For a modest personality trait, 'intellectual humility' packs a punch

March 17, 2017, Duke University

With new research, the modest personality trait of 'intellectual humility' finally gets its moment in the spotlight. Credit: Jonathan Fuller
"Intellectual humility" has been something of a wallflower among personality traits, receiving far less scholarly attention than such brash qualities as egotism or hostility. Yet this little-studied characteristic may influence people's decision-making abilities in politics, health and other arenas, says new research from Duke University.

In a time of high partisanship, - an awareness that one's beliefs may be wrong - is nonpartisan. Researchers measured levels of the trait, and found essentially no difference between liberals and conservatives or between religious and nonreligious people.

"There are stereotypes about conservatives and religiously conservative people being less intellectually humble about their beliefs," said lead author Mark Leary, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke. "We didn't find a shred of evidence to support that."

As defined by the authors, intellectual humility is the opposite of intellectual arrogance or conceit. In common parlance, it resembles open-mindedness. Intellectually can have strong beliefs, but recognize their fallibility and are willing to be proven wrong on matters large and small, Leary said.

The researchers, whose work is featured in the March 15 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, conducted four separate studies to measure the trait and learn more about how it functions. In one study, participants read essays arguing for and against religion, and were then asked about each author's personality. After reading an essay with which they disagreed, intellectually arrogant people gave the writer low scores in morality, honesty, competence and warmth. By contrast, intellectually humble people were less likely to judge a writer's character based on his or her views.

People who displayed intellectual humility also did a better job evaluating the quality of evidence—even in mundane matters. For instance, when presented with arguments about the benefits of flossing, intellectually humble people correctly distinguished strong, fact-based arguments from weak ones.

The characteristic also affected people's views on politicians who "flip-flop." Intellectually humble Republicans were more likely than other Republicans to say that they would vote for a politician whose position on an issue changed over time, due to new evidence. They were also less likely to criticize that politician for "flip-flopping." There was less variability among Democrats: Democrats, whether intellectually arrogant or humble, were generally less likely to criticize a politician for changing his mind.

Leary said intellectual humility bears further examination.

"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," Leary said. "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."

The quality has potential benefits in the business world, too, he said.

"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," Leary said. "Yet we know that good leadership requires broadness of perspective and taking as many perspectives into account as possible."

Leary and his co-authors suggest that intellectual humility is a quality that could be encouraged and taught. And some of their colleagues hope to do just that. Leary's team worked in collaboration with other psychologists and philosophers to refine their studies. One of those philosophers helped launch a charter school in California, the Intellectual Virtues Academy of Long Beach, aimed at promoting qualities such as intellectual humility.

Leary applauds the effort.

"Not being afraid of being wrong - that's a value, and I think it is a value we could promote," he said. "I think if everyone was a bit more intellectually humble we'd all get along better, we'd be less frustrated with each other."

Explore further: People with higher 'intellectual arrogance' get better grades, study finds

More information: "Cognitive and Interpersonal Features of Intellectual Humility," Mark R. Leary, Kate J. Diebels, Erin K. Davisson, Katrina P. Jongman-Sereno, Jennifer C. Isherwood, Kaitlin T. Raimi, Samantha A. Deffler and Rick H. Hoyle. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, March 17, 2017. DOI: 10.1177/0146167217697695

Related Stories

People with higher 'intellectual arrogance' get better grades, study finds

October 6, 2015
People who think they know it all—or at least, a lot—may be on to something, according to a Baylor University study.

Research shows E.B. White was right in Charlotte's Web

December 18, 2014
Before Charlotte the spider spelled the word "humble" in her web to describe Wilbur the pig, she told Templeton the rat that the word meant "not proud."

Humble people are more likely to lend a helping hand, study finds

January 2, 2012
Humble people are more likely to offer time to someone in need than arrogant people are, according to findings by Baylor University researchers published online in the Journal of Positive Psychology.

Researchers link willingness to apologize with conscientiousness

March 26, 2015
We were all taught to say it in the playground and everyone learnt later to always say it to our spouses but it seems people with particular personality traits are more willing to actually apologise when they transgress.

Recommended for you

What social stress in monkeys can tell us about human health

December 11, 2018
Research in recent years has linked a person's physical or social environment to their well-being. Stress wears down the body and compromises the immune system, leaving a person more vulnerable to illnesses and other conditions. ...

Trying to get people to agree? Skip the French restaurant and go out for Chinese food

December 11, 2018
Here's a new negotiating tactic: enjoy a family-style meal with your counterpart before making your opening bid.

The richer the reward, the faster you'll likely move to reach it, study shows

December 11, 2018
If you are wondering how long you personally are willing to stand in line to buy that hot new holiday gift, scientists at Johns Hopkins Medicine say the answer may be found in the biological rules governing how animals typically ...

Using neurofeedback to prevent PTSD in soldiers

December 11, 2018
A team of researchers from Israel, the U.S. and the U.K. has found that using neurofeedback could prevent soldiers from experiencing PTSD after engaging in emotionally difficult situations. In their paper published in the ...

Receiving genetic information can change risk

December 11, 2018
Millions of people in the United States alone have submitted their DNA for analysis and received information that not only predicts their risk for disease but, it turns out, in some cases might also have influenced that risk, ...

You make decisions quicker and based on less information than you think

December 11, 2018
We live in an age of information. In theory, we can learn everything about anyone or anything at the touch of a button. All this information should allow us to make super-informed, data-driven decisions all the time.

3 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

LaPortaMA
not rated yet Mar 17, 2017
It does not need or want your "attention."
Telekinetic
not rated yet Mar 17, 2017
There's also a dishonest trait that some display called "false humility". Blowhards and obnoxiously opinionated people are really the more honest among us.
TrollBane
not rated yet Mar 19, 2017
"Blowhards and obnoxiously opinionated people are really the more honest among us." Too bad for you that there's nobody like that posting here. /sarcasm

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.