In our never-ending quest to become a better person, there’s one trait that reigns supreme: intellectual humility.

By Lola Gayle, Editor-at-large

The human brain is a powerful organ. Our large brains, unique among all creatures, are capable of many things — chief among them being the ability to engage in intellectual pursuits. Indeed, our capacity for acquiring knowledge, especially that of a high or complex order, is a trait all humans possess in varying degrees. However, at all levels each and every one of us possesses a range of individual intellectual virtues, and we’re not all the same.

Intellectual virtues are considered to be specific qualities of mind and character that promote intellectual flourishing, critical thinking, and the pursuit of truth. They include: intellectual responsibility, perseverance, open-mindedness, empathy, integrity, intellectual courage, confidence in reason, love of truth, intellectual humility, imaginativeness, curiosity, fair-mindedness, and autonomy.

Some consider intellectual virtues primarily as acquired character traits, while others think of intellectual virtues more in terms of well-functioning mental faculties. Despite the differences, intellectual virtues are studied extensively in both critical thinking and virtue epistemology. NOTE: Epistemology is the investigation of what distinguishes justified belief from opinion.

One intellectual virtue not discussed above is intellectual arrogance or conceit, which is described as a set of characteristics that tends to blind an otherwise intelligent person to recognizing the truth, at least according to online site Conservapedia. Simply put, intellectual arrogance can lead to mistaken conclusions, especially in the absence of intellectual humility and logical rigor.

The differences between intellectual humility and arrogance are so extreme that they are considered to be on completely opposite ends of the intellectual spectrum. Indeed, “If intellectual humility marks a mean between extremes, then related vices would be (on the one side) intellectual arrogance, closed-mindedness, and overconfidence in one’s own opinions and intellectual powers, and (on the other side) undue timidity in one’s intellectual life, or even intellectual cowardice.” SOURCE: John Templeton Foundation.

On being humble

In this essay, I would like to focus more on intellectual humility — “a character trait that allows the intellectually humble person to think and reason well” — as it pertains to personality and beliefs, specifically those surrounding religion, health and politics. What brings me to this topic is a new study conducted by researchers from Duke University in which they conclude that intellectual humility may readily influence and benefit a person’s decision-making abilities in these and other arenas.

In their paper, entitled “Cognitive and Interpersonal Features of Intellectual Humility,” researchers led by Duke professor of psychology and neuroscience Mark Leary describe the results of four studies designed to examine intellectual humility — or the degree to which people recognize that their beliefs might be wrong. These studies included participants’ beliefs about religion and political “flip-flopping.”

For the purpose of this study, the team also created a new “Intellectual Humility Scale” in order to provide a valid measure of the degree to which people recognize that their beliefs are fallible. NOTE: I would love to get my hands on that scale. Fallibility is defined as being capable of making mistakes or being erroneous, even in the presence of a strong belief system. According to Leary, “Intellectually humble people can have strong beliefs, but recognize their fallibility and are willing to be proven wrong on matters large and small.”

With all the differences between us, whether in regards to politics or religion (both highly partisan topics), the researchers found that intellectual humility was surprisingly nonpartisan. Indeed, during the course of the study the team found that there was essentially no difference between liberals and conservatives or between religious and nonreligious people. No measurable differences as a matter of fact.

“There are stereotypes about conservatives and religiously conservative people being less intellectually humble about their beliefs,” Leary said in a Duke statement. “We didn’t find a shred of evidence to support that.”

Surprising to say the least since in the course of my own personal experience I have found that the conservatives in my life tend to be more on the arrogant side. However, I must also admit that I am also surrounded by just as many extremely arrogant liberals. Perhaps these are the personalities I tend to attract, since I tend to sit on the intellectually humble side — always open-minded and willing to pursue the truth beyond my own beliefs. Opposites attract, right?

But do these differences really matter? Personally I believe they do. Intellectual arrogance can create a strong and deep division between two parties. Even in the most trivial of matters, both sides suffer greatly when we are convinced that our views of the world are correct and theirs are wrong. Minor squabbles and differences of opinion can indeed turn into major battles and the loss of a friend, lover, or coworker.

In contrast, being intellectually humble allows a person to think and reason well, and therefore less likely to judge a person’s character based on their own beliefs. This character trait also allows an individual to listen to other people’s suggestions and consider many perspectives at once. More importantly, intellectual humility allows us the opportunity to admit when we’re wrong.

Because of this, Leary and his co-authors suggest that intellectual humility is a quality that could be encouraged and taught. “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.”

I tend to agree with Leary. Being humble, even intellectually, will certainly help bridge the gap between us all. Try it on for size at least once today. As a short exercise, I suggest you spend at least five minutes reading or listening to an opinion that is opposite your own. You don’t have to agree, but you do have to listen.

Further reading

Image Source: Pixabay