Intellectual humility is a virtue of the mind. The aim or telos of these kinds of virtues could roughly be described as ‘right thinking.’ When most people think of intellectual humility specifically they are likely to think of something akin to open-mindedness, or a person’s ability to receive input that contradicts their existing opinions or cognitive schemas in some way. There is more to intellectual humility than this, but this is good way to start thinking about the virtue. Intellectual humility is important for many reasons, but anyone who wonders why we need intellectual humility need only look at the deeply polarized state of political discourse in this country. Why are our disagreements so sharp? Surely a little intellectual humility must have some role in helping us formulate compromises, political and otherwise.
Intellectual humility is informed by the less ‘intellectual’ or cognitive parts of our minds. That is, there are many good reasons for us to be thinking about the way that our intellectual life, the habits of our minds, are formed by the emotional and relational aspects of our experience that we’re not necessarily always consciously aware of. Our sense is that relational and emotional problems shape the way that intellectual processes unfold, either viciously or virtuously.
This concept is one thing that our particular research has been directed at. Currently, what we are trying to discover is whether or not we can demonstrate that a person’s attachment/relational style maps on to their epistemic style. Meaning, is a person who has a history of secure attachments to others more likely to be able to assimilate new information in a way that is virtuous? Demonstrating a relational aspect to intellectual humility like this could go a long way to helping us understand what’s happening in these intractable disagreements and would also help us understand what we need to start paying attention to if cultivating these kinds of virtues in our society is something we hope to do—which we hope it is.
The Thrive Center’s Intellectual Humility project team is made up of seven faculty, post-doctoral researchers, graduate student researchers, and staff. Our Pasadena-based team also works closely with researchers from 19 institutions all over the United States and the United Kingdom to conduct our research.
Click on the names of each research team below to be redirected to their abstract & information about their unique contributions to the project.
Known Unknowns or: How we learned to stop worrying about uncertainty and love intellectual humility
Peter L. Samuelson, Fuller School of Psychology, firstname.lastname@example.org
Ian M. Church, St. Louis University, email@example.com
Post-doctoral researchers in the Science of Intellectual Humility Project funded by the John Templeton Foundation.
In two recent articles on the NY Times opinion pages, the term “intellectual humility” has played a central role. As “leading experts” on intellectual humility (we are researchers on a grant from the John Templeton Foundation to study the science of intellectual humility, and probably know more about intellectual humility than anyone else in the world!), our ears naturally perked up.
The first instance was in a column dated Feb. 22, 2014, in which Thomas L. Friedman interviewed Laszlo Bock, the senior vice president of people operations for Google, who claimed “intellectual humility” as one of the most important attributes Google looks for in hiring candidates. Bock went on to characterize intellectual humility in this way:
What we’ve seen is that the people who are the most successful here, who we want to hire, will have a fierce position. They’ll argue like hell. They’ll be zealots about their point of view. But then you say, ‘here’s a new fact,’ and they’ll go, ‘Oh, well, that changes things; you’re right.’
Contrast this conception of intellectual humility with a quote from the memoir of Donald Rumsfeld, cited in the second of a four-part series in the NY Times Opininator Blog posted on March 26, 2014 by Errol Morris, entitled “ The Certainty of Donald Rumsfeld: The known and the unknown.”
The idea of known and unknown unknowns recognizes that the information those in positions of responsibility in government, as well as in other human endeavors, have at their disposal is almost always incomplete. It emphasizes the importance of intellectual humility, a valuable attribute in decision making and in formulating strategy. It is difficult to accept — to know — that there may be important unknowns.
Both Bock and Rumsfeld are appealing to intellectual humility as a crucial virtue in human endeavors, especially in collaborative efforts like software development or strategy formation. A virtue is classically defined as “doing the right thing, at the right time, for the right reason.” In what we will call the “Googlean” conception (expressed by Mr. Bock), intellectual humility is holding a position firmly until proven wrong. In what we will call the “Rumsfeldean” conception, intellectual humility is holding a position loosely because knowledge is necessarily incomplete.
Both conceptions of intellectual humility have merit. The Rumsfeldean position has been used as the very definition of wisdom. As tradition has it, Socrates was the wisest man in all of Greece because he knew his own intellectual limitations, because he knew that he didn’t know. In our own work on the intellectual humility project, we have defined intellectual humility as “holding a belief with the firmness the belief merits.” Some beliefs, like the belief that 2+2=4, merit being held with the utmost firmness; to do otherwise—to have serious, lingering doubts as to whether or not 2+2=4—is to be intellectually diffident or intellectually self-deprecating. Other beliefs, like the beliefs regarding the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin, merit being held with very little firmness; to do otherwise, to be convinced that exactly five angels can dance on the head of a pin—is to be intellectually arrogant. To put it roughly, intellectual humility, as the virtuous mean between such vices, calls for us to proportion our beliefs, our convictions in accord with our justification, our warrant, our evidence.
The thin edge between virtue and vice, however, is not in having the right formulation of intellectual humility, but in exercising intellectual humility at the right time, for the right reason. In the Rumsfeldean conception, intellectual humility might best be exercised as caution – not making a decision too quickly because any given bit of knowledge is incomplete. Intellectual humility, then, would be the willingness to gather more evidence, from as many sources as possible, to make the knowledge as complete as possible, before a decision is made. It would be vicious, however, to embrace ignorance because knowledge is necessarily incomplete. Even if our knowledge of the bus barreling down the road is incomplete, that doesn’t mean we should cross the road.
By Googlean lights (and our own), intellectual humility is virtuously exercised by a certain tenacity, when the belief is merited (even zealotry, according to Bock), and a willingness to adjust the belief when evidence warrants. It would be vicious to hold a belief when there is not enough evidence to warrant such a belief, or when evidence exists that proves the belief wrong. According to Errol Morris, this is precisely what Donald Rumsfeld did: held a belief that Saddam Hussein had WMD’s, which justified the invasion of Iraq, when there was not enough evidence to support that belief. If Morris is right, Rumsfeld is displaying intellectual arrogance – holding a belief more firmly than is merited.
What is interesting about Rumsfeld’s intellectual arrogance is that he justifies it based on his idea of intellectual humility. Intellectual humility, by his lights, acknowledges that “there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. … there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know.” (Rumsfeld speaking at the Feb. 22, 2002 news conference). Rumsfeld seems to claim that since no knowledge is certain, we have to act on beliefs formed from uncertain or (highly) defeasible evidence. This, however, is not intellectual humility. Morris is right to conclude that Rumsfeld’s certainty is vicious, because he held a belief without sufficient evidence, what we define as intellectual arrogance.
Intellectual humility, to be an intellectual virtue, must be exercised in the pursuit of truth, even if the “truth” cannot be completely known. In this context, it will exhibit characteristics such as curiosity, inquisitiveness, and love of learning. Indeed, in our own research, these words are found to be uniquely prototypical attributes of a “folk” conception of an intellectually humble person. In the face of the limits of our knowledge, we can neither throw up our hands and claim nothing can be known, nor can we arrogantly assert our claims because they have as much merit as any other, but must humbly collaborate to find the best evidence we can so that our actions are true.
Posted in: Intellectual HumilityResearch
Does a young boy really know how his dad’s lawnmower works if he says that he does? Does a little girl know that the Tooth Fairy is really going to come to replace her incisor for a dollar bill with no more evidence beyond that her parents told her so? Intellectual humility, the understanding that you do not know everything, is a virtue that is the topic of research driving the John Templeton Foundation (JTF) funded, The Science of Intellectual Humility Project. Kristina Olson and the researchers from the University of Washington, one of 19 institutions funded by the Thrive Center and JTF, is investigating the markers of intellectual humility for young children in a cross-cultural sample.
Recently, Psychology Today has published two articles by the University of Washington team about the development of intellectual humility in children. Read more about this exciting new research by clicking on the links below.
To learn more about intellectual humility and the unique projects being pursued by our grantees, visit our Intellectual Humility sub-site. Click HERE to read the abstract about Dr. Olson and the University of Washington’s project.
Posted in: Intellectual HumilityResearch
Looking at the long list of researchers and institutions who are a part of the Thrive Center’s Intellectual Humility Project might lead one to wonder, “what’s the big deal here?” Don Emerson Davis Jr. and Intellectual Humility grant awardee, Joshua Hook shed some light on this question by highlighting the challenges that exist when studying the construct of humility.
Davis and Hook begin their article by stating that although there is a great deal of interest in researching humility (or a lack of humility), research on the topic has struggled in the past due to difficulties defining what humility is and how to study it. The authors argue that progress is being made through research and results have shown humility to be related to strengthened social bonds and better health outcomes, among several other findings. Humility might be a difficult construct to understand, but this article’s authors and the Thrive Center believe that it is a worthy topic of our attention with important implications for human thriving.
Click here to read Dr. Davis and Dr. Hook’s article, “Measuring Humility and its Positive Effects.” (Link opens in new window.)
Posted in: Intellectual HumilityNews ArticlesResearch
Dr. Joshua Hook, one of the researchers working on the Templeton Foundation funded Intellectual Humility Project, is a finalist in a contract to win a book contract through the Barna Group. Dr. Hook’s book proposal is about the importance of humility in the context of religious differences. The premise of this popular book is well aligned with the research being conducted by the Thrive Center and other institutions in Intellectual Humility.
To learn more about Dr. Hook’s proposal and to vote, click HERE (opens in new window) to vote on Barna Frames on Facebook. You can also read Dr. Joshua Hook’s full proposal below:
Josh Hook- Religious Conviction in a Multi-Faith World? Engage with Humility
Much of the brokenness in our world is due to our inability to be in community with individuals and groups who are different from us. This brokenness happens on a global scale, but it also happens in our governments, schools, workplaces, and playgrounds. Sometimes religion helps to heal divisions, but just as often, religion fuels the fires of conflict. Christians inform strangers they are going to Hell without even asking their names. Tension between Christians and Muslims runs deep, with the Crusades and 9/11 bookending over a millennium of conflict. Our government divides sharply over religiously charged issues such as gay marriage and abortion. The underlying message is this: If God is for me, then He must be against you. This conflict isn’t just a worldly matter between groups of different faiths; it’s a holy war. The stakes are high because the consequences are eternal. Positions become entrenched, making it difficult to engage respectfully and peacefully with those we consider the “other.” I believe division could be replaced with healing if people engaged one another with humility around matters of faith.
Sometimes I think things are getting worse rather than better. I feel a sense of despair and lose hope that things could be different. This book is for Christians who care deeply about the division and conflict in our society, but don’t know what to do to bridge the gap. This book is for Christians who struggle with the tension that comes from holding religious convictions that can offend and turn away people from different faiths. This book is for Christians who are serious about engaging and collaborating with a pluralistic world for the common good. We need to figure out a way to foster peace with others who do not share in the peace of Christ.
Some strategies to solve this problem haven’t worked well. It hasn’t worked to avoid the important issues and leave the conversation. The world needs engaged Christians who are actively committed to showing God’s love and grace. However, it also hasn’t worked to convince everyone in our society to align with a specific religious or political ideology. It hasn’t worked to force everyone to adopt my version of religion, mypolitical party, my set of beliefs and values.
When it comes to my deepest convictions, I struggle to engage others well. Either I avoid the tough issues, or I prepare my best arguments for why I’m right, convinced that if only others would see things my way, then the world would be better. But somewhere along the way I realized that not only is my world broken, but my gospel sometimes feels broken. I get confused about how to “keep the baby but throw out the bath water.” How do I honor my religious convictions and cultivate peace with others who do not know Christ?
I think there is a better way. I want to understand what it means to hold my religious convictions well—in a way that builds bridges rather than burns them down. A form of tolerance that loosens all convictions is not the answer. I believe there is something good, true, and right about some convictions. They help me connect with and experience the love of God. They strengthen and bind my spiritual community together. And they motivate me to bring love, grace, and justice to a world in need.
But people hold different religious convictions. We disagree within the same pew, much more the same city block, nation, or world. These disagreements often lead to division and conflict. As the world becomes more flat and our society grows more interconnected psychologically and technologically, I experience increased contact and connection with individuals and groups who are different from me.
I feel a tension from this contact and connection. On one hand, I have strong religious convictions that impact my thoughts, feelings, and behaviors in important ways. On the other hand, I have a deep desire to foster peaceful relationships with those around me, including those who believe differently. When is it okay to offend others or break community because of my convictions? When is it better to prioritize unity and peace? I long to be faithful to what I believe and foster meaningful connections with those who are different.
So what do we do with this intractable tension? I believe that the fundamental solution to dealing with others who have different beliefs, when you believe that beliefs matter, is humility. Humility is a “way of being” while in relationship with others. Humility puts others on equal footing, not looking down on them from a superior position, but rather engaging them as fellow human beings with voices that deserve respect. Humility involves examining the log in my own eye before I pass judgment on someone else. Jesus taught that when Earth looks more like Heaven, people would treat each other with humility. He washed his disciples’ feet and told them to do likewise. Jesus taught his disciples “the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them… Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant.” Paul wrote in Philippians that we should model our lives after the humility of Jesus.
Some of what I learned in Christian community is “bath water”—a broken gospel, still clinging to something other than Christ. I struggle to hold my religious convictions well, in a way that embraces rather than ostracizes those who are different from me. How did Jesus do it? How did He balance deep conviction and integrity to God’s purpose for his life with a courageous ability to blow past social convention into deep relationship with the “other?” We need a solution that allows us to hold our religious convictions while fostering peace with those who are different. This is my hope and prayer: that we may follow the example of Jesus and hold our religious convictions—and engage the world—with humility.
Vote at https://www.facebook.com/barnaframes/app_592919060777532
Posted in: Intellectual Humility
November 18th, the Thrive Center hosted the second of its three quarterly Thrive Reflectoriums. For those who may not be aware, these monthly Reflectoriums are a space where the scholars of the Thrive Center for Human Development come together to share research and ideas with each other, with the mindset that the more minds weighing in on a research question, the better. This month, Dr. Samuleson, a Thrive Center Post-Doctoral research fellow, and Kelsy Richardson, a Thrive Center fellow, both presented research in their individual fields. Here’s a recap of what you might have missed.
Dr. Samuelson presented some of the research from his project titled, “The Science of Intellectual Humility.” More specifically, Dr. Samuleson’s presentation was focused on the implicit theories of intellectual humility. The research was focused on the attribution of words or phrases towards the categories of an intellectually humble, wise, or intellectually arrogant person. Dr. Samuelson’s work demonstrated the main categories of descriptors that each of these types of people receive and the possible implications for the ways in which we perceive intellectual or wise people.
Kelsy Richardson presented her research titled, “Prayer Practices and Gratitude: Comparing Daily Prayers of Thanksgiving to Gratitude Journaling and Social Gratitude.” Kelsy’s research demonstrated how participants who prayed their gratitude developed higher levels of virtue and positive life experiences than other participants who either kept a gratitude journal or shared their gratitude with a friend. Kelsy also discussed the future directions of her study, including a follow-up study utilizing hassles and prayers of supplication.
Don’t miss our next Thrive Reflectorium, Monday December 9th at 11am in the School of Psychology building room 311. Dr. Ryan Hornbeck will be presenting some of his research from a Templeton World Charity Foundation grant titled, “Is Religion Natural? The Chinese Challenge.”
-Kelsy Richardson, Thrive Center Fellow (2013-2014)
Posted in: Intellectual HumilityPrayer PracticesResearchStudents