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This conversation is the first in a series of conversations about the Strategic Priorities that the John Templeton Foundation will be funding over the next five years. This interview with Richard Bollinger, program officer in Character Virtue Development, was conducted and edited by Benjamin Carlson, director of strategic communication.

What is intellectual humility?

Many people agree that the core definition has to do with recognizing and owning one’s own limitations and recognizing that one’s perspective is incomplete and at times even incorrect. Where there’s some disagreement is how much more you add to that concept.

For example, some people include the belief that others can aid in your quest for knowledge. Is that an inherent part? Another idea that some people fold in is along the lines of low ego, the sense that you don’t think too highly of yourself or of what you know.

There’s also some conflict around commitments in intellectual humility. How do you hold confidently to a commitment while being intellectual humble? For two great, research-based summaries on intellectual humility, see this recent piece on Vox or check out this summary by Shane Snow.

What is most exciting to you about this area?

Intellectual humility goes back to one of the core purposes of what Sir John Templeton was trying to achieve. He believed the nature of reality was too big for any one person or one discipline to understand. Discerning reality required being open to learning from different people and different perspectives.

For instance, he had a deep appreciation for ancient sources of wisdom, and it troubled him to see the modern world casually discarding them without evaluating their truthfulness or value. He also loved and was riveted by scientific discoveries. He was excited to see what science could continue to unveil about ultimate reality. He believed that if academics and scholars used empirical tools to explore and analyze the wisdom elucidated in ancient scriptures, that new discoveries would happen, and that we as a species would flourish.

The way for that to happen is for both sides to recognize that they don’t have the complete answer. For people of faith, it’s about becoming more open to science as a way of deeply understanding the world. For people in the realm of science, it’s about becoming more curious and open that perhaps some of this wisdom found in ancient tradition can not only inform the ethics of how we do our work, but also inform the topics we’re studying.

Why do you think this topic is important now?

As I noted with the last question, intellectual humility has been at the heart of Sir John’s philanthropic vision since JTF’s founding in 1987; but, we have noticed that there has been a growing demand for information on intellectual humility. When I speculate on why demand has increased recently,  I wonder if in this day and age, with our species learning to communicate through new technologies, that communication across different groups has become more complicated. We have a greater capacity to find other likeminded people and to become ever more isolated from other views and perspectives.

We can, often unintentionally, create echo chambers through current technology. I’m not convinced that it’s led to more closed mindedness — but, I’m also not sure that we have yet learned how to harness this new technology towards advancing our capacity to recognize that each of us does not have the full picture – that someone in a different group might have views to help us to grow and to understand certain problems. That doesn’t just apply to political polarization. People do it in any area they care about —religion, science, and of course politics.

What is the state of the research now?

In some ways the field of intellectual humility is pretty young. There’s still a sense of trying to define what it is, what it is versus open-mindedness, versus curiosity. What are the components we want to fold into this term of intellectual humility? That’s important because it will help to understand how Intellectual humility relates to other concepts. Also, there are many excellent academics working with concepts related to intellectual humility, we hope to create opportunities where these scholars can connect their work to the broader IH landscape.

What big questions do you see in this area?

There are a lot of really exciting questions that need to be addressed. These questions straddle a range of different disciplines including (but not limited to) psychology, education, philosophy, and sociology. Some of the questions I’ve personally been interested in include questions like:

How do we measure intellectual humility outside of self-reports? Is the phenotypic expression of the “genotype” of intellectual humility vary in different contexts? Does it look different in times of high pressure versus everyday situations? Is intellectual humility best conceptualized as a mindset or an attitude? How does intellectual humility expression vary from culture to culture?

How does it relate to open-mindedness and curiosity? To what extent, and under what circumstances, are they an integrated triad versus separate and unique? How does intellectual humility relate to other intellectual virtues and character strengths? What is the role of emotion? How does it relate to identity? What is the role of the broader context or community in developing intellectual humility? Can institutions or organizations be considered intellectually humble? If so, what sort of institutional practices or structures enable intellectual humility to flourish in these environments? Those are rich questions.

Beyond that, there’s a lot to learn about whether intellectual humility impacts well-being. I have lots of questions on the development front, on how to cultivate intellectual humility. If we have a sense of what it is and titrate it out from other virtues, how do you influence it? What are the psychological mechanisms that influence its development?

Finally, understanding the interplay of intellectual humility with intellectual confidence and autonomy is also important.

Where would you like to see our insights into this question in 5 years? What questions do you hope we’ll be asking then?

I hope that we’ll have some measures overall, that the field has agreed that, yes, this concept represents intellectual humility well. It’s exciting when many researchers use a smaller set of similar measures, because then you can begin to build a body knowledge.

Looking forward, I’d like to better understand the possible benefits of intellectual humility. I’d love to have enough solid, replicated evidence to pull together a narrative video like the one we did on gratitude.

I hope in five years we are asking deeper questions surrounding understanding the mechanisms and the best ways to structure possible interventions, thinking through how to engage the role of affect and identity, and the extent to which intellectual humility is cultivated collectively or individually.

Finally, in the spirit of intellectual humility, I hope that we’re asking questions that we haven’t yet thought to ask!

Still curious?

Learn about recent research into Intellectual Humility on our Discoveries page.

Read about our funding goals in Intellectual Humility or our other Strategic Priorities.

See our other research priorities and programs work in Character Virtue Development.