Intellectual humility

Intellectual humility involves recognizing that there are gaps in one’s knowledge and that one’s current beliefs might be incorrect. For instance, someone might think that it is raining, but acknowledge that they have not looked outside to check and that the sun might be shining. Research on intellectual humility offers an intriguing avenue to safeguard against human errors and biases. Although it cannot eliminate them entirely, recognizing the limitations of knowledge might help to buffer people from some of their more authoritarian, dogmatic, and biased proclivities.

Although acknowledging the limits of one’s insights might be easy in low-stakes situations, people are less likely to exhibit intellectual humility when the stakes are high. For instance, people are unlikely to act in an intellectually humble manner when motivated by strong convictions or when their political, religious or ethical values seem to be challenged. Under such circumstances, many people hold tightly to existing beliefs and fail to appreciate and acknowledge the viewpoints of others. These social phenomena have troubled scholars and policymakers for decades. Consequently, interest in cultivating intellectual humility has come from multiple research areas and subfields in psychology, including social-personality, cognitive, clinical, educational, and leadership and organizational behaviour. Cumulatively, research suggests that intellectual humility can decrease polarization, extremism and susceptibility to conspiracy beliefs, increase learning and discovery, and foster scientific credibility.

The core metacognitive components of intellectual humility (grey) include recognizing the limits of one’s knowledge and being aware of one’s fallibility. The peripheral social and behavioural features of intellectual humility (light blue) include recognizing that other people can hold legitimate beliefs different from one’s own and a willingness to reveal ignorance and confusion in order to learn. The boundaries of the core and peripheral region are permeable, indicating the mutual influence of metacognitive features of intellectual humility for social and behavioural aspects of the construct and vice versa.

Definitions and measures of intellectual humility

DefinitionMetacognitive emphasisApproachAspectMeasure type
Multi-dimensional trait of self-oriented and other-oriented facets, characteristic way of responding to new ideas, seeking out new information, being mindful of others’ feelings, and reactions in intellectual engagementsLimits of knowledge + fallibility awarenessMultidimensionalTraitQuestionnaire
Acknowledging the limitations of one’s knowledge; accurately representing one’s knowledge to other people and being open to others’ inputLimits of knowledge MultidimensionalTraitBehavioural task
Absence of self-enhancement motive and egotistical bias; ability to be objective with respect to one’s beliefsFallibility awarenessMultidimensionalTraitQuestionnaire
Placing an adequate level of confidence in one’s beliefs, revising beliefs when needed and being willing to consider other people’s beliefsLimits of knowledge + fallibility awarenessMultidimensionalTrait and StateQuestionnaire
Having an accurate view of one’s intellectual strengths and weaknesses and being respectful of others’ ideasLimits of knowledge + fallibility awarenessMultidimensionalTraitQuestionnaire
The mindset and actions associated with treating one’s own views (such as beliefs, opinions and positions) as fallibleFallibility awarenessMultidimensionalTraitQuestionnaire
Recognizing that a particular personal view or belief might be fallible, accompanied by an appropriate attentiveness to limitations in the evidentiary basis of that view or belief and to one’s own limitations in obtaining and evaluating information relevant to itFallibility awarenessMetacognitiveStateQuestionnaire
Same as in above, but using a trait rather than belief-specific approachFallibility awarenessMetacognitiveTraitQuestionnaire
The capacity to remain cognitively open to counterarguments, particularly when the counterargument poses some threatFallibility awarenessMultidimensionalStateQuestionnaire
Recognizing the limits of one’s knowledgeLimits of knowledge MetacognitiveStateQuestionnaire, content analysis
A non-threatening awareness of one’s intellectual fallibilityFallibility awarenessMultidimensionalTraitQuestionnaire
Having insights about the limits of one’s knowledge and regulating intellectual arrogance in relationshipsLimits of knowledge MultidimensionalTraitQuestionnaire
Low self-focus and little concern for status, caring most about the intrinsic value of knowledge and truthFallibility awarenessMultidimensionalTraitQuestionnaire
Willingness to recognize the limits of one’s knowledge and appreciate others’ intellectual strengthsLimits of knowledge MultidimensionalTraitQuestionnaire
Openness to information that might conflict with one’s personal views and relatively weak needs to enhance one’s egoLimits of knowledge + fallibility awarenessMultidimensionalStateQuestionnaire
Emerging research efforts measure intellectual humility using automated natural language processing techniques, which is promising to sidestep issues concerning self- report biases common to questionnaire measures.
Future work will be able to speak to the validity of this approach for measuring intellectual humility at scale.
Cultural, interpersonal and individual level threats to intellectual humility.
Threats include various metacognitive limitations, such as biased information search, overestimation of knowledge and failing to recognize unknowns, as well as situational factors. The nesting circles depict an individual (orange) contained within interpersonal (grey) and cultural (blue) spheres; threats apply across these levels. The arrows between the various threats depict the unidirectional (single- tipped) and mutual (double- tipped) influence each threat has on the other threats. The presence of one threat increases the likelihood that the other threats will emerge. Specific threats can further accentuate and interact with processes at other levels in a form of cross- level interaction.
DomainVariableDirectionsClarity of evidence
CognitiveCognitive AbilityMixedUnclear
CognitiveNeed for CognitionPositiveClear
CognitiveNeed for cognitive closureMixedUnclear
CognitiveOpen-minded thinking/intellectual openness/ curiosityPositiveClear
SocialEmpathic concernPositiveClear
SocialEmotional diversityPositiveClear
SocialForgiveness of othersPositiveClear
SocialGeneral humilityPositiveClear
SocialPolitical orientationUnrelatedSomewhat clear
SocialPositive perception of person/disagreementPositiveClear
SocialSeeking compromisePositiveClear
SocialSocial desirabilityPositiveSomewhat clear
PersonalityConscientiousnessPositiveSomewhat clear
PersonalityExtraversionPositiveSomewhat clear
PersonalityOpenness to experiencePositiveClear
Correlates of intellectual humility
Psychological strategies to boost intellectual humility.
Process model through which situational triggers (yellow) can produce either greater intellectual humility (blue) or intellectual arrogance (red). The left box (grey) depicts strategies that boost intellectual humility (blue) and strategies that hinder intellectual humility (red). Some construal-based and metacognitive interventions help to boost intellectual humility. Other strategies, such as self-immersion or rigid focus on stability, can result in failure to acknowledge one’s fallibility and the limits of knowledge.

Recognizing one’s ignorance and intellectual fallibility are core features of intellectual humility. Intellectually humbler people seem to be more curious and better liked as leaders, and tend to make more thorough, well informed decisions. Intellectually humbler people also seem to be more open to cooperating with those whose views differ from their own.
These habits of mind could be vital for confronting many of the challenges facing societies today, and beneficial to laypeople, policy makers and scientists

In the spirit of intellectual humility, we conclude by pointing out that intellectual humility is not a panacea. Although it promises to counter societal incivility and misinformation, intellectual humility is cognitively effortful and is insufficient for addressing many other societal challenges.
Moreover, a systemic approach is needed to foster intellectual humility at scale. Such an approach could involve a range of incremental changes that afford each person greater recognition of the limits of their knowledge and awareness of their fallibility. This approach to fostering intellectual humility calls for societal change in educational, scientific and business cultures: away from treating intellectual humility as a weakness and towards treating it as a core value that is celebrated and reinforced. Individual-focused interventions to boost intellectual humility are not likely to be effective in the long term without corresponding societal changes.

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