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Image for Humility: Moral, Religious, Intellectual


Humble Self-Reflection: A Lesson in Intellectual Humility for an Intellectual Humility Researcher

Elizabeth Krumrei-Mancuso

Associate Professor of Psychology, Pepperdine University
October 26, 2017

Numbers 12:3, presumably written by Moses, reads: “Now Moses was a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth.” Funny things happen when we reflect on our own humility. Or, in my case, the opposite is also true: funny things happened when we fail to reflect on our own humility. There I was, measuring other people’s intellectual humility, without ever stopping to think about my own. And what I realized was that intellectual humility is a great topic to study, until you yourself are required to be intellectually humble. So, here’s what happened…

At the time of writing my last post for this blog, my colleague, Steve Rouse, and I had just developed a self-report measure of intellectual humility. In that last post, I mentioned that our scale assessed six aspects of intellectual humility. Well, that was before the peer reviews came back from the journal editor: “Dear Dr. Krumrei [insert pleasantries and general comments here]…The biggest issue with this paper stems, perhaps, from the strength of your literature review and depth of coverage of the construct … your scale ended up being too comprehensive.” And, “Your validation studies are too complex, which muddies the waters and makes your data difficult to interpret.”

Humpf! was my first thought. What do they know? I believe six factors is the best decision based on the data. I’m the one that’s spent the last year of my life developing this. But they clearly disagreed with me. Their suggestion was that I go back to the drawing board to develop a more specific definition of intellectual humility, in order to come up with a scale with fewer factors.

In the end, I followed their suggestions. I implemented all of their recommendations and sent it back, eager to have the article accepted. Their response? “It’s better, but we want another revision.” Another revision? Really? I’ve never had to go through two rounds of revisions before! But I followed through on the fine-tuning they suggested, and resubmitted it again. The funny thing is, when I submitted that final version, I saw my paper in a new light. No longer did I view it as a paper I had to change for the journal. I was now able to see it as a much clearer version of my previous work. Listening to their suggestions had improved what I was sharing with the academic community. In case you’re curious, I ended up with a measure that assessed 4 aspects of intellectual humility instead of 6:


  1. Separating your ego from your intellect
  2. Being open to revising your viewpoints
  3. Respecting others’ viewpoints
  4. Not being overconfident intellectually

Now, as more time has passed, I can look back at this process and realize that my response to the reviewers was less about my paper, and more about me. The overarching criticisms from the journal were that my measure, my studies, and my paper were all too comprehensive. Hmm, we’re starting to see a theme here. And, really, it doesn’t surprise me. In everything I do, I want to cover all the bases. I don’t want to leave anything out. My driving force had been that my measure would fully assess intellectual humility, that it would be good enough, that it would stand up to criticism. But let’s be honest, these concerns were a mirror of underlying fears about myself, that I wasn’t good enough as a researcher; that I would be criticized for missing something. That’s why the scale, validation studies, and paper had all become too complex. Suddenly I’m hearing my mother’s voice echo in my head: “You’re such a perfectionist.” Back then I’d say, “No I’m not!” and believe it. Now that denial just makes me laugh. Let there be no confusion, this isn’t a humblebrag about how thorough my work is. Not being able to let go is a real problem. Because I wasn’t willing to commit to a more specific definition of intellectual humility, my work had become difficult for others to interpret.

And, even though this was the furthest thing from a personal attack, my ego had its feathers ruffled, perhaps because my intellectual output was, to a certain extent, a reflection of my deeper thoughts and feelings (and fears) about myself as a person.

So, what does all of this have to do with my own intellectual humility? This experience of working through the journal reviews was similar to the types of experiences we all face in daily life. I received feedback on my thoughts, ideas, and beliefs. And, even though this was the furthest thing from a personal attack, my ego had its feathers ruffled, perhaps because my intellectual output was, to a certain extent, a reflection of my deeper thoughts and feelings (and fears) about myself as a person. Although unpleasant at the time, this experience taught me some things about my research and about myself.

Lessons Related to Research

The experience of publishing my scale of intellectual humility reminded me of a discussion I had with Ev Worthington when developing my scale. His theory was that acting virtuously and building virtue both involve experiencing challenge (personal communication, August, 2013). That is, to understand if someone is intellectually humble, we must evaluate whether a person acts in an intellectually humble way when this character quality is threatened. The intellectually humble person is not one who never feels threatened when challenged by others, rather, the intellectually humble person is the one who can overcome the experience of feeling threatened in a graceful way, according to Worthington (I’m paraphrasing here). So, a person can say she is intellectually humble, but the more important question is how she reacts when she receives constructive criticism about her ideas. I took his line of thinking into account when developing my self-report survey, asking people to reflect on how they respond to specific threats to their intellectual humility, such as, when someone disagrees with them on their beliefs.

Of course, the question remains open as to whether people are capable of having insight into the way they tend to react and are able to report honestly on it. That is, I can mark a rating scale to my survey items, “I have at times changed opinions that were important to me, when someone showed me I was wrong.” and “I can respect others, even if I disagree with them in important ways.” But would this reflect how I truly react in life situations? Say, when journal reviewers challenge my ideas, am I able to recognize that the intellectual exchange is not an attack on my ego? Am I open to revising my viewpoints? Can I respect the viewpoints of the reviewers, even when I disagree?

When it comes down to it, intellectual humility helps us improve ourselves because it gives us the mental space to listen to others.

Worthington and other colleagues have promoted the idea that virtues such as humility, generally, and intellectual humility, specifically, are interpersonal in nature (e.g., Davis, Worthington, & Hook, 2010; McElroy et al., 2014) and should be measured via behavioral ratings from others. This is a valuable approach that can help overcome a number of problems inherent to asking for self-reports of humility. Then again, raters have to be selected carefully. For example, the journal reviewers would have had no insight to my reaction to their feedback. Who would have been able to describe my internal experience better than me? Perhaps reflecting on life experiences of being challenged offers us insight into our responses to challenge, and allow us to complete a self-report survey more accurately. Beyond the self-versus-other-report question, what my experience highlighted is that where the rubber meets the road, is in real life tests. So, the next step for intellectual humility researchers may be in developing real-life or more life-like tests to supplement current methods of assessing intellectual humility.

Lessons Related to Life

Then, what does intellectual humility have to offer in circumstances in which our ideas or beliefs are challenged? Primarily, it allows us to get over our own thoughts. It was intellectual humility that allowed me to take a step back and improve my paper, instead of taking my ball and going home, or, well, to another journal. It is intellectual humility that allows us to step outside of our ideas, to examine them, and (heaven forbid) improve them on the basis of other people’s ideas. This principle is described in Proverbs 27:17, “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another” (NIV). When it comes down to it, intellectual humility helps us improve ourselves because it gives us the mental space to listen to others. The process may be painful, but we come out sharper on the other end. When we have the intellectual humility to be challenged and to take the challenge seriously, we grow in insight. And when we grow in insight, we become new people. In the example I shared, the challenge related to an intellectual pursuit, but I believe the same is true for faith. Romans 12:2 says, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” To allow our minds to be transformed, we have to have the courage to let go of an old way of thinking. When we let go of an old mindset, we have the opportunity to become transformed people.