When we think of someone’s defining characteristics, we tend to think about how confident, kind, and extrovert/introvert they are. But according to a new study, a trait which has flown largely under the radar — intellectual humility — might pack a big punch.

It’s pretty safe to say that intellectual humility is not a trait that defines the current US president. Image credits: Gage Skidmore.

Intellectual humility is described as an intellectual virtue, contrasting to pride and arrogance, but really, how often do we think about it? As defined by the authors, intellectual humility is the opposite of intellectual arrogance, having a lot in common with open mindedness. Intellectually humble people can also have strong opinions on something, and they don’t necessarily have to be humble in other circumstances. Basically, this trait shows how like you are to accept that you might be wrong when faced with evidence. Based on personal experience, it’s a trait that flies high and rare these days.

Interestingly, researchers found no defining social trait that influences intellectual humility. It doesn’t matter if you’re religious or not, if you’re a liberal or a conservative — the odds are just as good to be blinded by your own beliefs.

“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.”

Fake news

In case you haven’t figured it out by now, being intellectually humble means that you’re much more likely to progress as a human being. If you’re willing to adapt your opinions and beliefs based on hardcore evidence, then you’re likely going to become a better person. If you’re never giving up on your ideas and you’re never willing to accept other proof, you’re not really going places. Leary and his team showed that people who display intellectual humility do a much better job at discerning the quality of evidence — even in mundane topics. For instance, they presented participants with arguments about the benefits of flossing, and the intellectually humble did a much better job at weeding out the falsehoods.

In the time of fake news and alternative facts this ability is crucial. How often does it feel that the different sides of an argument are each trapped in their own bubble, unable or unwilling to accept arguments from the other side(s), even when backed up by evidence? Today, it could be flossing, but tomorrow it could be something much more important.

“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.”

How likely are you to change your ideas based on evidence? Honestly. Image in Public Domain.

Of course, the importance of this study isn’t only relevant to our daily squabbles and high-level politicians. We all know the boss who is intellectually arrogant and doesn’t want to accept ideas from others. We all know the teacher who downplays children’s creativity because it doesn’t suits his own ideas. In pretty much every aspect of day to day life in which you communicate with others, or just digest information by yourself, intellectual humility plays a role. This is why authors suggest that this is a trait that should be taught and encouraged, like selflessness and courage.

“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.”

Journal Reference: “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.

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