by Christian Jarrett British Psychology Society edited by O Society May 26, 2019
In the era of social media and rolling news there’s a constant pressure to be in the know, always on hand with an aperçus or two. Today intellectual humility therefore feels more important than ever – having the insight and honesty to hold your hands up and say you’re ignorant or inexpert about an issue.
Psychologists are responding by taking an increasing interest in intellectual humility, including investigating its consequences for learning and the thinking styles that support it. For a new paperin The Journal of Positive Psychology a team led by Elizabeth Krumrei-Mancuso have continued this endeavour, showing, among other things, that intellectual humility correlates with superior general knowledge. This is a logical outcome because, as the researchers write, “simply put, learning requires the humility to realise one has something to learn.”
Krumrei-Mancuso and her colleagues conducted five studies in all, attempting to find out more about the links between intellectual humility and knowledge acquisition; between intellectual humility and meta-knowledge (insight into one’s own knowledge); and lastly between intellectual humility and other thinking styles.
A strength and a weakness of the research is the use of two different measures of intellectual humility. Some studies involved a shorter questionnaire assessing being a “know-it-all” (through agreement or not with statements like “I know just about everything there is to know”) and intellectual openness (through agreement or not with statements like “I can learn from other people”); whereas other studies used a more recently developed, more comprehensive 22-item measure incorporating questions about cognitions, emotions and behaviours representative of intellectual humility (such as, being accepting of criticism of one’s important beliefs; being ready to change one’s mind; and respect for others’ viewpoints). This use of different measures makes for a more comprehensive, varied assessment of intellectual humility, but also impedes comparison between the studies.
The findings in relation to knowledge acquisition were mixed. While an online study involving 604 adults (and using the more comprehensive measure of intellectual humility) found the aforementioned link between greater intellectual humility and superior general knowledge, another involving college students (and the briefer intellectual humility questionnaire) found that those higher in intellectual humility achieved poorer grades. Perhaps the latter result arose because the higher-achieving students used their objectively higher grades to judge their intellectual ability as higher, not having had the chance yet in life to confront their intellectual fallibility (but as mentioned, the use of different measures across the studies complicates any interpretation of the mixed results).
In terms of insight, higher scorers in intellectual humility were less likely to claim knowledge they didn’t have (the researchers tested this by assessing participants’ willingness to claim familiarity with entirely fictitious facts that they couldn’t possibly know), and they also tended to underestimate their performance on a cognitive ability test.
Meanwhile, other thinking styles and constructs that correlated with greater intellectual humility included being more inclined to reflective thinking, having more “need for cognition” (enjoying thinking hard and problem solving), greater curiosity, and open-minded thinking. More intellectual humility was also associated with less “social vigilantism”, defined as seeing other people’s beliefs as inferior.
While the new findings “replicate and extend previous studies using different measures of intellectual humility”, it’s fair to say there remains a great deal we don’t yet know about intellectual humility. Perhaps most important is the lack of longitudinal research to establish causality – for instance, we don’t yet know if greater general knowledge and open-mindedness fosters intellectual humility, or if intellectual humility comes first, and promotes knowledge and curiosity. Most likely the causal associations between these constructs are complex and two-way, but at the moment, if we’re honest, we just don’t know.
The default reaction to encountering someone who disagrees with you is to place your fingers in your ears. We could all benefit from a dose of intellectual humility, according to the authors of a paper in Self and Identity. People with this trait are open to other viewpoints and see disagreement as an opportunity to learn. Promisingly, early findings suggest that it may be possible to foster intellectual humility relatively easily, as least over the short term.
Tenelle Porter and Karina Schumann at the University of Pittsburgh created a new intellectual humility questionnaire that asks participants to rate their agreement with 9 items like “I am willing to admit if I don’t know something”. The questionnaire is based on their conception of intellectual humility as recognising your own fallibility and the value and intellectual competence of others. Find the full list of items below (the letter R at the end of a statement means that greater agreement is a sign of less humility):
In an initial study, nearly 200 students completed this questionnaire, as well as other personality measures, and then they were asked to imagine various scenarios at college that involved a classmate disagreeing with them, for example over the causes of World War I in history class, or a passage of text in English class. Finally, the students stated what they would think of the person who disagreed with them and how they would respond. A second study was similar, but this time nearly 200 more participants, recruited online, imagined a disagreement with another person over more hot-button issues, such as gun control and same-sex marriage.
Across both studies, even after accounting for the influence of many other factors such as a person’s self-esteem, narcissism, and overall agreeableness, openness and humility, the students who scored higher on intellectual humility tended to think about the person who disagreed with them in more constructive ways – for instance, believing the other person has their own unique perspective and experiences to draw on – rather than dismissing their views as due to low intelligence or lack of understanding. Moreover, those participants with greater intellectual humility were more likely to say that, given the chance, they would try to learn more about the other person’s views, rather than simply argue with them or try to change their mind.
There is a limit to how much we can read into participants’ responses to hypothetical scenarios. To test actual behaviour, Porter and Schumann turned to Amazon’s Mechanical Turk survey website and asked nearly 200 people to complete the intellectual humility questionnaire before revealing their position on gun control or capital punishment. Next, the participants had the chance to read opinions (written by the researchers but made to look like the opinions of other survey participants) that either agreed with their stance or took the opposite view. The researchers counted the in-survey links the participants chose to click on to read the different views. Higher scorers in intellectual humility held views that were just as strong as those low in intellectual humility, but they spent a greater proportion of time reading views that were opposed to their own.
Wouldn’t it be great if we all had a little more intellectual humility? The researchers tested an intervention that they hoped would increase intellectual humility via the promotion of a “growth mindset” – that is, belief in the malleability of intelligence. It makes sense that if you see intelligence as malleable, then you will be less worried about finding out you are wrong or that you don’t know the full story. After all, with this perspective, just because you are wrong or ignorant about something doesn’t mean you are forever condemned to being stupid.
A final study showed that participants who read a popular magazine article about the malleability of intelligence (designed to foster a “growth mindset”) subsequently scored higher on intellectual humility than another group who read an article about intelligence being fixed. What’s more, those in the growth mindset condition went on to display a more positive approach when imagining dealing with someone with opposing views, and this seemed to be driven by their increased intellectual humility.
In a world in which we seem to find it harder than ever to listen to the other side, this research is welcome. On the other hand, it’s sure to attract accusations of demonstrating the obvious. For their part, the researchers claim this is the first attempt to show there is a relation between intellectual humility and openness to opposing views. Another problem is the studies relied rather too much on hypothetical scenarios and all involved participants resident in the US. Hopefully, though, this paper will serve as a launch pad for future research that will overcome these shortcomings, and discover more about the roots of intellectual humility and how to nurture it.
“Promoting intellectual humility may offer one path to making disagreements more constructive,” the researchers concluded, “and our research suggests that teaching people a malleable view of intelligence may be one promising way to foster intellectual humility and its associated benefits.”