How Intellectual Humility Can Boost Our Curiosity & Ability to Learn: Read the Findings of a New Study

Pho­to via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

When I think about the times I def­i­nite­ly knew what I was talk­ing about, ver­sus the times I kin­da, sor­ta, might have, maybe did… well…. Let’s just say that wis­dom doesn’t always come with age, but hind­sight cer­tain­ly does. We may cringe when we remem­ber the moments we were over­con­fi­dent, out of our depth, etcetera, and so forth—when we lacked the crit­i­cal capac­i­ty known as intel­lec­tu­al humil­i­ty. It’s a qual­i­ty that can save us a lot of shame, for sure, if we’re the type of peo­ple capa­ble of feel­ing that emo­tion.

But there’s more to know­ing what you don’t know than avoid­ing regret, as impor­tant a con­sid­er­a­tion as that may be. With­out intel­lec­tu­al humil­i­ty, we can’t acquire new knowl­edge. Still, though we might find “open mind­ed” list­ed on many an online dat­ing pro­file, being flex­i­ble in one’s think­ing and will­ing to say “I don’t know” are also social­ly stig­ma­tized, says Pep­per­dine Uni­ver­si­ty pro­fes­sor of psy­chol­o­gy Eliz­a­beth J. Krum­rei-Man­cu­so:

When it comes to beliefs, peo­ple tend to appre­ci­ate oth­ers being open-mind­ed, yet they may also view peo­ple who are unsure about their beliefs as weak or they may view those who change their view­point as unsta­ble or manip­u­la­tive. These social per­cep­tions might make peo­ple afraid to admit the fal­li­bil­i­ty in their think­ing. They may believe they should be con­fi­dent in their view­points, which can lead peo­ple to be afraid to change their minds.

Fun­da­men­tal­ist reli­gion and polar­ized polit­i­cal bat­tle-royales played out in social media stoke the fires of this ten­den­cy day in and out, cre­at­ing a ver­i­ta­ble con­fla­gra­tion of will­ful igno­rance. Krum­rei-Man­cu­so and her col­leagues set out to inves­ti­gate the oppo­site, “accept­ing one’s intel­lec­tu­al fal­li­bil­i­ty in an open and lev­el-head­ed way,” writes Peter Dock­rill at Sci­ence Alert.

Their find­ings were some­what sim­i­lar to those pop­u­lar­ized by the Dun­ning-Krueger Effect. In one find­ing, for exam­ple, the researchers dis­cov­ered that “intel­lec­tu­al­ly hum­ble peo­ple underesti­mat­ed their cog­ni­tive abil­i­ty,” per­haps not work­ing up to their full poten­tial. The intel­lec­tu­al­ly over­con­fi­dent, as we might expect, over­es­ti­mat­ed their abil­i­ties. On the whole, how­ev­er, the con­clu­sions tend to be quite pos­i­tive.

In a series of five stud­ies, which sur­veyed 1,200 indi­vid­u­als, the authors found that the intel­lec­tu­al­ly hum­ble are far more moti­vat­ed to learn for its own sake, more like­ly to enjoy chal­leng­ing cog­ni­tive tasks, more will­ing to con­sid­er dif­fer­ent per­spec­tives and alter­na­tive evi­dence, and less threat­ened by aware­ness of their own lim­i­ta­tions.

The Har­vard Busi­ness Review points out the Pep­per­dine stud­ies’ impor­tance in defin­ing the fuzzy con­cept of open-mind­ed­ness, with a four­fold mea­sure to assess indi­vid­u­als’ intel­lec­tu­al humil­i­ty:

  1. Hav­ing respect for oth­er view­points
  2. Not being intel­lec­tu­al­ly over­con­fi­dent
  3. Sep­a­rat­ing one’s ego from one’s intel­lect
  4. Will­ing­ness to revise one’s own view­point

Becom­ing intel­lec­tu­al­ly hum­ble can take us into some uncom­fort­able ter­ri­to­ry, places where we don’t know what to say or do when every­one around us seem so cer­tain. But it can also give us the push we need to actu­al­ly learn the things we might have kin­da, sor­ta pre­tend­ed to under­stand. Read Pep­perdine’s study, “Links between intel­lec­tu­al humil­i­ty and acquir­ing knowl­edge” at The Jour­nal of Pos­i­tive Psy­chol­o­gy.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Why Incom­pe­tent Peo­ple Think They’re Amaz­ing: An Ani­mat­ed Les­son from David Dun­ning (of the Famous “Dun­ning-Kruger Effect”)

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

How to Argue With Kind­ness and Care: 4 Rules from Philoso­pher Daniel Den­nett

24 Com­mon Cog­ni­tive Bias­es: A Visu­al List of the Psy­cho­log­i­cal Sys­tems Errors That Keep Us From Think­ing Ratio­nal­ly

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

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