The functional utility of intellectual humanity in a polarized world

Only in the past decade or so have social scientists seriously studied intellectual humility as a virtue that might counter problems with this alarming social trend toward division

Colonel Jessup—you may not remember the name, but some of you will know whom we are talking about. He is the fictional character played by Jack Nicholson in the 1992 movie A Few Good Men. Even after the plot is long forgotten, many still remember one of the most famous lines in movie history uttered by Jessup in the climactic moment of the trial— “You can’t handle the truth”—regarding the death of a young Marine. All he had to do was stick to the script of the coverup, but the JAG lawyer goaded him into incriminating himself with a barrage of questions that questioned his authority and good judgment. Instead of discipline and restraint, Jessup loses all perspective, yells, “You want answers? You can’t handle the truth!” and then proceeds to give testimony that is tantamount to a confession. He felt so vindicated by expressing anger that he described the details of his involvement in harsh military training practices that seriously injured and ultimately killed a young cadet.

This story is a pure expression of arrogance. Jessup was unwilling to acknowledge his own limitations as a military leader, and he was unable to admit his preoccupation with status that reflected a misguided pride. He held a sense of moral and intellectual superiority over others. In his mind, only he was able to see the true nature of reality and practice good judgment. Of course, ironically, this stance isolated him and made it difficult for him to make corrections as he careened off track. The movie chronicles the negative influence that Jessup’s intellectual arrogance had on those he was entrusted to lead. Even the most novice observer of human behaviour will identify Jessup as someone who sorely lacks intellectual humility. Although few of us are as intellectually arrogant as Jessup, the lack of intellectual humility in any of us may result in serious social consequences.

In the October 2022 issue of Open Access Government, I (PCH) introduced the efforts of an interdisciplinary research team that has received generous funding from the John Templeton Foundation to study intellectual humility (IH). There it was suggested that what divides societies at both the macro level (e.g., political and religious conflicts) and micro level (e.g., conflict among families and friends) is not the media or political structures per se but rather a more basic vulnerability of the human mind. Changes in technology and society merely exploit this propensity for bias. What, if anything, can the science of IH offer to help us understand the social psychological dynamics that lead to factions and division?

Only in the past decade or so have social scientists seriously studied intellectual humility as a virtue that might counter problems with this alarming social trend toward division. This neglect is surprising given that social psychologists have, for decades, documented problems with selfish biases. Examples include the better-than-average effect, which suggests that most Westerners suffer from a “superiority complex,” in which they assess their abilities as better than average. In one study, even when drivers were at fault in a recent accident, they still rated themselves as better than the average driver. Of course, people are smart about it. They know they are not in the 99th percentile in most things (unless they really excel at a specific skill, such as Pavarotti or Tom Brady), so they often rate themselves around the 70th percentile. Most Americans apply a heuristic in which they assume a baseline of being somewhat better than everyone else at most things—a nice ego boost. Consider other self-enhancing biases, such as the overconfidence effect (i.e., the tendency to be more confident in our judgments than what is merited), the false-consensus effect (i.e., the tendency to overestimate how much others agree with our opinions or ideas), and the spotlight effect (i.e., the tendency to overestimate how much others think about us). We could go on and on, but you get the idea.

A weakness of human nature is that we tend to assume we are the standard of reality. Almost by definition, we see our beliefs, values, and worldview as correct and the beliefs and values of others as needing correcting. To judge bias, we merely compare others to the ideal of our own point of view. In this way, we bet on ourselves—our epistemic authority— sometimes even to our own detriment. The story of Colonel Jessup is the story of leadership in the modern age. If humans are prone to selfish biases, then leaders have the potential to compound such errors at the institutional level. After all, most people are picked for leadership because of their prior history of competence. However, at some point in every leader’s career, they will hit a ceiling if they do not temper achievement and performance with humility—the ability to recognize one’s limitations and capabilities and honour the contributions and perspectives of others.

High Hopes for Intellectual Humility

The field has high hopes for the scientific study and application of intellectual humility. IH is the expression of humility around beliefs and ideas, and we anticipate that IH can help with some of the big, intractable problems we see in society such as political polarization, replication problems in social science, or poor judgment in leaders across industries. The mistakes people often make seem to relate to too much arrogance or deference. Maybe if other people were more intellectually (or even generally) humble, the world would be a better place.

Consider a few examples. Maybe IH could help with political polarization found in the US and many other parts of the world. Leaders need principles and commitment to rally a group, but could government leaders and political parties somewhat moderate their discourse to make more room for differences in opinions?

What about the world of business?

Trends such as global competition, information-based economies, and technological innovation make the workplace increasingly uncertain and interdependent. Perhaps IH could help leaders accurately see their limitations, as well as the strengths of others, so teams could make better and more sound decisions. No one likes to work for a know-it-all, right?

Or consider the university context where we work. Surely, we can agree that we should deal swiftly with any biases that might undermine the public’s trust in us, right? Wouldn’t the university work better if professors were less motivated by status (e.g., number of publications listed, grant funding dollars, or accolades of peer institutions or individuals) and more by the pure pursuit of truth and betterment of humankind? Maybe we need to remind people to focus on the big picture of the greater good and the quest for truth.

Some Reasons for Hope

Social scientists aren’t using a thin veneer of optimism to think IH might help the cause. Humility in general, has been linked to a variety of benefits to physical health, mental health, relationships, and spirituality. There is an emerging literature specifically on IH that suggests it too is similarly associated with such benefits. In one study, data from a nationally representative sample of adults found that the magnitude of the negative relationship between stressful life events and four measures of well-being (i.e., happiness, life satisfaction, depressed affect, and generalized anxiety disorder) is reduced among people who are humble when compared to their less humble counterparts. Although correlation does not imply causation, the team suggested five hypotheses for why humility, including IH, might function as a stress buster:

  • Humble people accept social support more readily because they are open to new ideas and advice.
  • Humble people develop a greater appreciation for the value of things in life that go beyond the self.
  • Humble people appear to be more interpersonally adept, being willing to admit personal mistakes and thus allowing them to deal more effectively with the stress of an interpersonal nature.
  • Humble people tend to have a more secure and accepting identity because they are aware of their own strengths and limitations.
  • People who are humble are more likely to forgive themselves over time since they recognize that all people, including themselves, are flawed.

There are also benefits to humility, including IH, for relationships, especially within leadership contexts. Intellectually humble leaders appreciate the strengths of others, are more teachable and are more likely to see things from different perspectives. They are able to build strong relationships across cultural differences. People prefer humble people, both intellectual and otherwise, as partners, whether it be for romance, business, or any other endeavour (except one study found that military cadets on the front line prefer a stronger dose of extremely confident leaders). In short, humility helps us not only form new relationships but also enjoy (i.e., satisfaction, functioning), maintain (i.e., commitment), and repair (i.e., forgiveness) our relationships.

Why does IH help improve relationships?

Here are two initial ideas that have been supported by research. First, IH may help people develop a social bond—people are more likely to feel connected to and support a leader if they judge the leader to be intellectually humble. Second, IH may serve as a social oil that helps buffer the frictional wear and tear on social relationships due to differing perspectives. The simple act of respectfully giving “voice” to others greases the social machinery of a relationship or group.

Turning Intellectual Humility Upside Down

We hope that IH can help with many of the social problems we see in the world. However, in the spirit of IH, we must admit that we may have it backwards. Earlier, we described the “better than average” effect found across studies of Westerners. Just like people see themselves as better than average at most things, they also might see themselves as better than average at humility. Humility is one of those virtues that we want other people to practice. Maybe underneath all these problems is the same selfish bias to view other people as “the problem.” Even with something as good as humility, we still think, “Maybe if other people were more humble, the world would be a better place”. To be sure, we want the social benefits of humility without the personal cost of being humble.

This could be a big problem. People may want other people to be more intellectually humble, but it may be harder to convince others to work on IH themselves in a culture that likes their coffee and leaders strong. It just feels so good to be right! Who wants to join together with a bunch of losers, waffling around and talking about their weaknesses? Instead, people may want someone who makes them feel good about themselves and grounded in their view of the world. After all, we already have enough uncertainty to deal with.

Even if we can deal with the humility marketing problem (selling something people don’t value, at least for themselves), we have other problems. We have evidence that humility is associated with benefits, but we still face the challenge of how to link IH to the larger and collective problems that we hope it can fix. How might IH play a role in how people and communities make decisions within their spheres of influence?

Buckle Up for the Science of Intellectual Humility

We are only just now learning how IH might apply to the context of exchanging ideas for decisions that matter. In this context, IH involves extending horizons—and one way to do that is with questions. Sir John Templeton (whose generosity funds our research through the John Templeton Foundation) once said, “How little we know, how much to learn.” This focuses our mind on not what is known but the vast expanse of what we do not know and, therefore, need to learn. So, in that spirit, here are some of the key questions that we think will allow us to explore the benefits of humility, as well as how it works. If we want to develop interventions that will help people practice intellectual humility, we will have to begin to answer these questions.

What is Intellectual Humility, and How is It Applied to Everyday Living?

For someone to practice IH, they must know what it is. What does it mean to express humility during the exchange of ideas on decisions that matter to people’s lives? If humility involves motivation to adjust for selfish biases in the name of an accurate view of oneself, then IH involves awareness of the limitations of one’s perspective (i.e., beliefs, values, worldview), as well as a willingness to own (i.e., make appropriate adjustments to) these limitations or biases. Imagine a golfer with a consistent slice. To begin to correct the problem, the player must see the pattern. Then, the player will need insight—almost always from an external source (see literature on expertise development)—to understand the tendencies that led to the problem and the kinds of behaviours that would lead to a more accurate shot. Finally, the player must invest time and energy to form new habits to replace the old learning so that, even under duress, the new behaviour will occur more often than the behaviour that put the ball in the trees, sand, or water.

What are Some Intellectual Humility Deep Fakes?

Perhaps just as important, we must also teach people what IH isn’t. Humility is a form of trustworthy behaviour. The theory of humility suggests it is especially important when someone has the power to exploit a relationship, such as leadership. Humans think internally as part of a process to prepare to exchange ideas with others. IH is particularly important for curbing our tendencies to reason in ways that involve mental shortcuts that are sometimes sloppy, self-serving, and biased. We have all experienced conflict with someone who absolutely refused to see anything other than their side of the story. This is quite common. For example, in one study, people were asked to read a story about an offence. One group was asked to read as though they were the victim. The other group was asked to read as if they were the offender. Across the sample, people’s accounting and even memory of the story were biased, based on their point of view—and this is for an offence that was not their own! Imagine how potent this is for actual offences. This is a common problem that has the potential to lead to catastrophic consequences for relationships, families, and larger systems. To address some of the larger problems in society, we need people at all levels of influence to take responsibility to make trustworthy decisions that align with reality rather than ego. We know that sometimes people will take shortcuts to seem trustworthy without being trustworthy, so what are humility deep fakes?

One deep fake is the deferring person (some call this intellectual servility). True humility involves a deep intrinsic concern for accurate knowledge, so one should be able to rely on a well-thought-out conclusion that seems right. IH does not mean one must lack conviction or be wishy-washy. If people confuse IH with relinquishing their beliefs, values, or worldview, then it would be difficult for any community to form the grounds for trust, because people might often change their minds on promises and commitments. An intellectually humble person tempers commitments with a concern for knowledge, which requires curiosity and flexibility to work through defensive reactions so that one fully benefits from feedback from others. Such balancing requires a secure sense of what one believes that avoids too much arrogance or too much servility. The intellectually humble person remains curious and flexible but also grounded. Commitment is good for relationships, and we need leaders to make and keep their intellectual commitments. However, we also need leaders to innovatively develop and nuance their commitments as new information becomes available.

A second deep fake involves creeping moral amplification or sacralization. Although a virtuous IH does not imply we should change our minds about everything, we should still be open to changing our mind on some things. Although a person may be resolute against revision on certain moral topics, it is problematic if every contentious issue is granted such moral status, thereby making it impossible to consider counterevidence. This may be especially true when the issue involves systemic opinions, that are often the case in politics and religion. For example, some individuals assign special moral status to many different types of beliefs and attitudes associated with a particular religious denomination or political party, making it difficult to engage with anyone who believes differently.

A third deep fake involves rearranging prejudices—appearing to change one’s mind by simply reorganizing one’s contempt for others along a new axis. William James observed that “A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices.” Moving from an aggressive political conservative who despises Democrats to an outspoken political liberal who abhors Republications is not a manifestation of humility; it is simply shifting the target of one’s vitriol. True IH requires empathy to understand and appreciate other people’s perspectives, not merely ensuring one has “joined the right team.”

In contrast to these humility deep fakes, IH involves people using their authority to make decisions that align with an orientation towards accuracy rather than bending their ideas to protect their own ego through seeking to convince or persuade. It places a value on learning and conversation rather than wanting to be right. There may be times when persuasion is appropriate, but that is not the default motivation of IH. Rather, it is through the overriding concern for knowledge that three primary components of IH can be identified: a willingness to (a) hold beliefs tentatively to the extent that one is willing to revise one’s perspective given a convincing reason to do so; (b) undertake critical scrutiny of one’s perspective, including a balanced consideration of evidence that both supports and refutes one’s perspective; and (c) acknowledge that equally sincere, capable, and knowledgeable individuals may reasonably hold differing views from one’s own.

How Do We Know if Someone is Really Humble?

In many interventions, an early step is to help people assess themselves. How do we give people accurate feedback on where they are, right now? Given that most people think IH is a good trait to have, is there a tendency for people to overestimate their level of possession of such a good thing? Possibly so, and this has been a measurement concern because most measures rely on self-evaluative reports. As a result, researchers are developing other measures, such as informant ratings (asking others to rate us) and behavioral measures. Still, self-reports are a staple measurement tool. Fortunately, the consistency of results based on a substantial cadre of creative self-report measures that get at different aspects of what it is to be intellectually humble gives the field confidence that we are accurately tapping IH through self-reports.

When Should People Refuse to Change their Minds?

People wanting to practice IH will still want us to honor their most cherished convictions—or at least their right to hold them. This involves a fundamental respect for autonomy, and it would be potentially coercive to imply otherwise. The intellectually humble person can hold strong beliefs with conviction and still be humble. Perhaps most telling are beliefs with strong moral implications. A good example comes from philosopher Jason Baehr in a column written for students at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. As a strong proponent of humility as an intellectual virtue, Baehr makes a convincing case that some beliefs and opinions must be held. The example he provides is his views against white supremacy. His recommendation on how an intellectually humble person can maintain a conviction about the fundamental moral equality of all persons yet respectfully engage in a discussion with someone who maintains what he or she views to be a morally reprehensible perspective is powerful. Instead of turning his back and repudiating the individual, the person might say something like (and now we quote from Baehr):

I disagree with you in the strongest possible terms. I am not open to being convinced by your position. However, neither am I willing to dismiss you as a person, indeed, I suspect I have something worthwhile to learn by getting to know more about your story and how you’ve come to see the world as you do. If you are willing, even temporarily, to set aside the beliefs in question and talk with me about who you are and where you are coming from, I am willing to do the same with you. I am open to the possibility that through such a conversation we might be able to identify some common ground between us.

What are the Costs of Intellectual Humility?

If we want people to practice IH, we must warn them of potential costs. Although IH clearly has positive implications for both individuals and society, no dispositional quality is exempt from its own particular liabilities. Even the genuinely humble person is not free of bias and may lean too far in the direction of either self-abnegation or self-promotion. For example, in recognizing intellectual limitations, one may fail to give proper credence to one’s knowledge or expertise or dismiss feedback about one’s positive intellectual qualities. At this point, research is not clear how accurate one can be in determining a happy medium.

It is also conceivable that an over-emphasis on openness to others and to new ideas could lead to a loss of self-differentiation or the unique characteristics and ideas that distinguish oneself from another. Furthermore, as predicted by evolutionary game theory, IH may be a liability in social situations where one needs to “get ahead” by competing with other, less humble, individuals. For example, even a simple display of IH might work against someone in a job interview should it be perceived as antithetical to the boldness or strong independence desired by an employer.

Ultimately, however, we suspect that the liabilities of a genuine IH pale in comparison to its benefits. However, empirical research that supports the benefits-to-costs analysis suggested here has not yet been conducted.

What are the Costs of Humility about Existential Issues?

Everyone has beliefs and opinions that, often with good reason, they believe to be correct. Perhaps the most cherished beliefs are those that are connected to worldviews that provide us with systems of meaning and permanence in an uncertain and chaotic world. People are psychologically rewarded for holding such beliefs with conviction and are often unwilling to change them, simply because there is too much at stake. This may be why religion and politics are among the most difficult issues for us to discuss at Thanksgiving dinner.

How should sensitive topics be handled in social discourse? First, it is unlikely that people will change their positions on such topics, at least quickly or easily. If we are honest with ourselves, we all have such convictions. The secular scientist and the religious fundamentalist both have a worldview that provides a lens to see the world as they do. Furthermore, we usually select a social network that rewards us for holding such beliefs. We like to surround ourselves with like-minded people. We should accept the fact that some views will not be changed, but perhaps the moral amplification of such views can be tempered. Second, because change is unlikely, the motivation underlying social discourse on such issues is an extremely important matter. Productive social discourse is far more likely if the motivation to persuade can be replaced by an intellectually humble motivation to understand. Such a motivational focus may help us avoid defensiveness as we humbly hold our deepest convictions while in discussion with those who may just as firmly hold differing views.

Why is it so Hard to be Intellectually Humble?

If intellectual humility is a valued virtue with many payoffs, both for the individual and for society, why do we not see more of it in society? Why are people resistant to holding their beliefs and opinions with a degree of tentativeness? Several reasons can be offered as to why the headwinds are so strong. Many of these reasons have not been tested in the psychological literature and are, therefore, fertile ground for future research.

  • Evolutionary psychology and sociobiology remind us of a natural tendency to self-advance as a carry-over of the harsh demands for self-preservation faced by our hunter-gatherer ancestors.
  • Western societies, with values on wealth and personal status, place high demands on self-promotion, which can serve as incubators of such qualities as narcissism and grandiosity.
  • We fear that we might find out that our cherished beliefs are wrong.
  • The need for certainty is strong. Some research suggests that the non-humble leader comforts and inspires with certitude when people are afraid and need security.
  • We self-select who we associate with, thus creating a heightened sense of bifurcation of “us” versus “them.” Like-minded people reinforce each other.

Moving forward

IH is difficult and challenging, and there are steep hurdles in our biology and society that steer us toward certainty and “doubling down” on our cherished beliefs, attitudes, and opinions. Yet we see the consequences of a lack of IH every single day. Families break down and refuse to talk with one another due to political or religious differences. Progressives and conservatives fail to work together to solve a country’s most pressing and intractable problems. And certainty of belief can lead to dogmatism and extremism, sometimes even leading to violence and destruction. We need IH in our families, neighborhoods, schools, churches, and governments. Our hope is that the science of IH can help us move forward toward that goal.

Funding for the research reported here was generously provided by the John Templeton Foundation (Grant Numbers 60622 and 62265).

Read and download this full ebook here ‘The Functional Utility of Intellectual Humility in a Polarized World’

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