Why intellectual humility is so important

A few years ago the Good Judgement Project concluded that one of the key elements of great forecasting is a sense of intellectual humility.  Despite this rare moment in the spotlight, it remains something of a wallflower among more popular personality traits such as egotism.

A recent study from Duke University reminds us that we should certainly not underestimate this most modest of characteristics.  It’s an especially pleasing site in our era of uber-partisanship, with the researchers finding little noticeable difference between various political groups in terms of humility.

“There are stereotypes about conservatives and religiously conservative people being less intellectually humble about their beliefs,” the authors say. “We didn’t find a shred of evidence to support that.”

Showing some humility

Intellectual humility is characterized by open-mindedness, and whilst exponents can have strong opinions, they also recognize their fallibility and are happy to be proven wrong.

The researchers conducted four distinct experiments to examine the trait in more depth.  For instance, one experiment sought to test whether we assess the character of someone negatively when we disagree with a basic position they take (the intellectually humble do so significantly less than their peers).

The intellectually humble also seem to do better at evaluating evidence.  In one experiment, they were much more effective at determining quality, fact-based arguments from weaker ones.

This carried through to how we view others.  For instance, if a politician changed their opinion in light of new evidence, the intellectually humble would regard that as a strength, whilst others would criticize them for ‘flip-flopping’.

Wide ranging benefits

The benefits of intellectual humility have been proven in the forecasting world, but the authors believe that greater intellectual humility can bring benefits in a great many areas.

“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,” they say. “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.”

It also has significant possibilities in the business world too.

“If you’re sitting around a table at a meeting and the boss is very low in intellectual humility, he or she isn’t going to listen to other people’s suggestions,” they say. “Yet we know that good leadership requires broadness of perspective and taking as many perspectives into account as possible.”

Developing humility

With it being such a desirable quality, the question then is how can such characteristics be developed?  It’s an endeavor the researchers hope to do through their own teaching, and have worked in partnership with psychologists and philosophers to develop courses to this effect.

Suffice to say, it’s a significant challenge to the status quo in education, where students are often judged on the certainty of their beliefs.  Nevertheless, it’s a challenge the team are determined to tackle head on.

“Not being afraid of being wrong – that’s a value, and I think it is a value we could promote,” they conclude. “I think if everyone was a bit more intellectually humble we’d all get along better, we’d be less frustrated with each other.”


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