“Intellectual humility” — defined as open-mindedness and the awareness that our beliefs may be wrong — influences people’s decision-making abilities in politics, health, and other arenas, according to a new study.
The little researched personality trait is the opposite of intellectual arrogance or conceit, researchers from Duke University explain.
Intellectually humble people can have strong beliefs, but recognize their fallibility and are willing to be proven wrong on matters large and small, according to Mark Leary, a professor of psychology and neuroscience.
In a recent study, the Duke research team also found that the trait is nonpartisan. After measuring levels of the trait, they found essentially no difference between liberals and conservatives or between religious and nonreligious people.
“There are stereotypes about conservatives and religiously conservative people being less intellectually humble about their beliefs,” he said. “We didn’t find a shred of evidence to support that.”
The researchers conducted four separate studies to measure the trait and learn about how it functions.
In one study, participants read essays arguing for and against religion, and were then asked about each author’s personality. After reading an essay with which they disagreed, intellectually arrogant people gave the writer low scores in morality, honesty, competence, and warmth. By contrast, intellectually humble people were less likely to judge a writer’s character based on his or her views.
People who displayed intellectual humility also did a better job evaluating the quality of evidence — even in mundane matters, the researchers noted. For instance, when presented with arguments about the benefits of flossing, intellectually humble people correctly distinguished strong, fact-based arguments from weak ones, the study found.
The characteristic also affected people’s views on politicians who “flip-flop.”
Intellectually humble Republicans were more likely than other Republicans to say that they would vote for a politician whose position on an issue changed over time, due to new evidence. They were also less likely to criticize that politician for “flip-flopping.”
There was less variability among Democrats: Democrats, whether intellectually arrogant or humble, were generally less likely to criticize a politician for changing his mind.
According to Leary, intellectual humility bears further examination.
“If you think about what’s been wrong in Washington for a long time, it’s a whole lot of people who are very intellectually arrogant about the positions they have, on both sides of the aisle,” Leary said.
“But even in interpersonal relationships, the minor squabbles we have with our friends, lovers, and coworkers are often about relatively trivial things where we are convinced that our view of the world is correct and their view is wrong.”
The quality has potential benefits in the business world, as well, he said.
“If you’re sitting around a table at a meeting and the boss is very low in intellectual humility, he or she isn’t going to listen to other people’s suggestions,” Leary said. “Yet we know that good leadership requires broadness of perspective and taking as many perspectives into account as possible.”
The researchers suggest that intellectual humility is a quality that could be encouraged and taught — and some of their colleagues hope to do just that. Leary’s team worked in collaboration with other psychologists and philosophers to refine their studies. One of those philosophers helped launch a charter school in California, the Intellectual Virtues Academy of Long Beach, aimed at promoting qualities such as intellectual humility.
Leary applauds the effort.
“Not being afraid of being wrong — that’s a value, and I think it is a value we could promote,” he said. “I think if everyone was a bit more intellectually humble we’d all get along better. We’d be less frustrated with each other.”
The study was published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.