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intellectual humility

Are You Intellectually Humble?

Intellectually humbler people seem to be more curious and better liked as leaders, and tend to make more thorough, well informed decisions.

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Intellectual humility is the ability to recognize shortcomings or potential limitations in one’s own point of view.

Although acknowledging the limits of one’s insights might be easy in low-stakes situations, people are less likely to exhibit intellectual humility when the stakes are high. For example, people are unlikely to act in an intellectually humble manner when motivated by strong convictions or when their political, religious, or ethical values seem to be challenged.

What are some of the threats to intellectual humility?

  • Personal factors: Intellectual humility involves accepting uncertainty about one’s beliefs. Although people differ in their tolerance of uncertainty and ambiguity, many find uncertainty disquieting or avoid it altogether in situations that are personally threatening. To overcome the threat, people tend to become more self-focused and eager to cling to unambiguous, comforting beliefs, rather than seeking to understand more ambiguous truths. Consequently, personal threats can lead to thinking in terms of extremes and absolutes (‘black and white’ thinking) and an unwillingness to recognize one’s limited perspective and potential fallibility. For example, people who were made to feel highly threatened in an experiment became less comfortable considering opposing political opinions and were warier of members of political outgroups compared to people who were made to feel only moderately threatened.
  • Interpersonal factors: Intellectual humility can also be hard to manifest and sustain when acknowledging the limitations of one’s beliefs would risk compromising interpersonal relationships. When members of cultural, religious, political, or other social groups conform to the group’s ideology, they feel closer to one another. Thus, people might reflexively adhere to their group’s beliefs to strengthen relationships with other members of the group. Group solidarity might therefore trump intellectual humility. This insight suggests that one might show little intellectual humility when endorsing group dogmas.
  • Cultural factors: Culture shapes the way people think and process information and has the potential to influence whether they think in intellectually humble ways or not. For example, people living in societies that emphasize interdependence in social coordination (such as Japan) tend to reflect on the mental states of others more, define the self through relationships with others, and are better able to avoid underweighting contextual information, relative to people living in more independent contexts (such as the United States).

But why is intellectual humility important? And why should we care about it?

  • At the societal level, intellectual humility can promote societal cohesion by reducing group polarization and encouraging harmonious intergroup relationships. At the individual level, intellectual humility can have important consequences for well-being, decision-making, and academic learning.
  • People who score higher in intellectual humility are more likely to display tolerance of opposing political and religious views, exhibit less hostility toward members of those opposing groups, and are more likely to resist derogating outgroup members as intellectually and morally bankrupt.
  • Intellectual humility is also associated with engaged cooperation with outgroup members.
  • Individuals showing greater state of intellectual humility are also more cooperative after thinking through their position in a public goods game — in which they have to decide how much to contribute to a common pool that will be redistributed to all players — an effect that contrasts with the typical finding that deliberation leads to greater selfishness.
  • Intellectual humility is also associated with intentions to forgive and reconcile with others who have hurt one or offended one’s beliefs.
  • People who reason about social conflicts in an intellectually humbler manner and consider others’ perspectives (components of wise reasoning) are more likely to report higher levels of life satisfaction and less negative affect compared to people who do not.
  • Leaders who are higher in intellectual humility are also higher in emotional intelligence and receive higher satisfaction ratings from their followers, which suggests that intellectual humility could benefit professional life.
  • Intellectual humility might also help people to make well-informed decisions. Intellectually humbler people are better able to differentiate between strong and weak arguments, even if those arguments go against their initial beliefs.
  • Lastly, intellectual humility is positively associated with knowledge acquisition, learning, and educational achievement. Intellectually humbler people are more motivated to learn and more knowledgeable about general facts.

One question that still remains is whether someone can be too intellectually humble.

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Tenelle Porter, Abdo Elnakouri, Ethan A. Meyers, Takuya Shibayama, Eranda Jayawickreme, and Igor Grossmann

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