Psychologists have identified an important trait that could be shared by truly humble people - something called 'hypo-egoic nonentitlement'.

That simply means that you don't believe your positive qualities and life achievements entitle you to any kind of special treatment from others.

That's slightly different to having a tendency to downplay your strengths and your achievements, which you might ordinarily associate with being humble, and it gives us a new insight into the essence of humility.

The researchers – psychologists Chloe Banker and Mark Leary from Duke University in North Carolina – note that humility is of "particular interest" because of its links to "an array of desirable psychological and interpersonal outcomes". Just as excessive ego can lead to a variety of personal and social problems (take a look at the world around us).

The loose definition and understanding of humility means it's hard to reach a scientific consensus about its underpinnings – what exactly is humility anyway? How do you go about measuring it? And is there something that characterises all humble people?

In the case of this study, the researchers asked a total of 419 people to describe personal characteristics and achievements they were proud of, and then to compare them with what other people had accomplished in their lives.

The participants were also asked to rate how they thought other people should treat them, based on what they'd done in their lives and the kinds of people they were.

Finally, the volunteers were measured for certain social traits, including humility, self-esteem, narcissism, self-interest and psychological entitlement.

What the research found was that people who scored highly for humility were no different to anyone else in terms of how important they thought their accomplishments and their attractive personality traits were.

The difference was in how they thought about the special treatment they were entitled to – as in, they didn't think they were entitled to any, no matter what they'd done.

"Everyone who has studied humility agrees that humble people probably see themselves more accurately than the average person, so they know that they're good at whatever it is they're good at," Leary told Eric Dolan at PsyPost.

"The central feature that characterises humble people, in my view, is 'hypo-egoic nonentitlement' – they do not think that they are entitled to be treated special as a person because of their accomplishments or positive characteristics."

In other words, just because you hold seven world records doesn't mean you should be regarded as any different from other people, even though those achievements are special  – that could be the essence of humility.

There are some caveats to talk about: all the participants were recruited from the Amazon Mechanical Turk programme, so we'll have to wait and see whether the results are the same in wider and more varied groups of people.

The researchers also raise the question of why hypo-egoic nonentitlement leads to behaviours associated with humility, if indeed it does. These are all avenues that can be explored with future research.

Further study could also answer the question of why humility is valued by society.

"Humble people recognise that, their special accomplishments or attributes not withstanding, they are just like everybody else, with a host of shortcomings, weaknesses, hang-ups, and failures," Leary told PsyPost.

"So, they don't expect extra attention, interest, favours, or special treatment from other people."

The research has been published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.