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Shortreads

We Know In Part: Debunking Myths About Intellectual Humility

Elizabeth Krumrei-Mancuso


When should we change our viewpoint?

Associate Professor of Psychology, Pepperdine University
September 15, 2014

People tend to be turned off by those who are arrogant; most appreciate those who are humble. I teach undergraduate students, and some of the best compliments they give involve describing someone as down to earth, real, or genuine. These colloquialisms all get at forms of humility.

Common conceptualizations of humility involve a lack of self-focus and an accurate perception of your characteristics and limitations.[1]

What About Humility When It Comes to Beliefs and Values?

A particular type of humility that has been of interest to theologians and philosophers—and more recently psychologists—is intellectual humility. This involves humility in the domain of knowledge; it relates to how a person holds beliefs, opinions, and ideas.

Just as general humility involves being able to accurately see yourself as a limited being, intellectual humility involves accepting that your knowledge is limited and imperfect. For most people, acknowledging the limits to their insight is easy when it comes to issues that are of little importance, but more challenging when it comes to closely-held political, religious, or ethical values. It’s in the domain of strong convictions where intellectual humility is truly tested.

Do We Really Value Intellectual Humility?

The fact that closed-minded and intolerant tend to be insults supports the idea that intellectual humility is valued in contemporary society. On the other hand, society also tends to value those who are confident, take a strong stance, and stick to their guns. When people are unsure, or change their minds, we view them as weak or wishy-washy.

We rarely acknowledge errors. We’ve perfected ways of apologizing without admitting fault: the private, “Sorry you feel that way” or the public, “Mistakes were made.”

But intellectual humility calls for something more.

It means putting the first-person pronoun in our sentences, as in: “I was wrong in my thinking.” Being able to make statements like this doesn’t mean we lack confidence. To the contrary, intellectual humility is derived from basing our confidence in the right place. We need something to sustain our egos other than specific beliefs or even our intellectual capacity altogether, because we are fallible beings. We can trust that reality is much bigger than we are, and not dependent on our momentary take on it. There’s no need to get defensive when others disagree, and there’s no shame in revising our ideas and beliefs.

A personal motto I’ve had for a long time is, “I reserve the right to change my mind.” I won’t be pressured into holding onto beliefs or positions simply because they used to work. I teach at Pepperdine University, and I love the University’s Affirmation that:

Truth, having nothing to fear from investigation, should be pursued relentlessly in every discipline.

We don’t have to be afraid of change—that’s how we get closer to the truth.

What Does Empirical Research Have to Say About the Value of Intellectual Humility?

In order to examine the value of intellectual humility, we have to be able to measure it. My recent research, funded by Fuller Theological Seminary/Thrive Center in concert with the John Templeton Foundation, has focused on creating a way to quantify intellectual humility through a self-report measure.

You might be wondering whether people are actually able to judge their own intellectual humility. If people say they are intellectually humble, are they? Or are they self-inflating the virtue?

On the other hand, if people say they are not intellectually humble, then is that true, or are they being modest? Self-inflation is a tricky issue anytime you measure something that is socially desirable, because people like to present themselves favorably. Fortunately, the results of my research indicate that people are able to provide reliable information about their levels of intellectual humility and that this is not confounded by efforts to present themselves in a socially desirable way.

6 Aspects of Intellectual Humility

Through a series of studies, my colleague Steve Rouse and I developed a 25-item psychological measure that assesses six aspects of intellectual humility:

1. Separating your ego from your intellect

2. Being aware of the finitude of your knowledge

3. Being willing to admit your intellectual limits

4. Not being overconfident intellectually

5. Being open to revising your viewpoints

6. Respecting others’ viewpoints

Data from a number of samples of adults throughout the U.S. showed that, as expected, intellectual humility is associated with other forms of humility, unpretentiousness, and modesty.

Beyond that, intellectual humility is associated with a host of characteristics that can benefit individuals and relationships, such as wisdom, relying on logical arguments rather than prior beliefs in forming opinions, intellectual breadth, curiosity, resourcefulness, morality, honest behavior, open-mindedness, and tolerance of others.

We don’t have to be afraid of change—that’s how we get closer to the truth.

As a college professor, I found it interesting that intellectual humility among students was also associated with being motivated by a desire to understand concepts rather than a desire to perform to a certain standard, like earning a good grade.

Further, intellectual humility is negatively correlated with characteristics that can limit a person or harm relationships, including arrogance, narcissism, having a sense of entitlement, dominating others, and seeking power.

Debunking Some Myths About Intellectual Humility

One of the questions often raised about intellectual humility is whether being intellectually humble means that you don’t have confidence in your beliefs, or that you easily give in to others’ opinions.

In my research, intellectual humility showed small links to greater self-confidence and less social conformity and moderate links to greater openness and morality in relationships. This means that people who are higher in intellectual humility are actually slightly less susceptible to social influence, group pressure, and desire for approval, and are less likely to conform to others’ opinions. Also, those higher in intellectual humility are moderately more candid, frank, and sincere in relationships.

We can have peace with incomplete knowledge now, because we know that, one day, our knowledge will be freed from obscurity.

So, being intellectually humble does not mean that a person is spineless, submissive, or blindly adopts the views of others. There seems to be no conflict in being simultaneously confident in your beliefs and humble about them. This is consistent with the theory that intellectual humility is a golden mean between the two extremes of intellectual arrogance and intellectual cowardice.[2]

Intellectual Humility and Matters of Faith (or Substitute “Politics” or “Morality”…)

So, what are the implications of intellectual humility for faith? Some might wonder whether holding your religious beliefs in an intellectually humble way means your faith is less strong.

I think we can dispel the fear that being humble about our beliefs means that we lack faith, are weak in our beliefs, or are likely to compromise our faith. Again, because the data seem to indicate that intellectual humility and confidence are not mutually exclusive, we can have strong convictions while also being open to correction.

While some might think intellectual humility contradicts belief in absolute truth, I think intellectual humility can actually be derived from confidence in the Truth. I view intellectual humility merely as an acknowledgement that, as a fallible being, my access to the truth is limited and can be misguided. I’m reminded of 1 Cor. 13:12:

For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

We can have peace with incomplete knowledge now, because we know that, one day, our knowledge will be freed from obscurity. For now, there is freedom and honesty in acknowledging the limits of our insight. We can embrace the finitude of our knowledge because we know the One who is all-knowing. Rather than boasting in our knowledge, we can rest in being known.

Cultivating Intellectual Humility

There’s a large body of theoretical writing suggesting many reasons for cultivating intellectual humility. For example, theories predict that intellectual humility and other intellectual virtues lead to critical thinkers who make up fair-minded societies.[3] Intellectual humility seems essential for peaceful interactions within pluralistic societies[4] and for understanding and responding to sociopolitical conflict throughout the world.[5]

It is exciting to see empirical studies beginning to confirm these theories. For example, the data I just described show that intellectual humility is associated with a host of positive outcomes, including tolerance for others. This supports the idea that intellectual humility holds unique potential to promote civil discourse and collaboration.

As research offers more insight into the value of intellectual humility, the next steps will be to examine how intellectual humility can be acquired. Cultivating intellectual humility likely begins with an honest assessment of our starting point.

About the Author

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