Research Digest

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

By 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):

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