Something we could use a little more of – studies link intellectual humility with openness to other viewpoints

GettyImages-657572862.jpgBy Christian Jarrett

Early in 2018, the default reaction to encountering someone who disagrees with you is to place your fingers in your ears. We could all benefit from a dose of intellectual humility, according to the authors of a new paper in Self and Identity. People with this trait are open to other viewpoints and see disagreement as an opportunity to learn. Promisingly, early findings suggest that it may be possible to foster intellectual humility relatively easily, as least over the short term.

Tenelle Porter and Karina Schumann at the University of Pittsburgh created a new intellectual humility questionnaire that asks participants to rate their agreement with 9 items like “I am willing to admit if I don’t know something”. The questionnaire is based on their conception of intellectual humility as recognising your own fallibility and the value and intellectual competence of others. Find the full list of items below (the letter R at the end of a statement means that greater agreement is a sign of less humility):

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from Porter and Schumann, 2018

In an initial study, nearly 200 students completed this questionnaire, as well as other personality measures, and then they were asked to imagine various scenarios at college that involved a classmate disagreeing with them, for example over the causes of World War I in history class, or a passage of text in English class. Finally, the students stated what they would think of the person who disagreed with them and how they would respond. A second study was similar, but this time nearly 200 more participants, recruited online, imagined a disagreement with another person over more hot-button issues, such as gun control and same-sex marriage.

Across both studies, even after accounting for the influence of many other factors such as a person’s self-esteem, narcissism, and overall agreeableness, openness and humility, the students who scored higher on intellectual humility tended to think about the person who disagreed with them in more constructive ways – for instance, believing the other person has their own unique perspective and experiences to draw on – rather than dismissing their views as due to low intelligence or lack of understanding. Moreover, those participants with greater intellectual humility were more likely to say that, given the chance, they would try to learn more about the other person’s views, rather than simply argue with them or try to change their mind.

There is a limit to how much we can read into participants’ responses to hypothetical scenarios. To test actual behaviour, Porter and Schumann turned to Amazon’s Mechanical Turk survey website and asked nearly 200 people to complete the intellectual humility questionnaire before revealing their position on gun control or capital punishment. Next, the participants had the chance to read opinions (written by the researchers but made to look like the opinions of other survey participants) that either agreed with their stance or took the opposite view. The researchers counted the in-survey links the participants chose to click on to read the different views. Higher scorers in intellectual humility held views that were just as strong as those low in intellectual humility, but they spent a greater proportion of time reading views that were opposed to their own.

Wouldn’t it be great if we all had a little more intellectual humility? The researchers tested an intervention that they hoped would increase intellectual humility via the promotion of a “growth mindset” – that is, belief in the malleability of intelligence. It makes sense that if you see intelligence as malleable, then you will be less worried about finding out you are wrong or that you don’t know the full story. After all, with this perspective, just because you are wrong or ignorant about something doesn’t mean you are forever condemned to being stupid.

A final study showed that participants who read a popular magazine article about the malleability of intelligence (designed to foster a “growth mindset”) subsequently scored higher on intellectual humility than another group who read an article about intelligence being fixed. What’s more, those in the growth mindset condition went on to display a more positive approach when imagining dealing with someone with opposing views, and this seemed to be driven by their increased intellectual humility.

In a world in which we seem to find it harder than ever to listen to the other side, this research is welcome. On the other hand, it’s sure to attract accusations of demonstrating the obvious. For their part, the researchers claim this is the first attempt to show there is a relation between intellectual humility and openness to opposing views. Another problem is the studies relied rather too much on hypothetical scenarios and all involved participants resident in the US. Hopefully, though, this paper will serve as a launch pad for future research that will overcome these shortcomings, and discover more about the roots of intellectual humility and how to nurture it.

“Promoting intellectual humility may offer one path to making disagreements more constructive,” the researchers concluded, “and our research suggests that teaching people a malleable view of intelligence may be one promising way to foster intellectual humility and its associated benefits.”

Intellectual humility and openness to the opposing view

Christian Jarrett (@Psych_Writer) is Editor of BPS Research Digest

20 thoughts on “Something we could use a little more of – studies link intellectual humility with openness to other viewpoints”

    1. Study seems to ignore question of whether “intellectual humility” is a symptom/correlate of ignorance or low IQ. Also, to propose “growth mindset” as a solution ignores the fact that the credibility of the “growth mindset” idea and the research on which it is based is very much disputed.

      1. Actually, there is quiet a bit of evidence for growth mindsets, just ask Karol Dweck. We know that many Asians have a growth mindset, and so learn continuously. I haven’t read the paper above. They may or may not have included research on individual differences. Again, substantial research (summarised in the handbook of social motivation, and the handbook of individual differences) that shows that people who have a high openness to experience, and especially a high need for cognition, are growth minded. They have a high epistemic need for truth. Extraversion, plus conscientioisness has been found to increase the chances for metacognitive skills.

        Open minded people are always on the lookout for more information, and are all too aware that they don’t have the full truth. They read more, especially in other fields. As a result, they have a high integrative complexity, thay is they can see concepts/things from multiple perspectives and on a number of different dimensions. Interestingly, research shows that these people come off as arrogant by people with little or no knowledge in the area, but appear to be expert to more knpwledgeable people, becuase they have considered all the issues, including an assessment of strengths and weaknesses. This research was conducted in the 1980s, but not followed up. I am interested in this as these people I expect would be more likely to make more ethical decisions.

        I am not sure if the authors considered research on overconfidence by Dan A Moore, which would seem to be pertinent here. Research by David Dunning would appear useful as well. He has written a fine article called “We are all confident idiots”, though some more than others.

        Too narrow a focus on one stream of research seems to induce overconfidence. In addition, from research on individual differences by Ashford, the honesty humility dimension of the Hexaco model would seem to be very relevant here jn making predictions. I use this in predicting unethical tendencies.

        Other related research that might be useful includes SDO, that is a preference for inequality and feelimgs of superiority. One might say that this shouldnt exist in research. However, I did see one paper last year on religion and styles of thinking dogmatically attacking other authors. Hurbis, is another area, either from narcissism or extraversion also may play a factor.

        Even the areas that I mention here may be biased. As these are the areas that I have been exposed to in pulling together a chapter on individual differences in judgment and decision making. Most likely there are many other factors.

  1. An open mind and open ears are prerequisites for interdisciplinary studies, polymathy and polyglottery.

  2. Can’t say I’m open at all to others viewpoints. I think most people are batsh*t crazy, and that definitely includes most people in the so-called “scholarly” community.

  3. We learn more from our mistakes, from the mistakes of others and from people with whom we profoundly disagree, because we learn to question everything and not accept ‘knowledge without counsel’. Which is why critical- thinking skills define what it means to be intelligent.

    Looking at everything from a number of perspectives allows us to be flexible, adaptable and responsive to rapid change, to separate truth from falsehood. This is the driver of biopsychosocial and scientific knowledge evolution.

    Thus, whilst I like the concept underlying this paper (that we should reserve judgement until we have examined in detail all available causes and effects (variables)), the term ‘Intellectual humility’ (the quality of having a modest or low view of one’s importance), seems to allege that people who are proven (insofar as they can be), to be correct, are being belligerently arrogant. This may or may not be, the case.

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