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Open for Debate

Am I Humble? Are You Humble?

2 December 2019

 If one were to boil the concept of civil public discourse down into a single idea, it may be this: avoid ad hominems. Ideas should be debated, scrutinized, and questioned, but the people making these arguments should be listened to honestly, respected, and treated with dignity. But is it possible for people to listen to others without also judging others?

Unfortunately, decades of research in social psychology suggest that humans cannot help but form social judgments. In fact, forming a dispositional opinion about other people happens so quickly and so automatically that researchers call it spontaneous trait inference. In an early demonstration of this phenomenon, Winter, Uleman, and Cunniff (1985) had participants complete a series of math problems while simultaneously reading ostensibly irrelevant, distractor sentences (e.g., “The receptionist steps in front of the old man in line.”). Afterwards, participants were asked to recall the sentences that they had read. Notably, even though a personality trait was not explicitly stated in the sentence, mentioning the implied trait (“rude”) proved to be just as good of a memory retrieval cue for this sentence as a close semantic associate (“cutting in front”). What this result tells us is that when reading about a person cutting in line, participants spontaneously generate the concept of rudeness without necessarily being aware that they did so. In other words, even if I am not actively trying to form an impression of someone, it seems to happen anyway.

The power of spontaneous trait inference is reflected in one of the most influential and well known biases in social psychology. Correspondence bias (Gilbert & Malone, 1995) is the tendency to draw inferences about someone’s enduring disposition even when their behavior can be better explained by the situation in which they are in. Ned Jones and Keith Davis (1967) provided the now-classic experimental evidence for this effect: Participants read essays that either supported or opposed Fidel Castro, and they were told that the writer had either selected the position himself or been instructed by his debate coach to defend that particular point of view. Their finding was sufficiently surprising that we still talk about it 50 years later: Participants showed a bias to believe the pro-Castro essay writer really did support Castro, even when they were told he was forced to take that position. The take-away from this and the many studies that followed in its footsteps is that there appears to be an automatic tendency to form dispositional judgments, often irrespective of other relevant situational factors.

If we cannot help but assess people at the same time we assess their opinions and arguments, perhaps our best option then is to seek to be as fair as possible in these judgments. Here too, we have challenges to overcome. Daniel Kahneman (2011), in his best-selling book Thinking, Fast and Slow, attributes a number of cognitive errors and foibles to a simple maxim: “what you see is all there is.” In other words, human judgment is dependent on limited information. The problem is that we typically don’t realize how limited our information is. When listening to someone give their opinion, only the information we attend to is going to guide the impression we form of them. So what is it that you attend to?

It is worth noting that this basic principle is also true when I am evaluating myself. Even in this context, I can only rely on the information that is available. However, what is available to me when I am the one communicating is quite different than what I can observe when listening to someone else is. In appraising myself, regardless of how articulate or not I actually am, I have access to my own intentions, motivations, and inner doubts. Others are not as lucky.

I have been able to see this distinction between self- and other-appraisals play out in my own lab. My colleagues and I have been investigating the ways in which people form judgments about intellectual humility (IH), or the capacity to own one’s limitations, accurately track epistemic claims, and be willing change one’s mind in light of new information (Church & Barrett, 2017; Whitcomb, Battaly, Baehr, & Howard-Snyder, 2017).  Over the last several years, there has been a substantial amount of psychological research on people’s self-reported IH, which has resulted in the development of number of scale measures. But how does this compare to the way I evaluate the IH of someone I am speaking or working with?

Across several studies, we have found that self-ratings and peer-judgments of IH seem to rely on quite different information. People who see themselves as high in IH tend to be those who are, in fact, open to new experiences. During a discussion, they tend to show high levels of engagement and are more likely to ask questions of others and propose alternate points of view. On the other hand, people who are rated by others as high in IH show a quite different pattern of behavior. They are characterized by their agreeableness, being less likely to state their own point of view but more likely to positively affirm what others say (e.g., interjecting with “mm-hmm” and “yes”). In truth, we have found relatively little natural overlap between these two types of people.

Our findings suggest that the criteria we use to evaluate ourselves in terms of IH differ substantially from what we use to evaluate the people we converse with. With introspective access to my own thoughts, I may be able to know whether I am, in fact, trying to discuss an issue fairly and as objectively as possible. But I may be less sensitive to my interpersonal behaviors during this conversation, if I am failing to validate others’ contributions or not allowing them to take the lead in the conversation. In contrast, when I think of someone else as high in IH, I may be relying solely on their positive social behaviors and how receptive they seem to my own point of view. In reality, this agreeableness may be driven by any number of non-epistemic motivations.

The psychological literature outlined above indicates that we may not be able to avoid judging the people we disagree with. But how can I know whether I am interacting with an intellectually humble person or not? And how can I know if I am coming across as an intellectually humble person to others? Ultimately, positive civil discourse necessitates both social and epistemic components. Being appropriately attuned to these dual aspects of IH will require adjusting our spontaneous judgments—both the ones we make of ourselves and the ones we make of others.



1 comment
  1. Wade Schuette

    This was an interesting post! I’m a member of the Bahá’í Faith which places a great deal of emphasis and centrality on the pivotal role of what we term “consultation” in making any kind of progress in Community Development. The object is to go way beyond “civil” discourse and even beyond the requirements of a “safety culture” like that trained for in managing an airline cockpit or nuclear power plant or hospital operating room, and to reach a process that not only overcomes the failings of human beings but that actually ends the meeting, crucially, with everyone better friends with each other than they were coming into the meeting.

    An explicit aim of consultation is precisely to continually deepen the unity of a community while, almost paradoxically, providing the required space for as widely diverse population as possible. This is somewhat akin to the physical laws behind the Very Large Array of individual telescopes in New Mexico, where it is established that the resolution of the “synthetic aperture” array goes up with the largest distance apart of two radio dishes.

    One can imagine that trying to maximize diversity of the membership while simultaneously seeking common ground on which to base community action is a little like herding cats. The problems are even more intense if the members not only are interdisciplinary, but come from different cultures or nations and English is not their first language, and their implicit assumptions and use of words and mental models of the world are widely diverse.

    Intellectual diversity is worth its weight in gold in terms of bringing fresh blood and insights into discussions but it only works if everyone recognizes that the message they hear is seldom the message that was sent, and a process needs to be in place to patiently and gently try to unpack the actual message from the unstated context in which it was framed and translate that message into the context of the listeners.

    I have pondered this problem for a number of decades and believe that people tend to leap ahead and try to use “data processing” tools on perceived messages when what they should be doing, especially in diverse groups, is first to use a “context processing” engine, to grasp the mapping between cultures or contexts, and only then try to translate the words spoken into a shared meaning.

    In any case, my take-home message from the front is that, while there are indeed human frailties that tend to disrupt effective dialog, these can be overcome in persistent groups by the use of focused effort, actual training, and a shared culture stressing the required virtues and practices. Individual behavior can be modified if the entire team is trained together. Plane travel is much safer today than it was before “Crew Resource Management” was in place, as a number of airline crashes before that, caught on the cockpit voice recorders, were clearly due to inability of the pilots to simply talk to each other and be heard. Operating rooms today provide a safe space where a mere nurse can speak up without retribution if she sees the surgeon about to make a mistake, such as removing the wrong limb — a type of accident that used to occur regularly.

    That said, it seems to be an open research question as to what can be done to mitigate and overcome the extremely polarizing and toxic “argument culture” that is so prevalent, as you point out, in public discourse today, especially on social media. Computational Social Scientists are busy building simulation models showing how macro-scale behaviors, such as polarization into mutually hating groups, emerge from micro-scale factors such as individual beliefs, values, and behaviors. Some encouraging progress is being made but I doubt it will yield changes in social behavior before Brexit happens or the USA’s 2020 election occurs.

    In the meantime, even very simple interventions such as learning about intellectual humility, and remembering that what they see and say is not actually what you see and hear, can go a long way to cutting the edge off conflict and animosity that lasts long after the discourse has failed.


    Bahá’í consultation

    Safety culture

    Characteristics of High Performing Teams:

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