Until recently, "intellectual humility" had been a personality characteristic that hadn’t received much scholarly or media attention. This is beginning to change. A trailblazing new study from Duke University highlights the potential power of intellectual humility to increase open-mindedness and minimize partisanship.
The new Duke findings on the cognitive and interpersonal powers of intellectual humility were published online ahead of print March 17 in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. The study was led by Mark Leary, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke. He and his colleagues define "intellectual humility" most simply as the opposite of "intellectual arrogance" or conceit.
A 2016 report, “Distinguishing Intellectual Humility and General Humility,” published in the Journal of Positive Psychology, offers a more detailed description of the notable characteristics of intellectual humility (IH) as a subdomain of general humility (GH). The researchers concluded that general humility involves an accurate view of self, and the ability to regulate egotism and to cultivate an other-oriented stance. Intellectual humility traits include having an accurate view of one’s intellectual strengths and limitations along with the ability to negotiate ideas in a fair and inoffensive manner.
This Duke research was supported by a grant from the Templeton Foundation as part of the foundation's ongoing "Humble Approach Initiative." John Templeton (1912-2008) made billions on Wall Street and then became a philanthropist. After amassing his fortune, Templeton continued to live a simple life, avoided conspicuous consumption, and never put a premium on materialism. He was known for a neverending curiosity and an iconoclastic tendency to avoid herd-like thinking.
In the late 20th century, Templeton identified the importance of researching and promoting humility. In 1981, he self-published The Humble Approach (Templeton Books) which laid the groundwork for his foundation, which sponsored the Duke study on intellectual humility.
When it came to intellectual humility, Templeton practiced what he preached, especially when it came to theological views. He was eager and open to learning new things from both the worlds of science and faith. As he told the Washington Post:
“I grew up as a Presbyterian. Presbyterians thought the Methodists were wrong. Catholics thought all Protestants were wrong. The Jews thought the Christians were wrong. So, what I’m financing is humility. I want people to realize that you shouldn’t think you know it all.”
“Intellectually humble people can have strong beliefs, but recognize their fallibility, and are willing to be proven wrong on matters large and small. In common parlance, it resembles open-mindedness.
"There are stereotypes about conservatives and religiously conservative people being less intellectually humble about their beliefs. We didn't find a shred of evidence to support that."
After Leary et al. developed a scale for measuring the intellectual humility trait, they found no significant difference between liberals and conservatives or between religious and nonreligious people on the "intellectual humility scale."
The best news about the new research: The team concluded that intellectual humility and open-mindedness can be encouraged and taught. Ultimately, a willingness to accept that one's beliefs may be uniform is a nonpartisan or religious-based issue. In his statement to Duke, Leary points out:
"If you think about what's been wrong in Washington for a long time, it's a whole lot of people who are very intellectually arrogant about the positions they have, on both sides of the aisle.
"But even in interpersonal relationships, the minor squabbles we have with our friends, lovers and coworkers are often about relatively trivial things where we are convinced that our view of the world is correct and their view is wrong."
Hillary Clinton inadvertently touched on the core tenets of intellectual humility in a St. Patrick’s Day speech to the Society of Irish Women in her late father’s hometown of Scranton, Pennsylvania. During her uplifting speech, Clinton recalled how, as FLOTUS, she had met with female leaders working to bring peace to Northern Ireland. At the time, she urged those women, as leaders of the divided country, to work together to solve the nation's problems. She continued:
"I'm like a lot of my friends right now, I have a hard time watching the news. What can we do to try to bring people together and to try to find that common ground, even higher ground ... so that we listen to each other again and know that we can make a difference? I'm not sure it will come out of Washington yet. But I think it can come out of Scranton. Let's find ways to do that.”
In a self-referential joke to a viral photo of herself walking her dogs in the woods around her house in Chappaqua, a few days after losing the election to Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton said there were points during that period that she wanted to stay in the woods. "But you can only do so much of that," Clinton quipped. Then HRC said:
"I am ready to come out of the woods and to help shine a light on what is already happening around kitchen tables, at dinners like this, to help draw strength that will enable everybody to keep going.
"I do not believe that we can let political divides harden into personal divides. And we can't just ignore or turn a cold shoulder to someone because they disagree with us politically.”
The latest empirical evidence from Duke suggests that, in order to foster intellectual humility, each of us must be willing to express ourselves freely and have the open-mindedness to listen to other people's points of view.
Although having an honest and equanimous dialogue with colleagues, friends, family, and strangers with radically different opinions than your own can be nerve-racking, it is also eye-opening and imperative for your long-term intellectual enrichment.
Mark R. Leary, Kate J. Diebels, Erin K. Davisson, Katrina P. Jongman-Sereno, Jennifer C. Isherwood, Kaitlin T. Raimi, Samantha A. Deffler, Rick H. Hoyle. Cognitive and Interpersonal Features of Intellectual Humility. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 2017; 014616721769769 DOI: 10.1177/0146167217697695
Don E. Davis, Kenneth Rice, Stacey McElroy, Cirleen DeBlaere, Elise Choe, Daryl R. Van Tongeren & Joshua N. Hook (2015): Distinguishing intellectual humility and general humility, The Journal of Positive Psychology, DOI: 10.1080/17439760.2015.1048818
Kross, Ethan, and Igor Grossmann. "Boosting wisdom: distance from the self enhances wise reasoning, attitudes, and behavior." Journal of Experimental Psychology. (2012) DOI: doi: 10.1037/a0024158