THE BLOG

Why Nice People Make Better Lovers

03/31/2015 10:57 am ET | Updated May 31, 2015

Good teeth. A sense of humor. Physically attractive. Can be trusted. Dresses well. Easy to talk to.

These are some of the common features men and women say they look for in a partner.

But new research is suggesting another overlooked quality may be a key to lasting relationships: humility.

2015-03-30-1427740653-7687059-CoupleSunset.jpg

Image credit: Dragunsk Usf / Flickr

One study of 459 college students found that young women and men were more likely to be satisfied with their romantic partners the more they perceive them as modest and respectful. Students with more humble partners also were in general more committed to the relationship, and likelier to forgive a transgression if their partner was less arrogant or self-centered, according to researchers from the University of North Texas, Georgia State University and Hope College.

The findings, reported in the current issue of the journal Couple and Family Psychology: Research and Practice, are consistent with other research in the developing field indicating that humility is a key component in healthy relationships.

We may live in a society that encourages personal branding, where we extol ourselves on social media and many clamor for any kind of media attention. But our hearts appear to want something different.

"Despite how we seem to operate in our culture ... we still like humble people," says Biola University psychology professor Peter Hill, a leading researcher on humility.

Sorry, Sheldon

The unrestrained egotism of Sheldon Cooper, the popular lead character on the hit TV sitcom The Big Bang Theory, may be a somewhat obvious example of an individual lacking in humility.

This is a guy who, when a friend confesses she is crying because she feels stupid, responds in his empathy-challenged fashion: "That's no reason to cry. One cries because one is sad. For example, I cry because others are stupid, and that makes me sad."

But defining humility and who has or doesn't have it is not always so easy. The challenges include the irony that truly humble people will tend to be more modest in their self-descriptions, while narcissists devoted to embellishing their self-image are likely to boast of their regard for others.

Still, through increasingly sophisticated scientific measures and techniques, including relying less on self-reporting and more on assessments by others, researchers are building a body of work lifting up the value of this quiet virtue.

And a major value appears to be promoting caring relationships.

Two separate studies following college students over time found that humility helped develop stronger social relationships.

In particular, participants in romantic relationships who had recently been hurt or offended by their partners were more likely to be forgiving if they perceived their partner had a humble character. Partners viewed as having attitudes of arrogance or superiority were less likely to be forgiven.

2015-03-30-1427726544-6628456-PleaseForgiveMe.jpg

Image credit: Vic/Flickr

Since humble people seem to be more likable, "we might cut them some slack. We might be more willing to forgive," said Hill, one of the authors of the study, reported in the journal Self and Identity.

In another study related to qualities of healthy relationships, greater humility was associated with the ability to receive love from others. Participants rating higher on a humility scale were likelier to view a recent act of kindness with a sense of gratitude and feeling loved.

Those more focused on themselves were more likely to view acts of kindness with a sense of mistrust or shame associated with the idea of needing assistance, according to the Case Western Reserve University study.

On the flip side of humility, arrogance and narcissism has a darker side.

Healthy Humility

Studies have found individuals with low levels of honesty and humility appear more willing to sexually harass subordinates at work and are more likely to be unfaithful and treat romantic relationships as a sport and less likely to view emotional commitment as a prerequisite to sex than those with more humble characters.

In a more recent Canadian study of several hundred college students, low scores on an honesty-humility scale were associated with conspicuous consumption, a greater desire for power and a focus on having many uncommitted, short-term sexual partners.

"Through their emphasis on having more resources than do others, the money, power, and sex factors have a close conceptual link with the exploitation that characterizes low honesty-humility," the study authors reported in the European Journal of Personality.

In practical terms, researchers indicate, this means that both individuals and couples therapists have to be sensitive to pathological expressions of narcissism even as they seek to integrate the positive values of humility into committed relationships. A healthy humility means being aware of the needs of others, to both appreciate their positive qualities and to be aware of potentially abusive behavior.

The good news, researchers such as Hill and others note, it that over time individuals only pretending to be humble tend to reveal themselves.

Those constantly clamoring for attention eventually may find themselves encountering this apparent inconvenient truth: Nice people make better friends and lovers.

David Briggs writes the Ahead of the Trend column for the Association of Religion Data Archives.