Spirituality & Health Magazine

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A Secret Weapon: Being Intellectually Humble

A little-studied characteristic boots tolerance and aids in decision making.

We’ve got brashness to spare these days. Ego in truckloads. Hot sales on hostility. A personality trait called “intellectual humility” sure could come in handy during times of high partisanship, say the researchers at Duke University. What’s intellectual humility? It sounds so simple: It’s the awareness that your own beliefs may—gasp!—be wrong. Consider it open-mindedness. If you are intellectually humble, you can have strong beliefs, yet still be willing to be proven wrong.

It’s a little-studied trait, yet the research from Duke showed that the characteristic can help people in their decision making in many areas, from politics to health. “There are stereotypes about conservatives and religiously conservative people being less intellectually humble about their beliefs,” wrote the study’s lead author, Mark Leary, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke. “We didn’t find a shred of evidence to support that.”

He and his team did four studies to measure the trait and to learn more about how it functions. For example, in one, the study participants read essays that argued for or against religion and then were asked about what they guessed about the author’s personality. Intellectually arrogant people tended to score the writer low in terms of morality, honesty and competence if they disagreed with the writer’s position. Intellectually humble people were less likely to judge the writer’s character based on the position he or she was taking.

Where does this trait come in handy? Intellectual humble people tend to do a better job evaluating evidence. In another part of the study, they were better able to distinguish strong, fact-based arguments from weak ones on a very mundane matter: the benefits of flossing. Leary points out that this discernment the type of thing that is called for in the business world.

“If you’re sitting around a table at a meeting and the boss is very low in intellectual humility, he or she isn’t going to listen to other people’s suggestions,” Leary wrote. “Yet we know that good leadership requires broadness of perspective and taking as many perspectives into account as possible.”

The good news is that Leary and his study’s co-authors suggest that the trait of intellectual humility is something that can be taught. In fact, his team worked with a group of psychologists and philosophers, one of whom launched a charter school in Long Beach, California, the Intellectual Virtues Academy.

“Not being afraid of being wrong,” writes Leary, “That’s a value, and I think it is a value we could promote. “If everyone was a bit more intellectually humble we’d all get along better.”

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