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Intellectual Humility: the importance of knowing you might be wrong

A longer version of this article appears on [John Templeton Foundation]

Psychologists and philosophers are working to tease apart the ways we respond to new ideas and information — and the possible benefits of intellectual humility.

Intellectual humility is a mindset that guides our intellectual conduct. In particular, it involves recognizing and owning our intellectual limitations in the service of pursuing deeper knowledge, truth, and understanding. Such a mindset appears to be valuable in many domains of life — from education to inter religious dialogue to public discourse. It promises to help us avoid headstrong decisions and erroneous opinions, and allows us to engage more constructively with our fellow citizens.

Researchers in the field have not settled on a unified definition of intellectual humility. Theorists have treated it variously as a personality trait, a cognitive disposition, a set of self-regulatory habits, an intellectual virtue, and an absence of intellectual vices. Sometimes intellectual humility is defined as a fully general trait, guiding people’s responses to evidence across a wide array of situations; other times, it is characterized as a way for people to manage their responses to one specific belief or set of beliefs.

Intellectual humility speaks to people’s willingness to reconsider their views, to avoid defensiveness when challenged, and to moderate their own need to appear “right.”

Intellectual humility is sensitive to counter-evidence, realistic in outlook, strives for accuracy, shows little concern for self-importance, and is corrective of the natural tendency to strongly prioritize one’s own needs. If intellectual humility does not lead to boundless tolerance, it may at least help people overcome what Freud called the “narcissism of small differences.” This is a central topic for future research given that political and religious debates can spiral into ever-increasing fractiousness and polarization. If intellectual humility does in fact make people more tolerant, the value of that outcome may depend upon the range of differences they can tolerate.

Can you think of times when applying intellectual humility could have created a positive impact?



Watch the video “The Joy of Being Wrong.”

Photo by Ketut Subiyanto from Pexels

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