The Science of Intellectual Humility
July 2012—June 2015
- Justin L. Barrett, Principal Investigator
- Ian Church, Postdoctoral Researcher
- Peter Samuelson, Postdoctoral Researcher
- Matt Jarvinen, Student Researcher
- Tom Paulus, Student Researcher
What does it mean to be intellectually humble and how can intellectual humility be encouraged? This question is the subject of the Thrive Center’s project, The Science of Intellectual Humility. Our research team examined specific questions surrounding intellectual humility (IH) such as:
- What is the “folk” understanding of intellectual humility? What is the nature of intellectual virtues?
- What role does trust play in the development of intellectual humility in children?
- What is the interface between ethics and epistemology?
Although humility has received significant attention, its distinctively intellectual side needs much further exploration. Intellectual humility concerns how we come to hold and retain our beliefs. It is constituted by a state of openness to new ideas, receptivity to new sources of evidence and the implications of that evidence, and willingness to revise even deeply held beliefs in the face of compelling reasons. The project’s ultimate goal was to inform work in philosophy, theology, and clinical psychology in ways that will lead to greater openness, more civil discourse, and flourishing in human relationships. During the first year of work on this project, our research team produced a white paper as part of an initial volume of research. The white paper was used to help guide other leading scientists—as well as theologians, traditional philosophers, and experimental philosophers—who were proposing intellectual humility research projects in a response to a request for proposals. The entire body of research in intellectual humility developed under this grant is part of an effort to devote more attention to the subject of intellectual humility.
This research concluded with a capstone conference held on Catalina Island, California, May 11–4, 2015, which produced videos of 36 of the 40 presentation, in addition to the papers and publications that came out during the course of the studies and continue to be generated.
The Thrive Center selected and supported 18 research teams to receive awards totaling nearly $4 million from the grant. These teams conducted scientific research on the nature, implications, and ultimate causes of intellectual humility and arrogance, resulting in a body of literature and two conferences that promoted dialogue and collaboration on the topic this project supports:
- Research on under-explored areas in the psychology and evolution of intellectual humility/arrogance;
- Critical engagement between the cognitive and evolutionary sides; and
- Dissemination of research in the field in order to advance its philosophical and theological significance.
In one of our investigations, we surveyed (through the internet) people from all walks of life and found that there are three dimensions to intellectual humility in the “folk” conception: an intellectual dimension (smart, curious, love of learning, inquisitive), a humble dimension (doesn’t brag, not a show-off), and a civil dimension (listens to others, kind, considerate, respectful). Intellectual humility has to do with understanding that you don’t know everything, that there is more to learn, that you don’t use your knowledge or expertise as an advantage over others, and that, in discussions with others, you are respectful, listening closely to what the other has to say in order to learn something. Our project has funded investigations in all of these areas. While some sought to create a measurement of intellectual humility, other looked at our cognitive systems in order to see if our normal patterns of thought produce or inhibit intellectual humility. Some were interested in how children practice intellectual humility (or don’t) and how we might develop this trait. Others continued to look at how knowledge is used and acquired in social situations. Still others were interested in using intellectual humility to promote better discourse between disagreeing parties.
We operated under the assumption that intellectual humility is a good—the possession of which makes you a better person, and the practice of which makes for a better, more civil society. If we can learn how our natural ways of thinking either help or hinder this virtue, we can know how to best promote it. If we learn how it plays out in a child’s cognitive development, we can teach children how to practice it. If we can learn how people think and react in situations of disagreement, we can use intellectual humility to enhance civil discourse. Having a good grasp of the limits of your own knowledge and a curiosity and love of learning make for a fulfilling life. Having a respect for the knowledge and opinions of others, and an attitude of open-mindedness, will help society move toward the best solutions to vexing problems. These and other aspects of intellectual humility help us reach for the goal of human flourishing—for all people.
What is Intellectual Humility?
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 it’s good way to start thinking about it. 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 is one concept that we have been researching in particular. What we are currently trying to discover is whether or not we can demonstrate that a person’s attachment/relational style aligns with 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.
Intellectual Humility & Philosophy
What are some ways intellectual humility will be important to philosophy? Recent work in philosophy has highlighted the theoretical importance of intellectual humility in the context of the broader subject of “virtue epistemology.” Virtue epistemology focuses on the process by which beliefs are formed, looking specifically at whether or not the belief was formed by an intellectually virtuous knower. Some have claimed that intellectual humility is among these core intellectual virtues. In this way, intellectual humility can be seen as foundational to knowledge itself. What is more, intellectual humility seems incompatible with the notion that one might fairly stick to his or her guns (intellectually speaking) when faced with others who are equally intelligent and well informed, but who hold opposing, even incompatible views. And yet, while sticking to your guns and being intellectually humble seem incompatible, even paradigmatically intellectually humble individuals sometimes (quite justifiably) maintain their positions in the face of such disagreement. The epistemic import of peer disagreement is a hot topic in contemporary epistemology and directly relevant to intellectual humility (and vice versa).
Intellectual Humility & Psychology
What are some ways intellectual humility will be important to psychology? We began our investigation into intellectual humility by recognizing it as the opposite of intellectual arrogance for we have evidence that this vice is deeply rooted in human psychology:
First, human beings are notoriously (and apparently naturally) disposed to overestimate their intellectual strengths and underestimate their weaknesses; indeed, the evidence is clear that there is a strong tendency even to underestimate our liability to such biases! Do these biases show a natural tendency away from intellectual humility? Furthermore, we are susceptible to all sorts of biases that make intellectual humility difficult. For example, we tend to favor evidence or data received early in our inquiries (primacy bias) and we tend to discount the weight of evidence that counts against hypotheses we endorse (confirmation bias).
Second, evolutionary psychologists have offered some intriguing arguments that these dispositions are embedded within our cognitive architecture in ways that can systematically lead us to biased thinking, in some cases for adaptive reasons. Does this mean that intellectual arrogance is both an epistemic vice and a “biological virtue”?
Third, some clinicians have argued that intellectual arrogance is necessary for maintaining mental health. The intellectually humble, who see themselves and their condition with unmitigated clarity, are more susceptible to forms of depression, for example. Presumably, however, viewing intellectual humility merely as the opposite of intellectual arrogance gives us an incomplete picture. For example, evidence indicates correlations between intellectual humility and important morally salient traits such as a willingness to forgive others, a lack of aggression, and helpfulness. Moreover, psychologists have discovered traits and behaviors associated with intellectual humility that facilitate learning, personal growth, and social interaction. What other positive, or negative, correlations exist between intellectual humility and other aspects of human flourishing?
This project was made possible through a generous grant by the John Templeton Foundation.