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The Table Video

Humble Communities: Addressing the Lack of Humility in Public Discourse

July 2, 2019

Dr. Peter Hill and Dr. Elizabeth Krumrei-Mancuso discuss the apparent lack of humility in American communities, offering some thoughts on how we can foster an atmosphere of communal humility in such an individualistic cultural context.


I’m not the only one today that notices a lack of humility in public discourse, whether it’s online social media, whether it’s in debate format, all throughout the political cycle last year. Doesn’t look like we are thriving with respect to the virtue of intellectual humility. There’s a diagnosis and I wonder as a psychologist and as you look out into the world, do you detect the same? What do you, what do you say about those who are particularly worried about our humility, namely our lack of it?

I think, we’re just now kind of getting into this area of studying intellectual humility. The last couple of years, it’s become more of a popular topic within the field of psychology. I think some individuals in other fields, theologians, philosophers have thought about it for a longer period of time, but we have been studying just the general concept of humility for a longer period of time and we have seen that over, say, the past three decades that arrogance has been increasing and that humility is not as common of a virtue in society as it used to be, and so I think that is particularly relevant to the political discussions that we’re having to public discourse, to the way people collaborate with one another.

If it’s true that humility as a virtue in general’s on decline, then that makes all of those things more difficult to work together, to listen to one another, and so, that’s part of the problem. I think what we can add to that, though, is that, especially around the turn of the century with the rise of the field of positive psychology that we also are focusing more on what are the strengths and the virtues that people are bringing with them and with this, the idea of not just focusing on the arrogance and how arrogance is increasing, but now also studying, well, what does humility and what does intellectual humility look like, and where are the places that we can find that and how can we encourage that, and so I think we’re also making great strides in that direction now by starting to look at how we can define that and measure that and encourage that within the population.

Which is to say that we’ve spent a long time looking at really bad examples and perhaps that’s natural. Maybe the first thing you notice when you look out at the world is negativity. We start there, but what I like about the endeavors of positive psychology is that we’re now we’re focusing on the good as well, and we’re trying to look for more uplifting or exemplary approaches to human flourishing as well. Pete, from a social psychology perspective, what do you make of this idea about diagnosing our culture and how we’re doing with respect to humility and pride?

Yeah, that’s a good question. I think, one of the things is we have to recognize that we are a strongly individualistic culture, we all recognize that. That seems to emphasize putting your best foot forward. I tell graduates, undergraduate students are applying to graduate school, for example. Now’s not the time to be humble. And that’s just the way our culture seems to work. By the way, there’s been very little research at this point done looking at cultural differences in humility and intellectual humility. There’s been some, but it’s somewhat limited. Virtually all of the research has been done in North America or Western Europe, but that said, it’s often put your best foot forward, strike out there with confidence and boldness, and let them know what you really think. And we even have words in religious terminology like, stick to your convictions and these kinds of things that are, I think, somewhat culturally influenced. So we have to recognize that. I remember back, I think it was in the 1990s, as a matter of fact, I just recently saw a “Saturday Night Live” skit on this that was from that era, repeat show, and there used to be a political show, I guess you would say, that was called “Crossfire.”

Oh, yeah.

And, yeah, and it was different journalists and some folks who were in the politics themselves and so forth as I recall, but it was almost always who could yell the loudest.

Oh, yeah.

Yeah. And I remember that was probably when I first started to think about humility because I saw what was the opposite of humility, so I am glad to see this turn that we’ve had, somewhat, in thinking about this, how can we foster what we perceive as a virtue? But it’s gonna be tough in our culture because our culture doesn’t value it. I think it would be quite different if we were in a collectivistic culture, which would, like as Liz was talking about the scientific process earlier, which would be much more open, I think, to collaboration and working together, whereas here, us academics, no, it’s how much we produce, how many publications do we get, or how much grant money do we get as individuals versus the collective good.

And academics are by no means alone. I mean, stacking the resume.

Oh no, no, sure.