University of Southampton

Intellectual Arrogance and Humility: An Evolutionary-Circumplex Account

Aiden P. Gregg



Pascal famously asserted that man is a feeble reed but a thinking one. Otherwise expressed, human beings, rooted in nature, are shaped by their evolutionary heritage, yet thanks to their rational capacities, they can partly transcend it too. In particular, they can explicitly apprehend aspects of reality. However, implicit biases, some motivational, compromise that apprehension.One such bias is intellectual arrogance (IA). We define it as the natural but ignoble inclination to regard conclusions as true merely because they are one’s own. Intellectual humility (IH), conversely, is the cultivated and noble disinclination to do so.

At the most global level of analysis, what factors promote IA or IH? We seek to answer this question in terms of the agency-communion circumplex. By locating IA and IH within this circumplex, we can coherently relate them to a diversity of existing empirical findings.

This circumplex has two independent dimensions that span multiple levels of analysis: agency—encompassing social status, self-perceived competence, and behavioral dominance (i.e., “getting ahead”); and communion—encompassing social inclusion, self- perceived warmth, and behavioral friendliness (i.e., “getting along”).

Our key hypothesis is this: high agency and low communion will promote IA, whereas low agency and high communion will promote IH.

Here’s our evolutionary rationale. IA fundamentally involves competition: moving against the world and others, and positioning oneself above both (i.e., low-communion / high-agency). In contrast, IH fundamentally involves cooperation: moving towards other people, and positioning oneself below both (i.e., high-communion / low-agency).

Such strategies manifest themselves epistemically and pragmatically. When reasoning, people high in IA reject truth and seek to distort it presumptuously whereas those high in IH embrace truth and seek to receive it humbly. When arguing, people high in IA clash with others and seek to dictate opinion, whereas those high in IH engage with others and seek to negotiate consensus.

The underlying reason is this: people high in IA exhibit more mental materialism— they jealously regard their conclusions as personal property—and ideological territoriality— they are keen to defend or propagate their conclusions aggressively. Such evolutionary throwbacks are virtuously resisted by people high in IH.

We propose a logical sequence of mutually reinforcing studies to test our account.

Two online studies will assess agency and communion at multiple levels, to test hypothesized correlational links. Two laboratory studies will then independently manipulate agency and communion, across multiple levels simultaneously, to test hypothesized causal links.

For completeness, we will operationalize IA and IH in multiple ways across studies, to capture both their epistemic and pragmatic manifestations, and to ensure both construct and ecological validity.

For example, one conceptually exact operationalization will quantify how likely participants are to judge a novel conclusion to be true when they imagine it to be theirs rather than someone else’s. Another plausibly real-world operationalization will quantify the extent to participants’ prior beliefs irrationally predict their evaluation of both argument cogency and advocate disposition.

Thus, our proposed research will empirically test whether social psychological factors, specified by an evolutionary account, predict IA and IH.