If you’re in need of a little help from a friend, your humbler acquaintances may be the ones to call on, according to a new study. People who are more humble tend to step up to help others more than people who tend towards arrogance. This is the first study to link personality traits – rather than the situation at hand – to the likelihood of helping others.

People who were more humble were most likely to help others, even when there was little external social pressure to do so.

The researchers designed a series of experiments to measure participants’ personality traits and then tested their willingness to lend a helping hand. The first one relied on self-reports from college students to assess both personality and and how likely they were to assisted others. The more humble they rated themselves, the more helpful they said they were. But since self-reports can be unreliable, the researchers followed up with more objective means of measuring personality traits.

In the second part of the experiment, the researchers asked the participants questions and used the answers to rate them in various personality characteristics. Then the participants listened to a recording about a (fictitious) student who had suffered an injury and couldn’t attend class. They students who ranked higher in humility were also more likely to donate their time and resources to helping the fictitious student.

The third part of the experiment was similar to the second, except that the researchers used participants’ reaction times to various situations to rate their humility and other traits. The correlation between humility and helpfulness was also seen here. The results held strong even when the researchers controlled for other characteristics like empathy and agreeableness.

“The finding is particularly surprising since nearly 30 years of research on helping have demonstrated that the situation, not the person, tends to predict whether someone in need will receive help,” said researcher Jordan LaBouff. For example, past research has found that the presence of other people, and their behavior, strongly influences one’s likeliness of helping out. But in this study, the people who were more humble were most likely to help others, even when there was little external social pressure to do so.

LaBouff added that there could be a fundamental connection between humility and altruism; but more research will be needed to flesh out these relationships. “This research builds upon a growing body of evidence that humility is an important trait that results in a variety of pro-social and positive outcomes,” says the author. “It also suggests that if we can encourage humility in our communities, people may be more helpful to those in need.”

The research was carried out at Baylor University in Texas, and published in the January 2012 issue of The Journal of Positive Psychology.