What Is Intellectual Humility Good For?

intellectual humility
Foto: CC0 / Pixabay / riteshman

We know being humble is a virtue, but what about intellectual humility? Read on to learn why we should admit that we don’t have all the answers.

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.

Benefits of Intellectual Humility

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 like improved relationships, stress, and happiness. Its other advantages include:

  • 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 it so Difficult?

Some people would rather be right than practice intellectual humility.
Some people would rather be right than practice intellectual humility. (Foto: CC0 / Pixabay / geralt)

Have you ever tried arguing with someone who just can’t admit they are wrong? A lack of intellectual humility can be like talking to a brick wall. People become rigid in their 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.
  • 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.

How to Build Intellectual Humility

Lowering stress can increase intellectual humility.
Lowering stress can increase intellectual humility. (Foto: CC0 / Pixabay / FILIPPOPIEMONTE)

Because intellectual rigidity is often tied to feeling threatened, the best way 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 made you more intellectually humble!
  • Digital detoxing: This can give your brain a break from online information overload.

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