Cornell University

Cognitive Habits of Intellectual Humility

David Alan Dunning



The proposed research begins with the premise that people are largely unaware of the boundary line where their knowledge ends and their ignorance begins. As a consequence, they frequently step into error with little awareness of it. They commit intellectual arrogance, holding false beliefs with a confidence and tenacity that is unwarranted.

Thus, the main challenge of an intellectually humble life is to guard against stepping over that line by striving to avoid the error in the first place.

In the proposal, I study cognitive habits that either can hasten or prevent people from stepping into unrecognized error. The research literature on schizophrenic delusion provides some well-researched clues about what those habits may be. Schizophrenia spectrum patients who suffer from delusions tend to display two cognitive habits that differ from peers who resist delusion. First, they jump to conclusions (showing a JTC bias), reaching confident judgments and decisions quickly and prematurely, based on scant evidence. Second, they refuse to revise their initial judgments in the face of disconfirming evidence (a bias against disconfirming evidence, or BADE).

In 11 studies, I intend to examine JTC and BADE biases in the general population, with three aims in mind. First, I examine whether JTC and BADE biases predict who is most likely to commit unwitting reasoning errors, ones that they hold with confidence. Will those exhibiting these biases be the ones who let intuitive impulses cause them to err on reasoning questions, or let their everyday knowledge interfere with strict logical reasoning? Will those exhibiting JTC and BADE biases be most likely to be influenced by irrelevant “anchors” in their environments, and most likely to influenced too much by the first few pieces of information they receive? Will those exhibiting these biases show the greatest likelihood of claiming knowledge of topics they can no nothing about because these topics do not exist? Will they harbor beliefs that are implausible or impossible, much like those who suffer from schizophrenic delusion do?

Second, I will examine whether individuals exhibiting JTC and BADE biases will be the ones most resistant to advice and correction from other people. Will they discount input from others, thus causing their judgments to decrease in accuracy? Will they resist feedback about the correct answer to difficult reasoning problems?

Third, I will ask whether people can be trained to avoid these biases. Adapting materials currently used to improve the reasoning of schizophrenia patients, we will create training programs aimed at prompting the general public to avoid making snap judgments, as well as to give weight to disconfirming evidence. Will training people toward better intellectual habits help them lead more intellectually humble lives, in which they reach more reasonable judgments because they are more successful at avoiding error?

Taken together, the proposed research aims at exposing general reasoning habits that lead toward error and away from intellectual humility. It aims at adding to the psychological research literature on self-knowledge and reasoning, providing practitioners with potential innovative strategies they can use to improve human reasoning.