Illustration credit: Marina Muun
Psychologists and philosophers are working to tease apart the ways we respond to new ideas and information — and the possible benefits of intellectual humility.
Saint Augustine famously called humility the foundation of all other virtues. One variety of humility, intellectual humility, is perhaps the most foundational when it comes to the interests of the John Templeton Foundation.
Intellectual humility is a mindset that guides our intellectual conduct. In particular, it involves recognizing and owning our intellectual limitations in the service of pursuing deeper knowledge, truth, and understanding. Such a mindset appears to be valuable in many domains of life — from education to interreligious dialogue to public discourse. It promises to help us avoid headstrong decisions and erroneous opinions, and allows us to engage more constructively with our fellow citizens.
Over the last decade, psychologists, philosophers, and other researchers have begun to explore intellectual humility, using analytical and empirical tools aimed at understanding its nature and implications. At once theoretically fascinating and practically weighty, the study of intellectual humility calls for collaboration among researchers from fields of inquiry including psychology, epistemology, neuroscience, and educational research. In recent reviews of research commissioned by the John Templeton Foundation, Fordham University philosopher Nathan Ballantyne and Duke University psychologist Mark Leary synthesized findings from dozens of recently published articles on the topic, highlighting both the answers, and the questions, they raise.
Researchers in the field have not settled on a unified definition of intellectual humility. Theorists have treated it variously as a personality trait, a cognitive disposition, a set of self-regulatory habits, an intellectual virtue, and an absence of intellectual vices. Sometimes intellectual humility is defined as a fully general trait, guiding people’s responses to evidence across a wide array of situations; other times, it is characterized as a way for people to manage their responses to one specific belief or set of beliefs.
Surveying the definitions offered in the literature, certain common features emerge. Intellectual humility speaks to people’s willingness to reconsider their views, to avoid defensiveness when challenged, and to moderate their own need to appear “right.” It is sensitive to counter-evidence, realistic in outlook, strives for accuracy, shows little concern for self-importance, and is corrective of the natural tendency to strongly prioritize one’s own needs.
In a nutshell, intellectual humility helps us overcome responses to evidence that are self-centered or that outstrip the strength of that evidence. This mindset encourages us to seek out and evaluate ideas and information in such a way that we are less influenced by our own motives and more oriented toward discovery of the truth. When we discuss important, controversial issues with others, our initial responses to their arguments tend to be shaped by our preferences, identities, and prior opinions. It buffers against those responses so that we can become more “truth-oriented.” It helps us overcome our self-centered inclinations in discussion and learning, making us more likely to follow the evidence where it leads and positioning us to better understand the truth.
Researchers have presented a number of models for how this virtue functions. Some suggest that it moderates particular attitude-forming tendencies, making intellectually humble people more likely to reconsider their views and less defensive when their beliefs are challenged. Others say that it helps us accurately evaluate our beliefs and intellectual weaknesses. Still others posit that intellectual humility reduces our concern for our own intellectual self-importance. Finally, mixed accounts combine these features in various ways. All of these models of intellectual humility assume that different types of mechanisms regulate self-centered responses to evidence, but each one suggests that intellectual humility helps people become better attuned to evidence and less beholden to self-oriented motives.
MEASURING INTELLECTUAL HUMILITY
Attempting to measure this trait can be, for the researcher, a humbling experience. As with many personality trait measures, gathering self-reports is an obvious place to start. But since intellectual humility is often seen as a valuable or desirable trait, people may be motivated to claim to be more intellectually humble than they really are. This may be amplified by a so-called “modesty effect,” which suggests that truly intellectually humble people will be modest in their reports, leading to lower self-ratings, whereas people who lack it will exaggerate, inflating their self-ratings.
Although researchers do not agree whether there is a modesty effect, some have worked to bypass its potential influence by creating non-first-person measures. In essence, if we want to know whether certain people are intellectually humble, don’t ask them — ask the people who know them. But even these other-reporting measures have limitations since observers’ perceptions may themselves be biased. They may, for instance, attribute higher levels to people who agree with their beliefs and values than to those who do not. Following insights from research on general humility, intellectual humility might best be observed by others in certain kinds of situations: during interpersonal conflict, while receiving praise, in hierarchical relationships, or in interactions across different cultures or among those who embrace different norms.
Finally, related fields such as cognitive neuroscience may soon yield alternative ways of measurement. Recent work using EEGs to measure subjects’ brain activity when they make errors points to potentially less subjective ways of measuring this trait.
INTELLECTUAL HUMILITY AND WELL-BEING
Researchers tend to presume that intellectual humility is better for people than contrasting traits such as intellectual arrogance and closed-mindedness. Some claim in particular that intellectual humility improves well-being, enhances tolerance for other perspectives, and promotes inquiry and learning. Such claims, if true, would show why encouraging people to grow in intellectual humility is worth the effort. But at present there are many more unsettled questions than well-supported answers.
Consider, for example, the claim that intellectual humility increases well-being. A contrary suggestion is found in work on how we relate to our beliefs when defending ourselves against challenges to our worldview. On the one hand, some people treat their beliefs as a source of comfort and self-confidence in the face of challenges; they tend to display high levels “existential security,” having come to terms with weighty questions about meaning and mortality. On the other hand, intellectually humble people are more tentative about their challenged beliefs and display lower levels of existential security. It’s currently unclear, however, what such findings tell us about the relationship between intellectual humility and well-being. Existential security is typically measured using self-reports, and so one possibility is that when people hold “defensive” beliefs, they tend to self-enhance and report more security than they in fact experience. People who use their beliefs to resist worldview challenges may exaggerate their security because their beliefs suggest they ought to feel secure.
Another proposed benefit of intellectual humility is that it enhances tolerance or respect for the beliefs or ideas of others. Ego-defensive reactions can lead people to discount, disparage, and even shun out-group members. In the interplay of intellectual humility and religious belief, some studies have suggested that among monotheists, those who are intellectually humble are more tolerant than those who aren’t when it comes to interacting with those from different traditions. But the limits of tolerance based on intellectual humility are not yet well-understood — it is possible that an intellectually humble Christian would be more tolerant of Jewish or Muslim viewpoints than they would be of those of a Hindu polytheist. Or perhaps there are no correlations among these variables at all.
If intellectual humility does not lead to boundless tolerance, it may at least help people overcome what Freud called the “narcissism of small differences.” This is a central topic for future research given that political and religious debates can spiral into ever-increasing fractiousness and polarization. If intellectual humility does in fact make people more tolerant, the value of that outcome may depend upon the range of differences they can tolerate.
A TOOL FOR LEARNING
It is sometimes claimed that intellectual humility improves inquiry and learning. Intellectually humble people may well have better access to others’ perspectives. But even if such people seek out different perspectives, they may not always get what they’re looking for. There are many obstacles to perspective-taking, including the so-called “curse of knowledge,” the inability to think about a topic from a less well-informed viewpoint. Even if intellectual humility makes people desire to understand others, they may not be able to truly “enter into” alternative standpoints unless their intellectual humility also mitigates the biases that inhibit perspective-taking. Researchers also note that intellectual humility can help people know when to listen to experts. It may encourage proper dependence because it lets people discern the difference between what they know on their own and what’s known by depending on others. And proper dependence may flow from the fact that intellectual humility is a non-self-centered state: since intellectually humble people are less dismissive and hostile toward knowledgeable others, they are more inclined to trust what experts tell them.
STRATEGIES FOR INCREASING INTELLECTUAL HUMILITY
Most people who carry out research on intellectual humility assume that it is something we should try to foster. Depending on one’s views of the sources of intellectual humility, different potential interventions may seem promising. If metacognitive ability (thinking about thinking) is a key driver, then interventions could focus on developing metacognitive skills that enhance it.
If intellectual humility is primarily enhanced or hindered by our degree of personal security, a particularly cautious course may be necessary for interventions, as emphasizing novel ideas about intellectual humility could be perceived as a threat to deeply held values. Still, some research with an exemplar-based intervention (teaching students to write and think in ways that align with how humble people write and think) found that although the participants may have felt challenged by the exercises, the result was that they felt humbled, increasing their levels of lasting humility in the process.
Finally, work on situational primes and so-called nudging strategies suggests there may be ways for subtle cues and positive reinforcements to increase intellectual humility. Researchers have have found that subjects who make judgments inside school buildings are more likely to endorse greater spending on education. In the same way, there may be environments or sets of cues that can increase or diminish our levels of intellectual humility in certain settings.
DIRECTIONS FOR FUTURE INQUIRY
Our understanding of the subject has expanded considerably over the last decade, but much more remains to be explored and clarified. Reviewing the literature, it becomes clear that the field is ripe with potential for greater collaborations, ranging from workshops and seminars to the creation of permanent university-hosted interdisciplinary centers that could serve as hubs for research and publishing on intellectual humility and related concepts. One of the benefits of interdisciplinary partnerships is that it forces researchers to recognize the limits of their individual academic domains. As Sir John Templeton himself once noted, in thinking about humility we can foster humility within ourselves.
Download the research summary on intellectual humility.
Listen to this episode of Philosophy Talk: “How to Humbly Disagree.”
Watch the video “The Joy of Being Wrong.”
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