Research Finds That Intellectual Humility Can Make Us Better Thinkers & People; Good Thing There’s a Free Course on Intellectual Humility

We may have grown used to hear­ing about the impor­tance of crit­i­cal think­ing, and stowed away knowl­edge of log­i­cal fal­lac­i­es and cog­ni­tive bias­es in our argu­men­ta­tive toolk­it. But were we to return to the philo­soph­i­cal sources of infor­mal log­ic, we would find that we only grasped at some of the prin­ci­ples of rea­son. The oth­ers involve ques­tions of what we might call virtue or character—what for the Greeks fell into the cat­e­gories of ethos and pathos. The prin­ci­ple of char­i­ty, for exam­ple, in which we give our oppo­nents a fair hear­ing and respond to the best ver­sion of their argu­ments as we under­stand them. And the prin­ci­ple, exem­pli­fied by Plato’s Socrates, of intel­lec­tu­al humil­i­ty. Or as one punk band put it in their Socrat­ic trib­ute. “All I know is that I don’t know. All I know is that I don’t know noth­ing.”

Intel­lec­tu­al humil­i­ty is not, con­trary to most pop­u­lar appear­ances, reflex­ive­ly accord­ing equal weight to “both sides” of every argu­ment or assum­ing that everyone’s opin­ion is equal­ly valid. These are forms of men­tal lazi­ness and eth­i­cal abdi­ca­tion. It is, how­ev­er, believ­ing in our own fal­li­bil­i­ty and open­ing our­selves up to hear­ing argu­ments with­out imme­di­ate­ly form­ing a judg­ment about them or the peo­ple who make them. We do not aban­don our rea­son and val­ues, we strength­en them, argues Mark Leary, by “not being afraid of being wrong.” Leary, pro­fes­sor of psy­chol­o­gy and neu­ro­science at Duke Uni­ver­si­ty, is the lead author of a new study on intel­lec­tu­al humil­i­ty that found “essen­tial­ly no dif­fer­ence between lib­er­als and con­ser­v­a­tives or between reli­gious and non­re­li­gious peo­ple” when it comes to intel­lec­tu­al humil­i­ty.

The study chal­lenges many ideas that can pre­vent dia­logue. “There are stereo­types about con­ser­v­a­tives and reli­gious­ly con­ser­v­a­tive peo­ple being less intel­lec­tu­al­ly hum­ble about their beliefs,” says Leary. But he and his col­leagues “didn’t find a shred of evi­dence to sup­port that.” This doesn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly mean that such peo­ple have high degrees of intel­lec­tu­al humil­i­ty, only that all of us, per­haps equal­ly, pos­sess fair­ly low lev­els of the trait. I’ll be the first to admit that it is not an easy one to devel­op, espe­cial­ly when we’re on the defen­sive for some seem­ing­ly good reasons—and when we live in a cul­ture that encour­ages us to make deci­sions and take actions on the strength of an image, some min­i­mal text, and a few but­tons that lead us right to our bank accounts. (To quote Oper­a­tion Ivy again, “We get told to decide. Just like as if I’m not gonna change my mind.”)

But in the Duke study, reports Ali­son Jones at Duke Today, “those who dis­played intel­lec­tu­al humil­i­ty did a bet­ter job of eval­u­at­ing the qual­i­ty of evi­dence.” They took their time to make care­ful con­sid­er­a­tions. And they were gen­er­al­ly more char­i­ta­ble and “less like­ly to judge a writer’s char­ac­ter based on his or her views.” By con­trast, “intel­lec­tu­al­ly arro­gant” peo­ple gave writ­ers with whom they dis­agreed “low scores in moral­i­ty, hon­esty, com­pe­tence, and warmth.” As a for­mer teacher of rhetoric, I won­der whether the researchers account­ed for the qual­i­ty and per­sua­sive­ness of the writ­ing itself. Nonethe­less, this obser­va­tion under­scores the prob­lem of con­flat­ing an author’s work with his or her char­ac­ter. Moral judg­ment can inhib­it intel­lec­tu­al curios­i­ty and open-mind­ed­ness. Intel­lec­tu­al­ly arro­gant peo­ple often resort to insults and per­son­al attacks over thought­ful analy­sis.

The enor­mous num­ber of assump­tions we bring to almost every con­ver­sa­tion with peo­ple who dif­fer from us can blind us to our own faults and to oth­er people’s strengths. But intel­lec­tu­al humil­i­ty is not genet­i­cal­ly determined—it is a skill that can be learned, Leary believes. Big Think rec­om­mends a free MOOC from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Edin­burgh on intel­lec­tu­al humil­i­ty (see an intro­duc­tion to the con­cept at the top and a series of lec­tures here). “Faced with dif­fi­cult ques­tions,” explains course lec­tur­er Dr. Ian Church, “peo­ple often tend to dis­miss and mar­gin­al­ize dis­sent…. The world needs more peo­ple who are sen­si­tive to rea­sons both for and against their beliefs, and are will­ing to con­sid­er the pos­si­bil­i­ty that their polit­i­cal, reli­gious and moral beliefs might be mis­tak­en.” The course offers three dif­fer­ent lev­els of engage­ment, from casu­al to quite involved, and three sep­a­rate class sec­tions at Cours­era: The­o­ry, Prac­tice, and Sci­ence.

It’s like­ly that many of us need some seri­ous prepa­ra­tion before we’re will­ing to lis­ten to those who hold cer­tain views. And per­haps cer­tain views don’t actu­al­ly deserve a hear­ing. But in most cas­es, if we can let our guard down, set aside feel­ings of hos­til­i­ty, and become will­ing to learn some­thing even from those with whom we dis­agree, we might be able to do what so many psy­chol­o­gists con­tin­ue to rec­om­mend. As Cindy Lamothe writes at New York Mag­a­zine’s Sci­ence of Us blog, “we have to be will­ing to expose our­selves to oppos­ing per­spec­tives in the first place—which means that, as daunt­ing as it may seem, lis­ten­ing to friends and fam­i­ly with rad­i­cal­ly dif­fer­ent views can be ben­e­fi­cial to our long-term intel­lec­tu­al progress.” The hol­i­days are soon upon us. Let the healing—or at least the char­i­ta­ble tol­er­ance if you can man­age it—begin.

via Big Think

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Stephen Fry Iden­ti­fies the Cog­ni­tive Bias­es That Make Trump Tick       

32 Ani­mat­ed Videos by Wire­less Phi­los­o­phy Teach You the Essen­tials of Crit­i­cal Think­ing

Why We Need to Teach Kids Phi­los­o­phy & Safe­guard Soci­ety from Author­i­tar­i­an Con­trol

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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