In the era of social media and rolling news there’s a constant pressure to be in the know, always on hand with an aperçus or two. Today intellectual humility therefore feels more important than ever – having the insight and honesty to hold your hands up and say you’re ignorant or inexpert about an issue.
Psychologists are responding by taking an increasing interest in intellectual humility, including investigating its consequences for learning and the thinking styles that support it. For a new paper in The Journal of Positive Psychology a team led by Elizabeth Krumrei-Mancuso have continued this endeavour, showing, among other things, that intellectual humility correlates with superior general knowledge. This is a logical outcome because, as the researchers write, “simply put, learning requires the humility to realise one has something to learn.”
Krumrei-Mancuso and her colleagues conducted five studies in all, attempting to find out more about the links between intellectual humility and knowledge acquisition; between intellectual humility and meta-knowledge (insight into one’s own knowledge); and lastly between intellectual humility and other thinking styles.
A strength and a weakness of the research is the use of two different measures of intellectual humility. Some studies involved a shorter questionnaire assessing being a “know-it-all” (through agreement or not with statements like “I know just about everything there is to know”) and intellectual openness (through agreement or not with statements like “I can learn from other people”); whereas other studies used a more recently developed, more comprehensive 22-item measure incorporating questions about cognitions, emotions and behaviours representative of intellectual humility (such as, being accepting of criticism of one’s important beliefs; being ready to change one’s mind; and respect for others’ viewpoints). This use of different measures makes for a more comprehensive, varied assessment of intellectual humility, but also impedes comparison between the studies.
The findings in relation to knowledge acquisition were mixed. While an online study involving 604 adults (and using the more comprehensive measure of intellectual humility) found the aforementioned link between greater intellectual humility and superior general knowledge, another involving college students (and the briefer intellectual humility questionnaire) found that those higher in intellectual humility achieved poorer grades. Perhaps the latter result arose because the higher-achieving students used their objectively higher grades to judge their intellectual ability as higher, not having had the chance yet in life to confront their intellectual fallibility (but as mentioned, the use of different measures across the studies complicates any interpretation of the mixed results).
In terms of insight, higher scorers in intellectual humility were less likely to claim knowledge they didn’t have (the researchers tested this by assessing participants’ willingness to claim familiarity with entirely fictitious facts that they couldn’t possibly know), and they also tended to underestimate their performance on a cognitive ability test.
Meanwhile, other thinking styles and constructs that correlated with greater intellectual humility included being more inclined to reflective thinking, having more “need for cognition” (enjoying thinking hard and problem solving), greater curiosity, and open-minded thinking. More intellectual humility was also associated with less “social vigilantism”, defined as seeing other people’s beliefs as inferior.
While the new findings “replicate and extend previous studies using different measures of intellectual humility”, it’s fair to say there remains a great deal we don’t yet know about intellectual humility. Perhaps most important is the lack of longitudinal research to establish causality – for instance, we don’t yet know if greater general knowledge and open-mindedness fosters intellectual humility, or if intellectual humility comes first, and promotes knowledge and curiosity. Most likely the causal associations between these constructs are complex and two-way, but at the moment, if we’re honest, we just don’t know.