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Power of Compassion

LaBouff grew up in Tulsa, Okla., and went to Baylor University on a debate scholarship to study English and history with the intention of becoming a constitutional lawyer. Involvement with the honors program and one Introduction to Psychology class were enough to convince him to participate in the humility studies of his mentor, experimental psychologist Wade Rowatt.

In his research on humility — not to be confused with the biblical meek — during his decade at Baylor, LaBouff found that humble people possess an accurate self-perception, less focus on themselves and a propensity for helpfulness. A key element of his humility research is the link between the willingness to help others and the compassion found in sacrifice and generosity.

Beyond being the only personality trait that predicts for helping, LaBouff also learned that humility had implications for advancement.

“We found that humble people are often good leaders,” says LaBouff, whose research findings on humility were published in the Journal of Positive Psychology and generated significant media interest. “The problem is that those people are rarely found in leadership positions, although they tend to do well once they get into that role.”

LaBouff also turned to the psychology of religion to study intergroup bias and mechanisms for reducing it. He studied the influence of religious and nonreligious settings on people’s attitudes toward other groups and found that, once thoughts of religion are activated by the presence of a house of worship, people tend to be more conservative when interviewed about social issues like gay marriage, capital punishment, immigration and support of warfare.

“We found that by activating religious thoughts through subliminal or conscious priming, we could change intergroup attitudes to be more prejudicial and evoke politically conservative attitudes, even in nonreligious people,” says LaBouff, who coauthored a paper on his findings in the International Journal for the Psychology of Religion.

That activation of religiousness might very well have larger implications when people are voting on socially charged ballot issues in houses of worship, as is the case in some southern states — and some polling sites in Maine.

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