Intellectual humility: from views of knowledge to views of people28 January 2019
Researchers have taken a number of approaches to defining intellectual humility. I tend to view intellectual humility as rooted in a healthy independence between intellect and ego (Krumrei-Mancuso & Rouse, 2016). What I mean by this is that intellectual humility involves accepting one’s intellectual fallibility without experiencing it as a threat to one’s sense of self or value as a person. Broadly, this minimizes intellectual overconfidence, offers an openness to revising one’s viewpoint, minimizes defensiveness during intellectual disagreements, and promotes an appreciation for everyone’s right to a personal perspective. As such, intellectual humility not only shapes how people view their knowledge (e.g., the realization that I might be wrong about an issue), but also how they view others’ knowledge (e.g., that a diversity of perspectives is enriching rather than threatening). This is particularly relevant to public discourse.
An emphasis in the study of intellectual humility has been on people’s openness to considering alternative evidence or perspectives, leading them to gain new or more accurate knowledge. Some work has also examined how intellectual humility relates to attitudes about others, finding that it is associated with greater tolerance toward others. In a current project, I am following a national sample of U.S. adults over time to examine these themes and extend them to an examination of how intellectual humility relates to the treatment of others (project funded by the University of Connecticut, subaward agreement 145506, and the John Templeton Foundation, Grant 58942, publication forthcoming). So far, the data are highlighting that being intellectually humble about social and political topics is associated with a preference for equality among groups in society, including more social justice attitudes, social justice behavioral intentions, less orientation toward social dominance, and less political intolerance toward those who think differently. It is even associated with more political tolerance toward the group whose viewpoint one considers most distasteful (think white nationalists, religious fundamentalists, radical Muslims, atheists, pro-life activists, pro-choice activists or fill in your own blank…).
What does this mean for epistemic change on the basis of public discourse? Does political tolerance for people one disagrees with and a preference for equality in society mean that being intellectually humble makes a person more likely to agree with an argument previously opposed? Not necessarily, according to my recent data. To keep a long story short, in a scenario where research participants were presented with an anonymous person’s argument on a political topic, participants’ degree of attitude change depended on participants’ original stances on the issue, with both those who originally agreed and those who originally disagreed being more likely to change their perspectives on the basis of the argument presented if they were lower in intellectual humility. In both cases, these groups seemed to regress toward the mean, with the agree group agreeing less and the disagree group agreeing more after hearing the argument. Among both groups, higher levels of intellectual humility were associated with a lower likelihood of changing one’s attitude.
How can we make sense of this given that intellectual humility is often thought of as the ability to change one’s viewpoint when warranted? It seems what warrants belief change may be different for those high and low in intellectual humility. Individuals high in intellectual humility understand intellectual fallibility, not only their own, but that of humans in general. Perhaps for this reason, those higher in intellectual humility are more tolerant of ambiguity (Leary et al., 2017), tend to seek out and think about information to a greater extent (Krumrei-Mancuso, Haggard, LaBouff, & Rowatt, under review), and can be more attuned to the strength of persuasive arguments than those lower in intellectual humility (Leary et al., 2017). Intellectually humble individuals who are presented with one side of an issue are likely to understand that there are unstated counterarguments and additional perspectives to be considered. Therefore, intellectual humility may be associated with less belief change when there is not enough evidence to support it. Those lower in intellectual humility, both those who agree and disagree with an issue, may be more reactive to a single point of view because they are less accustomed to considering many alternatives. This is consistent with the work of Hopkin, Hoyle, and Toner (2014), who found that individuals with strong beliefs on an issue who were lower in intellectual humility reacted more strongly to others’ opinions on the issue, compare to those higher in intellectual humility.
Another relevant factor beyond a person’s perception of an argument, is a person’s perception of the arguer. In an October issue of this blog, Catarina Dutilh Novaes explored how argumentation has the potential to change minds or create more dissent, depending on whether values such as trust, fairness, and reciprocity are present between the individuals engaged in debate. My recent data indicate that those higher in intellectual humility view people expressing their political opinions more favorably (likable, friendly, intelligent, agreeable) and less unfavorably (unpleasant, offensive, immoral, prejudiced) than those lower in intellectual humility, regardless of whether they agree with them or not. Leary and colleagues (2017) found similar patterns in that people higher in intellectual humility tended to: rate others who were expressing opinions more favorably, view others’ beliefs more charitably, and judge people less on the basis of their opinions, compared to those lower in intellectual humility. It seems accepting one’s own intellectual fallibility makes it easier to accept the intellectual fallibility of others, as well.
Finally, there is some initial evidence that this ability to view others favorably regardless of their opinions may translate into more benevolent behaviors towards others. Previous work has found intellectual humility to be associated with altruism and benevolence (Krumrei-Mancuso, 2017). In part, this seems to be because intellectual humility helps individuals have empathy and gratitude for others. In my current work, intellectual humility about social and political topics approached significance in predicting a behavioral measure of benevolence in which research participants were given the opportunity to donate all or some of their potential raffle winnings to a charity. Interestingly, some new items written to assess intellectual humility relevant to public discourse were predictive of the decision to donate. For example, those who more strongly endorsed the items: “When I access news, I include sources that represent political perspectives different than my own” and “I have reconsidered my view on at least one issue relevant to politics or society in the past 5 months” were more likely to choose to donate to charity from their potential raffle winnings.
What this research is highlighting is that intellectual humility can contribute to social goods in a number of ways. First, although an openness to revising one’s viewpoint does not constitute a greater likelihood of revising one’s viewpoint thoughtlessly, intellectual humility supports epistemic change when this is warranted, which can promote agreement between parties. Further, intellectual humility extends beyond perceptions of people’s opinions to perceptions of people, which has implications for social attitudes and possibly social behaviors. This can go a long way toward helping people treat others with civility and benevolence, even in the face of persistent disagreement.
Hopkin, C. R., Hoyle, R. H., & Toner, K. (2014). Intellectual humility and reactions to opinions about religious beliefs. Journal of Psychology and Theology, 42(1), 50–61.
Krumrei-Mancuso, E. J. (2017). Intellectual humility and prosocial values: Direct and mediated effects. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 12, 13-28. doi:10.1080/17439760.2016.1167938
Krumrei-Mancuso, E. J., Haggard, M. C., LaBouff, J. P., & Rowatt, W. C., (manuscript under review). Links between intellectual humility and variables associated with learning.
Krumrei-Mancuso, E. J. & Rouse, S. V. (2016). The development and validation of the Comprehensive Intellectual Humility Scale. Journal of Personality Assessment, 98, 209-221. doi:10.1080/00223891.2015.1068174
Leary, M. R., Diebels, K. J., Davisson, E. K., Jongman-Sereno, K. P., Isherwood, J. C., Raimi, K. T., … Hoyle, R. H. (2017). Cognitive and interpersonal features of intellectual humility. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 43(6), 793–813. doi: 10.1177/0146167217697695
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