There’s a well-known Indian parable about six blind men who argue at length about what an elephant feels like. Each has a different idea, and each holds fast to his own view. “It’s like a rope,” says the man who touched the tail. “Oh no, it’s more like the solid branch of a tree,” contends the one who touched the trunk. And so on and so forth, and round and round they go.
The moral of the story: We all have a tendency to overestimate how much we know — which, in turn, means that we often cling stubbornly to our beliefs while tuning out opinions different from our own. We generally believe we’re better or more correct than everyone else, or at least better than most people — a psychological quirk that’s as true for politics and religion as it is for things like fashion and lifestyles. And in a time when it seems like we’re all more convinced than ever of our own rightness, social scientists have begun to look more closely at an antidote: a concept called intellectual humility.
Unlike general humility — which is defined by traits like sincerity, honesty, and unselfishness — intellectual humility has to do with understanding the limits of one’s knowledge. It’s a state of openness to new ideas, a willingness to be receptive to new sources of evidence, and it comes with significant benefits: People with intellectual humility are both better learners and better able to engage in civil discourse. Google’s VP in charge of hiring, Laszlo Bock, has claimed it as one of the top qualities he looks for in a candidate: Without intellectual humility, he has said, “you are unable to learn.”
Psychologists agree with him, as research has shown that intellectually humble adults are more likely to learn from people they disagree with. “When we’re more engaged and listening to the other side, the disagreements tend to be more constructive,” says Tenelle Porter, a postdoctoral researcher in psychology at the University of California, Davis. But to get there, she adds, we have to be willing to expose ourselves to opposing perspectives in the first place — which means that, as daunting as it may seem, listening to friends and family with radically different views can be beneficial to our long-term intellectual progress.
One of the biggest obstacles to intellectual humility, Porter explains, has to do with the way a person thinks about the nature of intelligence more broadly. Those who hold a “fixed mind-set” — a term coined by Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck — believe that everyone is born with a certain amount of intelligence, and that because of this, there’s little point in trying to improve yourself. A person with a fixed mind-set and a high IQ, for example, might take on an arrogant stance, presuming they “already know everything” and therefore inadvertently holding themselves back from learning something new. Someone with a fixed mind-set and a lower IQ, along the same lines, might have a defeatist attitude (“I’m bad at math, and I’m always going to be bad at math”), dampening their drive to succeed.
“This kind of belief can be very threatening, because it risks branding people as, sort of, losers in the intellectual lottery,” Porter explains. People inclined toward a fixed mind-set can experience feelings of inferiority, causing them to latch on even more tightly to their opinions, or become defensive when questioned. Conversely, people who lean toward Dweck’s concept of a “growth mind-set” view intelligence as something more malleable, more like a muscle that can be strengthened — ultimately leading them to greater resiliency and a love of learning. In other words, the more intellectually flexible we are, the more we have to gain.
Porter suggests that the trait also helps us to develop other virtues as well. She points to a 2012 study by researchers Ethan Kross and Igor Grossmann, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, that found a correlation between intellectual humility and wisdom. “Three important dimensions of wisdom involve recognizing that the world is in flux and the future is likely to change, recognizing that there are limits associated with one’s own knowledge, and possessing a prosocial orientation that promotes the ‘common good,’” the authors wrote. But Kross and Grossmann noted that even when people strive for wisdom, they often fail to apply it to situations that have profound personal implications.
In order to reach the self-scrutiny required for cultivating wisdom, we have to bypass what psychologists refer to as our “bias blind spot” — the idea that our unique life experiences and circumstances give us greater insight than the people we observe or interact with on a daily basis. In a separate study published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology, researchers found that most people rated themselves (not surprisingly) as having less biases than the “average American.”
In the political sphere, these deep-rooted biases can often translate to defensiveness and myopia. Consciously working toward intellectual humility can be a way to “grease the wheel, and sort of ease [this] gridlock we’ve seen in Congress,” Porter says. “When people are working together in teams, hopefully it would make those interactions and workings more productive.”
However, mustering up the willingness to learn from another person can prove especially difficult when the stakes are high or involve deeply held beliefs. In a New York cover story published last month, writer Lisa Miller recounted stories from the documentary Guns and Empathy, a social experiment that examines whether gun victims and gun advocates can find a way to understand each other. For three days, participants were paired with someone of an opposing view, each taking turns sharing and listening to the other’s personal experiences. Afterward, each person was asked to reenact their assigned partner’s experience in front of the entire group, thereby putting themselves in “their shoes.”
The results of the experiment were mixed: While many people felt a new sense of empathy and understanding for those on the other side, the experiment didn’t fundamentally change anyone’s mind when they went back home. In part, this may be because of the ongoing tug of war between head and heart: Emotional connection is one thing, but intellectual connection is another. Empathy, in other words, doesn’t necessarily translate to the true engagement that intellectual humility requires.
Still, it helps to think of one in terms of the other: Intellectual humility is a more cerebral empathy, or empathy with the emotions removed. And, like empathy, intellectual humility is about listening over talking — and then using what we hear to make our interactions more civil, more meaningful, and more productive for all involved.