Intellectual humility is “the recognition that what you believe to be true may be wrong,” says social and personality psychologist Mark Leary, PhD. In a series of studies published in 2017 focused on measuring intellectual humility, Dr. Leary, along with other researchers, found intellectually humble people to be open-minded, curious, and less conceited about their beliefs, among other findings.
But, if you're concerned that holding this virtue may put you at risk of subscribing to beliefs that are antithetical to your own, worry not. Intellectual humility doesn’t require you to be quick to abandon your convictions in favor of those of whomever has your ear. Rather, it’s about acknowledging that your beliefs (however valid and solid they may feel to you) could be fallible. In fact, that aforementioned research also found that people with intellectual humility are actually more discerning than others at parsing evidence that best backs up beliefs.
So, how can you identify someone who is intellectually humble? And, if someone isn't, is it a trait that can be worked on? Read on to find out.
How to identify someone with intellectual humility (so you can ideally surround yourself with them)
The telltale sign that someone has intellectual humility is a demonstrated willingness to listen to and consider different opinions—no matter whether they accept that information or not. Entertaining such ideas reflects valuing other people's thoughts, which can be an important trait in a peer.
As Dr. Leary noted in a November 2021 article about intellectual humility published in Greater Good Magazine, “people who recognize that their beliefs are fallible take other people’s perspectives more seriously and recognize the value of divergent opinions.” Ultimately, people with intellectual humility pursue communication with others of different views out of desire to know the truth and to be accurate—not to confirm that they are, in fact, correct. These people value ongoing intellectual growth, so they engage with others to strengthen or refine their beliefs by way of respectfully collecting new information. This makes communicating with people who have different viewpoints more likely to be a fulfilling exchange than a tense debate, which is likely to ensue more often when no party involved has intellectual humility.
"Intellectually humble people are more attentive; they're better listeners." —Mark Leary, PhD, social and personality psychologist
But while having intellectual humility yourself is great, it doesn't necessarily mean the people with whom you converse also will. (You can't control everything!) Even so, simply having it yourself “does change how you deal with people who disagree with you,” Dr. Leary says, adding that people who are intellectually humble are often astute listeners and less likely to be dismissive of others, no matter what the other people believe.
"Intellectually humble people are engaged in what you think of as 'higher-quality listening' in discussions," Dr. Leary says. "Even just in their facial expressions, they're more attentive: They nod at things that they agree with, even though they might disagree with certain other things. They're better listeners." Overall, they are sincerely interested in grasping what another person says so they can be better informed about their own beliefs and opinions.
Common obstacles to achieving intellectual humility
Among top reasons folks may not have intellectual humility is a low tolerance for ambiguity. Many people find a sense of comfort in feeling confident—or even certain—in their beliefs. This appeals to a sense of decisiveness and the ability to construct the foundation for one's lived reality. Admitting you could be wrong about something could then strip confidence from your beliefs, inviting uncertainty about the way you see the world, which can be super uncomfortable for many.
It's also challenging to be intellectually humble when strongly held values are associated with your beliefs. "As soon as you put values or you moralize a topic, it makes it much more difficult for people to be open-minded about it," Dr. Leary says, adding that morals are intrinsic to your identity and help provide the framework for guiding your decisions. Such foundational beliefs are likely to be defended when challenged, and pose an obstacle to being intellectually humble.
How to develop intellectually humility
1. Recognize your own bias
The moment you can identify that your perspective and set of principles aren't necessarily inherently right or universally held by all people, the more willing you can be at entertaining other perspectives.
2. Identify the stakes in a conversation
It can be easy to get upset and double down on your opinions when someone offends your sensibilities. But in those moments, Dr. Leary suggest taking a different approach: Ask yourself, "what's actionable about this conversation?"
Basically, will this conversation result in a real change of behavior? Also, is the fallout—no matter which way it falls—likely to impact your life in a strong way? If the answer to either or both of those questions is "no," Dr. Leary encourages you to focus on listening instead of trying to win over the person.
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