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Open for Debate

Teaching Intellectual Humility

24 September 2018

We have good reason for wanting to teach and instill the virtue of intellectual humility. Those with this virtue are more cooperative, want to learn more, are more forgiving, are more willing to admit mistakes, and even make better leaders. But how do we encourage people to become intellectually humble?

Typically, to encourage a virtue in someone, we try to draw their attention to the benefits of that virtue (to provide motivation) and to the process of developing that virtue in themselves (to provide the means). For instance, to instill courage in someone, we present them with opportunities to overcome fears and discuss how overcoming fear can help them achieve their goals. In so doing, we are drawing their attention to their courage: they must consider how courageous they are and realize they are working to become more so. The same strategy cannot work for intellectual humility.

Instilling this virtue faces two problems due the nature of intellectual humility. Intellectual humility is a virtue of attention. To be intellectually humble is to not (overly) attend to what is impressive or praiseworthy about yourself and to attend to what is impressive or praiseworthy in others. This is precisely why bragging is antithetical to humility, since you must be paying attention to what is impressive about yourself in order to brag about it. So, we can’t get people to become more intellectually humble by asking them to attend to their own intellectual humility. Otherwise, people could go around rightly saying, “I’m so humble.” They (typically) can’t. That’s bragging, and the intellectually humble don’t (usually) brag, even about their own humility. So, the first problem is: how do we get people to become more intellectually humble without counterproductively thinking about their own humility?

The second problem has to do with motivation. Being intellectually humble is advantageous. So, someone might be tempted to be intellectually humble (or at least outwardly appear so) in order to reap those benefits. The catch is that if someone is strategically acting humbly for the benefits, that person isn’t genuinely humble. Humble people act modestly—abstaining from bragging, demurring when praised—because they are not attending to what’s praiseworthy or impressive about themselves. Even when something praiseworthy is pointed out to them by others, the humble pay it no mind. Strategically-motivated, outwardly-modest behavior on the other hand looks the same as genuinely humble behavior but is psychologically distinct; it’s false modesty without true humility. Such people must attend to their own praiseworthiness, in order to know precisely when and how not to seem to care about it. So, the second problem in training people in intellectual humility is that genuine humility looks a lot like false modesty. So how are we to discourage fakers if we want people to have the real virtue?

Because of the first problem, intellectual humility is not a virtue that can be directly trained; it can only be instilled indirectly by encouraging related traits and discouraging its opposing vices. For instance, we should teach people not to brag about themselves. Likewise, it would do well to encourage people not to seek the praise of others. When praise is given, it should be kindly accepted, not dwelt upon, and returned. Since humility is not only not attending to one’s own praiseworthiness but also noticing what is laudable in others, encouraging and rewarding praise of others would go a long way. If someone learns to notice, appreciate, and compliment that which is commendable in others, she can learn that her own traits or accomplishments are not as impressive. This realization can in turn prompt her to pay less attention to her own impressiveness.

Of course, given the second problem, all of these behaviors can be faked. People can learn to strategically praise others and not to brag, while actually thinking themselves to be the more praiseworthy. People can look open-minded even if they aren’t. So, to instill intellectual humility, we also need the means for discouraging false modesty and spotting fakers when they arise. The point is to make false modesty too hard, too costly, or too risky to be strategically worthwhile.

The first response to this problem is not to extoll the benefits of intellectual humility, at least not as a method for encouraging the formation of this character trait. It is more likely to encourage strategic false modesty instead. A recent story in the Washington Post, for instance, summarized many recent empirical studies of humility and the benefits reported. The clear, implied message is that the reader would do well to be humble too in order to reap these benefits. This approach is lamentably counterproductive.

Instead of encouraging strategic faking of humility, a more effective method would be to discourage people from faking it. One possible, but non-ideal, means would be to develop complex rituals or patterns of behavior to exhibit humility. If, for instance, cultural norms are built up such that the truly humble will typically exhibit a pattern of behavior that places high demands on them (in terms of time or money, for instance), then others would be less inclined to fake humility. The cost-benefit ratio would be tipped to make faking humility less worthwhile. That said, this approach is less than ideal, as it does place a burden on the truly virtuous. It might actually discourage genuine humility.

A better approach would be to evoke observable, behavioral differences between the truly humble and the merely falsely modest. For example, those with intellectual humility are typically more open-minded and receptive to feedback. Those faking humility will appear receptive, look like they are listening, but usually put less stock in that feedback. So, the more often feedback is given and then we test to see if that feedback was received, the greater our ability to differentiate between the truly humble and the falsely modest. We can then reward the former, and perhaps punish the latter. To clarify though, being intellectual humble does not mean that one always changes one’s mind or defers to feedback, but it does require being open to it, to considering it. If we examine how often people revise their own views or behaviors in response to feedback, we should see a difference between the humble and the fakers. In a university setting for instance, we could encourage intellectual humility by not only providing feedback on assignments or exams, but also by then offering opportunities for revision and grade improvement based on that feedback.

Encouraging the development of intellectual humility is no easy task. But by carefully attending to what it is and how to prompt its inculcation indirectly, we can help people to not pay attention to precisely what it would be best they not attend to, namely their own humility.


Image from Pixabay under CC0 license