Why is modesty valued?

Modesty is at one end of a scale of which the other is boasting; generally the former is considered polite while the latter is definetly not. But why is this?

If we look at the middle of that scale, we have an (our percieved) accurate measure of our abilites. Logically speaking, it should be this that is looked on well; by providing a good estimation of our abilites others then will know whether we can be relied on; for example, overhyping one’s skill at playing football can cause your team to fail, while downplaying your skill might lead to resenting having not picked you to play. Honesty about one’s abilities seems to be the logical approach.

But of course, emotions aren’t logical. Looking at it from an evolutionary point of view, would modesty be valued? The male is expected to be strong, virile, and have access to resources; all of which suggest that boasting, in fact, would be the best course of action to take (and indeed, many people do present themselves slightly better than they are when dating). Again, for females, fertility and a lack of promiscuity are areas which can be boasted with. If we take this view, then boasting should be seen as the norm - and so accepted - and certainly not modesty.

So where does the preference for modesty come from? It seems likely it’s a purely social concept; but from where did the motivation for modesty come from? What advantages does it have, beyond satisfying our own and other’s need for modesty? It’s a circular relationship; what started the circle?

You want an evolutionary explanation:

Modesty doesn’t necessarily imply inaction; while the hotheads are out bragging to each other about how good they are in the sack (to the annoyance of potential mates, the quiet guy is sowing his wild oats.

Everyone likes to feel talented, skilled, and special, and when someone boasts and they’re trying to sound better than you, it doesn’t feel good. I imagine that’s the motivation.

Because, most have no choice but to be.

Modesty is a development of skill that benefits societies by having intelligent individuals, with the ability to see a greater good than their own selfish interest, act for the best goals of the group, not martyring or asking attention for that action.

I suppose that modest individuals have always been greatly admired by the tribe in every era for their decency, even in the shadow of whatever dominant Who-Ha ruled at the time. And, as a femme, I’d also suppose the sweetness of modest smart males always prevailed over the blustery dominators in the back brushy woods of time, with many sighs of relief.

I’m not sure I’ve seen evidence lately of modesty being valued. It’s one of those things people say they value, but their relationships and actions indicate otherwise.

Also from an evolutionary standpoint, modesty has the virtue of concealing your abilities from potential opponents.

As a cynic, I suspect it’s valued because the more you can convince other people to be modest, the less competition you have for your own boasts. Plus, you can steal the credit from people who don’t speak up.

Slave morality, maybe?

We seem to live in a society where we tout ideologies that say “all men are equal,” when in fact, all men are not equal. (Only under the law are we equal.) So, when someone is reasonably self-assured, and, in fact, better then most people at a certain task, then the group mind cries out against it. Boasting makes the mediocre painfully aware of their shortcomings, and, since the definition of acceptable behaviors is in the hands of the many, it is looked down on. (This, of course, being true of someone who can stand by their assuredness with action.)

If we are talking about someone who is a braggart but cannot live up to his claims, then he is a liar and an asshole. And no one likes a liar or an asshole. =)

It’s always been a truism that the guy doing the most bragging about his sexual exploits generally has the least to brag about. And that holds true with most things. If you’re that good (at whatever) your body of work should be sufficient to demonstrate your superior skills.

If you want to talk evolutionary, the nail that sticks up is generally the first one to get hammered. If you shoot off your mouth all the time, not only will people delight in seeing you fall, they will actively work to bring you down in order to elevate their own status.

It’s a beneficial and intelligent prejudice for a society to prefer modesty over boastfulness. Pressure towards modesty encourages indviduals to believe that they’re worse than everyone else. Pressure towards boastfulness enourages individuals to believe that they’re better than everyone else. Boastfulness encourages them to believe that they’re part of an elite that has the right to ignore the needs of others. Even worse, it encourages them to believe that they’re part of an elite that has the right to govern. That’s when the real problems start.

Just look at modern society. Plainly we have less social promotion of modesty now than ever before. Our society has more braggarts than ever; the more they brag, the more we elevate them. Just look at George W. Bush, or Mike Tyson, or eminem, or Sean whatever-his-name-is-now Combs, or Bill O’Reilly, or Kenneth Lay. Those people are not modest. The end result of this is a society that worship’s celebrity and invests too much trust in authority.

Not all societies are as crazy about braggarts as we are: I have a lot of friends who are Asian immigrants, and they tend to think less of such people.

It also depends on one’s function in a society. Sure, a bouncer or a NYSE trader needs to be agressive. But I’m reminded of Einstein’s response to someone who described him as the smartest person in the world: he said (something like), “The more you know, the less intelligent you feel, because the proportion of what’s unknown gets larger”. If you think you know everything, you probably aren’t going to learn much more.

I will attest that though I’ve met some very intelligent loudmouths, the smartest people I’ve known tend to have relatively modest opinions of themselves.

Part of it is you just don’t hear about the quiet guy. The other part of it is most people are insecure and are of medicore ability. They tend to trust people who seem to know what they are talking about, whether they do or not.

Ours is a society where people do not strive to work together and get along with each other, they strive to be better than everyone else. It’s like everyone secretly wants to be a flashy, loudmouth jerk and thus when they see someone who can actually be like that because of money, power or position, they want to emulate it.

It’s valued because excellence (be it brains, beauty, whatever) makes the mediocre uncomfortable and envious. It’s smart for the excellent to be humble. They get praised when the average are feeling generous, but they spare themselves being made the avatar of the general public’s self-hatred. By talking themselves down, the exceptional are inevitably more sympathetic to the majority, yet public displays of humility do little to hinder their progress in practical terms.

Given the terseness of my above post, I think it prudent (and ironic) to stress that I do not view myself in any way as one of those exceptional individuals who would thus benefit from the modesty adaptation.

People with a modest attitude remain open toward learning from others, and therefore grow greater then those who consider themselves so superior that others have nothing to teach them.

Consider Major Winchester in MASH. He was certainly well aware of his surgical abilities, but after being humbled in the operating room by the success of the faster-working MASH veterans, he learned their methods and became a better wartime surgeon for it. If he had maintained his arrogance, he would not have improved himself.

This would exactly represent how I viewed the world when I was about 18 years old. The more I’ve seen of reality, the more I’ve realized that this view of society is precisely the opposite of what’s actually going on. In reality, the world consists of two groups. The first is the great masses, who are, for the most part, honest, decent, hard-working, wise, and humble. The second is the ruling elite, who are, for the most part, deceptive, arrogant, self-righteous, and stupid. It is not the mediocre who are unable to abide the leaders. It’s precisely the other way around. The ruling elites–politicians, corporate executives, spoiled celebrities–cannot tolerate the genuine goodness of the lower classes, and so go around indulging in fantasies of superiority. This has been a fundamental fact of life throughout the history of civilization. Social demands for modesty work to curtail this haughty superiority of the ruling classes. Now that the culture of modesty has collapsed, the ruling classes have run rampant over the rights of the lower classes.

Nah. People love to see heroes go down, the mighty humbled. Leering at the spectacle is a lucrative industry in itself. But only so long as a person with some exceptional quality isn’t afraid to tout their superiority. Nothing bugs people like a supermodel who knows she’s more beautiful than you, a genius who knows she’s smarter than you. Few things are more galling than narcissism with something to back it up.

I’d say my exceptional modesty is my best quality.

I believed in this for a long time, and then I realized that it was all a comforting fiction. Society, as a whole, can’t get enough of elites, and refuses to give any support at all to the hoi polloi. You see all those women’s magazines in the supermarket aisles glorifying women who meet the current definition of beauty. I’ve never seen a magazine cover with an average-looking woman, slightly overweight with frumpy gray-brown hair. The 5’11" average Joe shooting hoops in a public park wears a shirt with LeBron James’s name and number; LeBron James does not wear a shirt with the average Joe’s name and number.

That’s all examples of media-directed celebrity worship. More telling examples–ones that relate to the basics of human nature–have to come from everyday life. Imagine you’re in a high school cafeteria where there’s two adjacent tables: one of tall, skinny, blonde girls wearing the latest fashions from Gap, and the other of girls who aren’t so attractive (at least by the present standards) and don’t have such expensive clothes. It’s far more likely that the more attractive girls will spend their lunch hour bashing the girls at the other table, not the other way around.

The fundamental fact is that intense need to view oneself as better than the rest of the human race is a trait that pops up among scum and lowlifes. Suppose we revised the laws to say that normal criminal code applied to normal people, but Nietzsche-style supermen were now above any legal restraint. The practical result of that would be that the majority of normal, decent, hard-working people would continue to live their lives as usual. It’s only the losers, bums, spoiled college students, thirty-year olds who live in their parents’ basements, corporate executives, creeps, etc… who would view that as an invitation to murder, rape, and rob their neighbors.