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Unlock Intellectual Humility: Uncovering Its Benefits, Obstacles, and Development

intellectual humility
Foto: CC0 / Unsplash / Desola Lanre-Ologun

The idea of intellectual humility is quite simple: Basically, it just means admitting that we don’t have all the answers. Read on to learn why that is so incredibly hard sometimes, and how to be more open to the knowledge of others.

To be humble is to recognize our faults and limitations. Likewise, intellectual humility is to be humble about our knowledge: to acknowledge that some of what we know may be limited or untrue. It also means being open to new perspectives and changing our beliefs when new evidence becomes available.

As reasonable as this sounds, it can be surprisingly difficult for some people to admit that they don’t know everything. With so many sources of information bombarding us online, intellectual humility strikes a balance between closed-mindedness and gullibility: a healthy skepticism of our own knowledge and openness to sometimes contradictory viewpoints.

Intellectual Humility and Its Myriad of Benefits

It's never too late to learn something new.
It’s never too late to learn something new. (Foto: CC0 / Pixabay / sasint)

Intellectual humility primarily concerns knowledge. However, it brings a host of benefits for your personal life as well, like:

  • decreasing social polarization and allowing for a more harmonious society
  • reducing extremism and conspiracy beliefs
  • allowing us to listen to one another, defuse conflicts, forgive, and improve relationships
  • opening us up to new perspectives, experiences, and learning
  • encouraging rational thinking with tough decisions, leading to better outcomes

People higher in intellectual humility are also more academically successful and tend to be happier overall, but it’s uncertain if that is a cause or effect of intellectual humility.

Why Is Intellectual Humility So Difficult?

Sometimes you have to make a decision between feeling like you're right and practicing intellectual humility.
Sometimes you have to make a decision between feeling like you’re right and practicing intellectual humility. (Foto: CC0 / Unsplash / Brooke Cagle)

Have you ever tried arguing with someone who just can’t admit they are wrong? A conversation with someone with very low intellectual humility can make you feel like you’re talking to a brick wall. In moments like this, we usually wish that talking to us never feels that way for other people. But we all can become rigid in our thinking for any number of reasons, like:

  • Confirmation Bias — We naturally prioritize evidence that confirms our beliefs.
  • Reputation Admitting that we are wrong can be embarrassing, even if it’s ultimately beneficial. Furthermore, when our reputations are damaged, we are more likely to seek out extreme viewpoints.
  • Overconfidence — People are predisposed to overestimate how much they know about complex situations — until they are asked to explain.
  • Need for Certainty Those who are uncomfortable with uncertainty will default to previous knowledge. And to an extent, we all have a need for certainty.
  • Feeling Threatened — We tend to cling to our beliefs whenever we feel threatened or stressed. This is why we “listen to our gut” rather than reason when a lot is at stake.
  • Social Pressure People typically agree with their social group and become less open to different perspectives over time. This can be a particularly negative effect of social media, where the same beliefs can circulate in an echo chamber.
  • Excessive independence — In cultures that are more independent than interdependent, people are more inclined to defend their beliefs than listen to others or compromise.

Thing is — of course, you have to believe you are right most of the time. After all, if you thought you were wrong, you’d change your viewpoint. You have to rely on your knowledge and opinions being ‘correct’ to an extent, because otherwise you’ll be paralyzed and unable to take action on anything.

Intellectual humility describes therefore not only being able to change your mind when presented with evidence that contradicts your beliefs, but also recognizing — sort of like from a bird’s eye view — that you are probably wrong about heaps of things overall. You might not know what these things are (yet), but being open to the possibility that anything you think you might know could be wrong means being intellectual humble.

Measuring Intellectual Humility

It's not easy to measure intellectual humility accurately.
It’s not easy to measure intellectual humility accurately. (Foto: CC0 / Unsplash / Mathieu Stern)

So how can we find out how we are doing in our stride to become more intellectually humble and learn more from our surroundings? There are various ways to measure it.

The first three scales for intellectual humility rely on self-reports. This means that a person answers questions or makes statements about their own intellectual humility.

  • The General Intellectual Humility Scale was developed by scientists at Duke University in 2017. It is based on agreement to statements about the self like “I accept that my beliefs and attitudes may be wrong”. Using this scale, the researchers found out that intellectual humility is associated with curiosity and tolerance of ambiguity, for example.
  • The Comprehensive Intellectual Humility Scale was published in the Journal of Personality Assessment in 2016 and works very similarly. How much you agree or disagree with 22 statement-items like “I am willing to hear others out, even if I disagree with them” will decide your score. The statements are grouped under categories named “Respect for Others’ Viewpoints”, “Lack of Intellectual Overconfidence”, “Openness to Revising One’s Viewpoint”, and “Independence of Intellect and Ego” — which together make up another useful description of what intellectual humility means.
  • The Intellectual Humility Scale has 17 items and is mainly based on work of psychologist June Tagney and others. It recognizes three factors in intellectual humility: Low concern for intellectual status, perspective taking, low intellectual defensiveness. A sample item is: “It is important to me to get societal attention from others for my intellectual achievements”. As you’ve probably guessed, this item is reverse-scored: the higher you rate it, the less intellectually humble it indicates you are.

The problem with these measuring tactics is quite obvious: How do we know people can estimate their own intellectual humility adequately? To circumvent this issue, other scales instead rely on informant ratings — people making statements or answering questions about other people. This method also doesn’t come without its problems. After all, we can be wrong about other people, too. Two common informant ratings are:

  • The McElroy Intellectual Humility Scale was the first published measure on intellectual humility. It considers two factors: intellectual openness (e.g., “seeks out alternatives viewpoints”), and intellectual arrogance (e.g., “often becomes angry when their ideas aren’t implemented”).
  • The Humility-Arrogance Implicit Association Test works quite differently to all the above. The participants sit in front of a computer and are shown one-word attributes like “respectful” — relating to humility — or words like “egotistical” — which in turn relate to arrogance. They must then classify the words as more related to themselves or others. What’s actually measured are the reaction times: the quicker you are to decide, the more implicit association there is.

Depending on how well we know the people we are ‘rating’ and what our relationship to them is, these scores might be inaccurate as well. There are studies that compare results of self-reports with those of informant ratings to get closer to the truth — so far, the scores seem to match very poorly.

How to Build Intellectual Humility

Many factors might influence intellectual humility. You don't necessarily need to interact with other people to be able to foster it in yourself.
Many factors might influence intellectual humility. You don’t necessarily need to interact with other people to be able to foster it in yourself. (Foto: CC0 / Unsplash / kevin turcios)

Given how hard it is to accurately measure intellectual humility, there is no definite research on how we would be able to up our numbers on any of these scales. But based on the research on personality and humility overall, the following are likely:

  • Intellectual humility might be, at least in a small part, heritable. This is true for virtually every personality trait out there, and therefore probably also for humility.
  • It might be influenced by higher education one of two ways: Learning more can lead to the realization that there are a million things you do not know or understand — in that case, education would foster intellectual humility. What might also happen is that the more you know about a topic, the more confident you are in your beliefs, at least in that realm.
  • Parenting likely plays a considerable role. Parents teach their children how to come to conclusions, make decisions and interact with others. Those are all factors intertwined with intellectual humility.
  • The culture you grow up or currently live in likely influence your intellectual humility. Some cultures teach a rather rigid worldview where uncertainty is to be avoided. That could discourage individuals therein from being intellectually humble. The same could be true for religions that teach a black-and-white view of the world.
  • Interestingly, neither religiosity itself nor political orientation seem to have an influence on intellectual humility. Once the views become extreme, however, intellectual humility tends to go down.

Because intellectual rigidity is often tied to feeling threatened, another way you are likely to be able to combat it is to reduce stress. Mindfulness-based stress reduction can be particularly beneficial because it builds self-awareness through self-reflection.

Consider keeping a journal for staying mindful. Make it a habit, and consider writing about your day from another person’s perspective. Besides stress reduction, there are a few other ways to foster intellectual humility:

  • Social Support: A sense of belongingness makes people less likely to become intellectually rigid.
  • Being Informed: Having to explain your beliefs often reveals just how much you don’t know.
  • Learning more: Simply reading this article has probably made you more intellectually humble!
  • Digital detoxing: This can give your brain a break from online information overload.

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