.98). At
the beginning of the study, participants were randomly assigned to
one of three conditions: humility, pride, or baseline. In the humility
and pride conditions, they were told that they would be asked to write
about some personal experiences. In the humility condition, the in-
structions read: “Please write about a time in your life when you felt
humility. How did you feel and what did you think?” Owing to the
fact that humility at times tends to be confused with humiliation
(Exline & Geyer, 2004), which is a construct deeply different from the
quiet ego, participants were expressly warned: “Note that we do NOT
want you to write about a ‘humiliating’ incident, one that made you
feel ashamed, guilty, or foolish. Rather, we are interested in experi-
ences that provided you with a down-to-earth perspective of yourself
in relation to all other beings.” In the pride condition, on the other
hand, participants were asked: “Please write about a time in your life
when you felt pride. How did you feel and what did you think?”
Finally, participants in the baseline condition skipped this part of the
survey. Next, all participants completed the PANAS (Watson et al.,
1988) to ensure that the experimental conditions did not elicit differ-
ential moods.
The dependent variable was death anxiety, which was assessed
with the 12-item Death Anxiety Scale (Templer, 1970). On a
7-point Likert scale (1 strongly disagree,7strongly agree),
participants reported their agreement with statements such as “I am
very much afraid to die,” “I often think about how short life really
is,” and “The thought of death never bothers me” (reverse-coded).
The scale had very good internal reliability (␣⫽.89).
Results and Discussion
Even though participants were explicitly instructed not to report
instances of humiliation in the humility condition, an initial in-
spection of the open-ended responses revealed a good number of
participants who wrote about personal humiliation or embarrass-
ment (e.g., “I felt humiliation when I lost my job for no reason”;
“When I got pregnant I felt guilty because I felt like I let down my
parents”; “I felt humiliated when I had to do a lip-sync in front of
my whole high school. Our routine was not very good and a lot of
people laughed at us”). Hence, prior to data analysis, all responses
to the humility condition were reviewed and those with content
clearly not about a quiet ego were excluded from further analysis
(n14).
5
Composite death anxiety scores were created by averaging
participant ratings on the Death Anxiety Scale (M4.27, SD
1.22). Age was not related to death anxiety (p.34); however,
gender was, t(149) ⫽⫺2.51, p.013. Women reported higher
death anxiety (M4.53, SD 1.20) in comparison to men (M
4.04, SD 1.20). Analyses revealed that experimental condition
did not significantly affect positive (p.11) or negative affect
(p.97).
A one-way between-subjects analysis of variance was per-
formed on death anxiety to examine the effect of experimental
condition, which yielded a significant effect, F(2, 148) 4.05,
p.019,
2
.05. Supporting the hypotheses, planned contrasts
demonstrated that participants in the humility condition reported
significantly lower death anxiety (M3.79, SD 1.30) compared
to both the pride condition (M4.45, SD 1.07),
t(148) ⫽⫺2.71, p.008, d0.55, and the baseline condition
(M4.39, SD 1.28), t(148) ⫽⫺2.33, p.021, d0.47 (see
Figure 4).
These findings constitute particularly compelling evidence for
the existentially protective nature of humility, by revealing a
one-to-one relationship between a humble outlook and lower death
anxiety. Relative to participants in both the baseline and pride
conditions, those who remembered a humbling moment in their
lives felt less anxious about death. The theme reverberating
through participant accounts of humility was one of recognizing
their own smallness (“Sometimes looking up at the stars or watch-
ing the sun rise really makes you feel small”) or imperfection (“I
kept insisting I was correct, but came to find out I was wrong all
along”). Yet this realization was experienced not as distressing but
comforting and even inspiring. Many of these memories also
involved seeing one’s life in perspective (“I got a good look at
people’s houses and the way they live, and that made me realize
each one of those houses had a family in it just like mine, all trying
to live and survive every day, just like mine”), especially in
comparison to more difficult lives (“I visited a homeless shelter
and it humbled me because I realized how much I really have”).
The humility prime thus seemed to bring forth a self that is able to
see itself and life more clearly for what it is, yet was at peace with
this reality. The relative deproblematization of the self and the
acceptance of its place in the grand scheme of things, as reflected
in these accounts, was presumably responsible for rendering death
less unsettling a fact for participants in the humility condition.
Notably, recalling moments of pride did not result in diminished
death anxiety. Pride is an emotion geared toward enhancing and
affirming the self, regardless of whether it is born authentically
from achievement and mastery or embodies hubristic feelings of
arrogance, grandiosity, and superiority (Tracy & Robins, 2007).
The self takes the center stage in the phenomenology of pride,
5
An analysis of variance that does not exclude these 14 responses still
yielded a significant effect of experimental condition on death anxiety, F(2,
162) 3.80, p.024, though the effect was weaker.
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617
HUMILITY AS AN EXISTENTIAL ANXIETY BUFFER
which likely explains why it failed to effectively soothe death
anxiety. For all the anxiety buffering potential it carries, a boost to
the self also is capable of making the assured finiteness of the self
a proportionately more dreadful prospect. Study 4 thus demon-
strated that a quiet ego offers protection from death anxiety and
does it better than a swollen ego.
Study 5
This final study manipulated both mortality thoughts and a
humility mindset to assess the existentially protective function of
humility on self-control. Self-control—the ability of the self to
override one response to substitute a more adaptive alternative—is
a particularly important outcome variable. It is a key to success in
various life domains, and failures at it are associated with a
plethora of problems, from violence and crime to addiction, from
unwanted pregnancies to obesity (Baumeister, Vohs, & Tice,
2007). Previous research has established a reciprocal relationship
between death anxiety and self-control: Both trait and state self-
control are associated with more effective management of death
anxiety, whereas coping with death thoughts depletes self-control
(Gailliot, Schmeichel, & Baumeister, 2006). It has also been
demonstrated that MS intensifies the desire to avoid self-
awareness (Arndt, Greenberg, Simon, Pyszczynski, & Solomon,
1998). This desire oftentimes translates into increased temptation
for escapist behaviors such as eating junk food, drinking alcohol,
or shopping, which might represent self-regulatory failure. If hum-
ble self-views mollify death anxiety, then mortality thoughts
should not lead to depleted self-control and increased temptation
among participants primed with humility. Employing a 2 (humility
vs. control) 2 (MS vs. control) factorial design, the current study
tested this hypothesis.
Method
Participants were 197 Americans (127 males, 70 females) with
a mean age of 29.16 years (SD 9.11), who were recruited on
Amazon’s Mechanical Turk marketplace and paid 55 cents for
their work. At the beginning of the survey, participants provided
demographic information about themselves, after which they were
exposed to a humility or control condition. As in Study 4, those in
the humility condition were instructed to write about a time in their
life when they felt humility. They were also warned to write about
an incident that provided them with a down-to-earth perspective of
themselves and not about a humiliating, embarrassing, or shameful
one. This warning was underlined this time, to make it more
conspicuous. Those in the control condition, on the other hand,
were asked to write about a time in their lives when they felt
humidity. Specifically, the instructions read: “Please write about a
time in your life when you felt humidity (in the air). How did you
feel and what did you think?” Humidity was deemed suitable as a
control condition because it is a weather phenomenon with poten-
tially no power to psychologically impact participants in a mean-
ingful way.
6
Immediately following the humility manipulation, participants
were assigned to either an MS or control condition. Parallel to the
MS manipulation in Studies 1 and 2, they were asked to come up
with three web addresses that depict a graveyard (in the MS
condition) or a pen (control condition). The MS manipulation was
followed by PANAS (Watson et al., 1988) and a word generation
task (“Write down in the boxes below the first five words that
come to your mind that start with the letter T”), meant to provide
delay and distraction.
The dependent variable, self-control, was assessed with a mea-
sure of felt temptation. Drawn largely from Tsukayama, Duck-
worth, and Kim (2012), a Temptation Scale was created for the
purposes of the current study. Participants were presented with
eight activities that imply low levels of self-control. These activ-
ities were putting off work that needs to get done,purchasing
things,procrastinating,drinking beer,doing nothing,eating fried
food,spending rather than saving your money, and getting drunk.
The instructions read: “Please indicate on the following scale how
tempted you would be to do the following activities RIGHT NOW,
if there were no long-term consequences for yourself or anyone
else. That is, how attracted do you feel to these activities right now
regardless of how harmful you might think they are?” Participants
were prompted to be as spontaneous and honest in their responses
as they could, with the preface that “we are here not to judge you,
but to understand human behavior.” They indicated their responses
on a scale from 1 (not tempted at all)to5(very tempted). The
Temptation Scale displayed acceptable internal reliability (␣⫽
.82).
Results and Discussion
As in the previous study, an inspection of the open-ended
responses given in the humility condition revealed that some
participants wrote about shame, failure, or humiliation experiences
instead of humility. These participants (n5) were excluded from
further data analyses.
7
The remaining participants’ responses to the
Temptation Scale were averaged to elicit an overall score of
temptation (M2.80, SD 0.91). Temptation was not associated
with positive affect, negative affect, or sex (all ps.80). There
6
This control condition was admittedly inspired by Yogi Berra’s slip-
up, “It ain’t the heat, it’s the humility.”
7
Analyses showed that including these participants’ data would not have
changed the statistical significance of the predicted Humility MS Con-
dition interaction, F(1, 193) 8.19, p.005.
2.5
3
3.5
4
4.5
Humility Pride Baseline
Death Anxiety
Figure 4. Death anxiety as a function of experimental condition. Error
bars: 1 standard error.
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618 KESEBIR
was a non-significant trend for a negative association between age
and self-reported temptation, r(190) ⫽⫺.12, p.098.
Temptation scores were submitted to a 2 (humility condition:
humility vs. control) 2 (MS condition: MS vs. control) between-
subjects analysis of variance. The analysis yielded no main effect
of the humility manipulation on temptation, F(1, 188) 1.06, p
.31. Nor was a main effect observed for the MS manipulation, F(1,
188) 0.11, p.74. The predicted Humility MS Condition
interaction, however, was significant, F(1, 188) 7.20, p.008,
2
.04. How mortality reminders affected participants’ felt
temptation thus depended on whether they were exposed to a
humility prime. Consistent with previous research on the delete-
rious effects of MS on self-control (Gailliot et al., 2006), MS
amplified felt temptation when not accompanied by the humility
prime, F(1, 188) 5.16, p.024,
2
.03. Yet when humility
thoughts preceded mortality reminders, this effect was eliminated
and furthermore replaced by a trend in the opposite direction: MS
tended to make participants less likely to feel temptation in the
presence of humility thoughts, F(1, 188) 2.47, p.118,
2
.013 (see Figure 5).
Once again, an experimentally induced quiet ego led to more
desirable psychological outcomes in the face of mortality remind-
ers. Participants in the humility condition did not experience
impaired self-control when prompted to think about personal mor-
tality, and they even displayed a potential for improved self-
control. This last finding, albeit not reaching significance, echoed
the results from Studies 1, 2, and 3, in which trait humility
combined with mortality thoughts generated a shift in the less
reactive, less defensive, less unsavory direction.
The current study can also be thought of as a test of the
hypoegoic self-regulation idea, according to which diminishing the
self’s involvement in the self-regulation process can yield better
results, as self-thoughts often interfere with the ability to regulate,
proving ineffective or even counterproductive (Leary, Adams, &
Tate, 2006;Leary & Guadagno, 2011). Humility is a hypoegoic
state by definition, and the protective role it played under the
normally depleting MS condition attests to the merits of the
hypoegoic self-regulation concept, particularly in contexts when
the self is under threat.
General Discussion
Five studies tested and found support for the hypothesis that a
quiet, humble ego buffers death anxiety. The first three studies
showed that high self-reported humility and low psychological
entitlement were associated with lower death anxiety (Study 2) and
lower death anxiety-induced defensiveness—in the form of self-
serving moral disengagement (Study 1) or cultural worldview
defense (Study 3). It was also established in Study 2 that humility
wards off death anxiety above and beyond the potentially related
constructs of self-esteem, secure attachment, mindfulness, and
general virtuousness. Study 4 provided direct evidence for the
existentially soothing role of humility, by documenting that an
experimentally induced humility mindset decreases self-reported
death anxiety. Finally, Study 5 demonstrated that activating hum-
ble self-views can prevent mortality thoughts from draining self-
control. The results were consistent across different operational-
izations of the quiet ego and across different dependent variables,
providing converging evidence for the a-quiet-ego-quiets-death-
anxiety hypothesis as a whole.
The picture of the humble self emerging from these studies is
one that is naturally fortified against death anxiety. Humility
involves seeing and accepting the truth about the self. In its most
basic meaning, this implies knowing one’s strengths and weak-
nesses, coming to terms with one’s imperfections. As a result, the
humble self is relatively protected from the need for self-serving
distortions and defensive reactions to self-threats. On a deeper
level though, humility also involves accurately judging the self’s
place within the larger context of existence. The humble person is
thus probably more aware and accepting of the fact that against a
cosmic scale of time and space, every human being is minute. This
should turn personal mortality into a somewhat lesser tragedy and,
potentially, into a source of clarity and guidance as to how life
should be lived.
In the present work, memories of pride failed to reduce death
anxiety, whereas memories of humility successfully did. This was
a direct test of the comparative merits of humility and self-
affirmation as soothers of death anxiety. Affirming the self has
traditionally been regarded as a main vehicle to cope with self-
threat in social psychology (e.g., Steele, 1988). Terror manage-
ment literature too, from its inception, has focused on self-esteem
and faith in cultural worldviews—representing affirming “me” and
“mine”—as the primary existential anxiety buffers. Yet as noted,
relying so heavily on the self as a value base comes with certain
costs; and scholars recently started to point to self-transcendence
as a potentially sturdier bulwark against self-threats than self-
enhancement (Burson, Crocker, & Mischkowski, 2012;Crocker,
Niiya, & Mischkowski, 2008;Kesebir et al., 2013). Humility, with
its minimized focus on the self and its affinity for seeing the self
and life within a grander context, substantially overlaps with
self-transcendence. The current work echoes the same sentiment
that in the face of self-threats, transcending the self can be more
conducive to personally and socially desirable outcomes than
enhancing the self. In the case of death, this is probably especially
true—not only should self-affirmation be of limited value against
a threat as formidable as death, but boosting the ego would
simultaneously boost life’s value, rendering mortality a more ter-
rifying prospect.
2
2.2
2.4
2.6
2.8
3
3.2
Humility Control
Temptation
Mortality Salience Control
Figure 5. Temptation as a function of humility and mortality salience.
Error bars: 1 standard error.
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619
HUMILITY AS AN EXISTENTIAL ANXIETY BUFFER
It is worth considering, in light of the present findings, the
relationship between humility and self-esteem and their respective
roles in terror management processes. Writings on humility repeat-
edly make the point that it is the secure who are humble, that no
ego paradoxically is strong ego. Genuine humility, characterized
by being able to acknowledge one’s limitations and not needing to
resort to defensiveness under ego threat, indeed connotes a firmly
grounded sense of self-worth. Humility and self-esteem would
overlap then, to the extent that self-esteem reflects authentic,
securely rooted feelings of self-worth, and not a fragile self’s
overinflated pretenses at self-value. In that sense, humility should
be more strongly associated with implicit self-esteem—a global
evaluation of the self that is less filtered, less susceptible to
self-serving biases and impression management attempts—than
with explicit self-esteem. Research finds that implicit self-esteem
in general confers protection from ego threats (e.g., Greenwald &
Farnham, 2000;McGregor & Jordan, 2007); and in the case of
death threats, the anxiety-buffering capacity of self-esteem has
been shown to stem more from implicit than explicit self-esteem
(Schmeichel et al., 2009). Though humility encompasses more
than high implicit self-esteem (i.e., implicit self-esteem probably is
a necessary but not sufficient component of humility), the dem-
onstrated protective function of humility reemphasizes the value of
securely held feelings of self-worth in the face of ego threats.
Even though the present research program offered compelling
evidence that humility buffers death anxiety, it did not identify the
precise mechanisms through which this effect is occurring. What
underlying processes are responsible for the mollifying effect of
humility? Which psychological ingredients make the quiet ego a
unique buffer, shielding death anxiety above and beyond other
known buffers such as self-esteem or secure attachment? I have
argued that key to the effects of humility are the interrelated
qualities of self-transcendence, perspective and acceptance. Hum-
ble people likely see themselves from a higher, broader, truer
perspective, and struggle less with accepting what they see. This
possibly renders threats to the self less distressing and the reality
of death easier to accept. Self-esteem, and other buffers that rely
on boosting the value of “me and mine,” potentially work by
making the self feel more powerful and less vulnerable in the face
of death. Humility, on the other hand, might work not by making
the self bigger but rather by making death smaller. These claims—
that humility renders death less frightening, because the humble
are better at seeing and accepting their own smallness and fragil-
ity— doubtlessly need to be subjected to further empirical scrutiny.
Future research investigating the role of perspective/wisdom and
acceptance in assuaging death anxiety would be particularly wel-
comed.
The finding that humility can serve as a source of strength in
coping with death anxiety adds to a newly emerging body of
research demonstrating the desirability of humility as a personality
trait and revealing the humble ego as “an undervalued psycholog-
ical stock” (Exline, 2008, p. 56). If seeing and accepting reality for
what it is is indispensable to wisdom and if highest levels of
self-development require a quieting of the ego and a transcending
of the self (Ardelt, 2008), then humility is part and parcel of
wisdom and maturity. Humility also is closely associated with
virtues such as kindness, respectfulness, gratitude, and mercy. In
light of all this, it is concerning that in the United States, the past
several decades witnessed a shift toward radical individualism and
the glorification of a self-oriented worldview (e.g., Bellah, Mad-
sen, Sullivan, Swindler, & Tipton, 1985;Myers, 2000;Putnam,
2000). This shift comes with a rise in phenomena such as narcis-
sism, psychological entitlement, overcompetitiveness, appearance
obsession, and attention seeking (Twenge, 2006;Twenge &
Campbell, 2009), denoting an overall decline of humility as a
value. This decline is explicitly manifested in cultural products: A
survey of a large corpus of American books documents an average
drop of 44.33% in the appearance frequency of the words humility
and humbleness from 1901 to 2000 (Kesebir & Kesebir, 2012).
Religions traditionally encourage humility and self-transcendence,
and the weakening influence of religion on the American public in
the past decades (e.g., Chaves, 2011) might have contributed to
this picture as well.
If humility buffers death anxiety, as the current work indicates,
its waning cultural importance does not bode well for individual
and societal well-being. Psychological dysfunction is considered to
entail extreme, graceless, or inefficient ways of dealing with death
anxiety (Becker, 1971,1973;Yalom, 1980), and mismanagement
of death anxiety has been empirically implicated in a number of
psychological disorders including phobias, compulsive behavior,
and post-traumatic stress disorder (Arndt, Routledge, Cox, &
Goldenberg, 2005;Pyszczynski & Kesebir, 2011;Strachan et al.,
2007). Myriad unsavory or harmful behavior tendencies, such as
prejudice, intergroup aggression, materialism, and self-regulatory
failure, are also fueled by existential anxiety. The current work
reveals that only a magnified sense of self brings out this dark side
of existential anxiety, whereas a small, quiet, humble self, if
anything, is associated with desirable behavior patterns in response
to mortality thoughts. In admission to powerlessness against the
bounds of one’s reality seems to lie an ironic strength, which
makes rediscovering humility as a virtue and cultivating it a
worthy endeavor.
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Received March 19, 2013
Revision received December 30, 2013
Accepted January 7, 2014
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HUMILITY AS AN EXISTENTIAL ANXIETY BUFFER
... Death anxiety is the feeling of fear, anxiety or extreme anxiety experienced while thinking about the process of death or detachment from life and what happens after death (Mansori et al., 2017). It is a psychological condition that can emerge consciously or unconsciously as a defense mechanism when individuals feel threatened by death for any reason (Kesebir, 2014). According to Lehto and Stein (2009), death anxiety has a multidimensional structure that can differ in line with sociocultural life formations. ...
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This study aimed to examine the relationships between the variables of pandemic awareness, death anxiety, and spiritual well-being and reveal whether the participants’ perceptions of pandemic awareness, death anxiety, and spiritual well-being differed according to various sociodemographic characteristics. The study population is comprised of individuals aged 65 years and over in Edirne, Turkey. The data obtained from 449 people in the study were analyzed using various statistical methods. According to the results of the regression analysis performed in the study, the increase in the participants’ pandemic awareness was found to reduce their death anxiety and increase their spiritual well-being statistically. Moreover, the increase in the participants’ death anxiety statistically reduced their spiritual well-being.
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... This may be because feeling awe makes people realize that something exists beyond their comprehensibility. Awe induces humility (Stellar et al., 2018), which refers to transcending oneself and accepting one's limits and place in the grand scheme of things (Kesebir, 2014). Feeling awe makes people feel humble, accurately as well as less defensively appraise their own characteristics, acknowledge their limitations, and accept what happens in their life. ...
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Research on awe and meaning in life (MIL) is rare. In the current research, we conducted a pre-registered study to examine how awe influences MIL from the perspective of the tripartite model of MIL as well as the construction and detection routes of deriving meaning. The results showed that awe increased MIL via motivating purpose pursuit but decreased MIL by reducing the sense of significance. Overall, awe increased MIL, which was driven mainly by the mediating effect of purpose pursuit. Our findings suggest that awe is not a purely positive emotion, and it affects MIL in a complex way. The implications were discussed.
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... It is defined as a psychological state arising from one's fear of death or being harmed. 1,2 Encountering situations that lead to anticipation or awareness of dying is known as death anxiety. 3 Higher death anxiety is shown to be able to predict both the existence and severity of mental diseases. ...
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Background and aims: COVID-19 has adversely impacted the public's mental health. One of the causes of psychopathology during the present pandemic is death anxiety and fear of COVID-19. The present study aimed to determine the prevalence and risk factors of death anxiety and fear of COVID-19 in Shiraz city, south of Iran. Methods: This cross-sectional study was conducted among 982 participants in Shiraz from October to November 2021. Data were collected using Templer's Death Anxiety Scale and the Fear of COVID-19 Scale. Trained interviewers collected data throughout different city districts. A data-driven approach (latent class analysis) was applied to categorize the participants and determine the risk factors. Results: Among the participants, 507 (51.6%) were female, and 475 (48.4%) were male. The participants' mean age was 38.26 ± 15.16 years. Based on the analysis, 259 (26.4%), 512 (52.1%), and 211 (21.5%) participants had low, moderate, and severe levels of death anxiety. Also, 393 (40.06%) and 588 (59.94%) of the participants had low and high levels of fear, respectively. Higher death anxiety was significantly associated with being female, having an associate degree, being retired, share of medical expenditure from total expenditure of more than 10%, having a history of hospital admission due to COVID-19, history of COVID-19 in relatives, and having fear of COVID-19. Also, being female, expenses equal to income, history of hospital admission due to COVID-19, death in relatives, and higher death anxiety were linked to higher levels of fear of COVID-19. Conclusions: Death anxiety and fear of COVID-19 are closely associated with each other and affected by various sociodemographic and economic factors. Given this pandemic's unpredictable nature and chronicity, interventions at the community level to support high-risk groups are crucial.
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