If you're looking for a helping hand, you're more likely to get it from people who are humble than from those who are more arrogant, a study by researchers at Baylor University in Texas has found.

While it may make intuitive sense that humility and helping would go hand in hand, this is one of only a few academic studies that have found any link between one's personality and the degree of helpfulness offered.

"The research indicates that humility is a positive quality with potential benefits," says Wade Rowatt, associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at Baylor and co-author of the study.

"While several factors influence whether people will volunteer to help a fellow human in need, it appears that humble people, on average, are more helpful than individuals who are egotistical or conceited."

Rowatt points out that people usually decide whether to help based on a variety of temporary situational or personal factors. These include time pressures, empathy and the number of other bystanders present. 

A student in need

To test the humility-helpfulness connection, college students listened to a recording about a fellow student who had injured a leg and could not attend class regularly. Participants were then presented with an unexpected opportunity to help this person in need. They were asked how many hours over the following three weeks they could meet with the student to provide help. Humble students offered more time.

How did they evaluate humility? Since researchers knew that people can exaggerate their humility, they conducted separate studies that measured both implicit and self-reported measures of humility.

Students were asked to "quick associate" traits that applied to them through such stimulus words as humble, modest, tolerant, down-to-earth, respectful and open-minded. The bottom line was that humility was associated with the amount of helping time offered, even when the pressure to help was low.

"The findings are surprising because in nearly 30 years of research on helping behaviour, very few studies have shown any effect of personality variables on helping," says co-author Jordan LaBouff, a lecturer on psychology at the University of Maine who worked on the study while a doctoral candidate at Baylor.

"The only other personality trait that has shown any effect is agreeableness, but we found that humility predicted helping over and above that."

Researchers say the next step is to figure out if humility is a beneficial trait in other areas like science, medicine and leadership. 

The study was published online Monday in the Journal of Positive Psychology