On Being Humble: E.B. White was Right in Charlotte's Web

It seems the best authors have a knack for accurately describing the personality traits of their characters.  For example, the character change experienced by Ebenezer Scrooge in Dickens A Christmas Carol is considered by research psychologists to be spot on for how the process of change works.
Is this ability to describe a character strictly from watching others?  Business writer Peter Drucker says in his semi-autobiographical book, Adventures of a Bystander that he and many of the other writers he knows are essentially bystanders, observing what is going on around them.

Another example of a writer getting it right is E.B. White's popular children's book, Charlotte's Web.  Research psychologist Peter Samuelson and his team are researching the deeper meaning of humility.  Among their conclusions?  E.B. White displayed insight into humility and its underlying attributes.

Here's the story:
*  *  *  *  *

The Two Clusters of Humble Traits:
The Social and the Intellectual

Before Charlotte the spider spelled the word "humble" in her web to describe Wilbur the pig, she told Templeton the rat that the word meant "not proud."

That's probably what most people say if you put them on the spot. But if you give them time to think about it deeply, like a new study just did, other themes emerge that have a lot to do with learning.
And these intellectual dimensions of humility describe the spider as well or better than the pig.

The Story of Charlotte's Web:
E. B. White's Eccentric Life
in Nature and the Birth
of an American Classic
Click on image for details
"Wilbur has many of the dimensions of humility in general: regard for others, not thinking too highly of himself -- but highly enough," said Peter Samuelson, the lead study author. "Charlotte shows some of the unique aspects of intellectual humility: curiosity, love of learning, willingness to learn from others."

Samuelson is a psychologist at Fuller Theological Seminary who is conducting bottom-up exploration of what it means to be humble, working with Brigham Young University psychologist Sam Hardy.

For his part, Hardy utilized a statistical technique called multi-dimensional scaling that made sense of open-ended responses from the 350 study participants recruited from Amazon's "Mechanical Turk."

"This is more of a bottom-up approach, what do real people think about humility, what are the lay conceptions out there in the real world and not just what comes from the ivory tower," Hardy said. "We're just using statistics to present it and give people a picture of that."

Hardy's analysis found two clusters of traits that people use to explain humility. Traits in the first cluster come from the social realm, and in the second surrounds the concept of learning.

Social realm:
  • Sincere, 
  • honest, 
  • unselfish, 
  • thoughtful, 
  • mature, etc. 
The concept of learning:
  • curious, 
  • bright, 
  • logical and 
  • aware.
Samuelson says the two clusters of humble traits -- the social and intellectual -- often come as a package deal for people who are "intellectually humble." Because they love learning, they spend time learning from other people.

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  • *  *  *  *  *
    Story Source: Materials provided by Brigham Young University.  Peter L. Samuelson, Matthew J. Jarvinen, Thomas B. Paulus, Ian M. Church, Sam A. Hardy, Justin L. Barrett. Implicit theories of intellectual virtues and vices: A focus on intellectual humility. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 2014.


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