Togneren: Intellectual humility is an asset, not a weakness

Of Hope College

Mark Twain apocryphally said, “I’m in favor of progress; it’s change I don’t like.”

This quote pithily underscores the human tendency to desire growth while also harboring strong resistance to the hard work that comes with it. And I can certainly resonate with this sentiment.

I was raised in a conservative evangelical home. Like many who grew up in a similar environment, I learned a set of religious beliefs that framed how I understood myself and the world around me.

I was taught that God is loving and powerful, and God’s faithful followers are protected. I was taught that the world is fair and that God is good.

The world thus seemed simple and predictable. Most of all, it seemed safe.

These beliefs were shattered when my brother unexpectedly died when I was 27 years old. His death at 34, leaving three young children, shocked our family and community.

In addition to reeling with grief, some of my deepest assumptions were challenged. Was God not good or not powerful? Why didn’t God save my kind and loving brother? And how unfair, uncaring and random is the universe?

This deep loss started a period where I questioned all of my beliefs in light of the evidence of my own experiences. Over a considerable amount of time, and thanks to an exemplary therapist, I was able to revise my worldview in a way that felt authentic.

I changed my mind, about a lot things. The process sure wasn’t pleasant, as it required more sleepless nights than I care to recall. But I was able to revise some of my core beliefs.

I didn’t realize it then, but this experience falls under what social science researchers call intellectual humility. And honestly, it is probably a large part of why, as a psychology professor, I am so interested in studying it.

Intellectual humility has been gaining more attention, and it seems critically important for our cultural moment, when it’s more common to defend your position than change your mind.

Intellectual humility is a particular kind of humility that has to do with beliefs, ideas or worldviews. This is not only about religious beliefs; it can show up in political views, various social attitudes, areas of knowledge or expertise or any other strong convictions. It has both internal- and external-facing dimensions.

Within yourself, intellectual humility involves awareness and ownership of the limitations and biases in what you know and how you know it. It requires a willingness to revise your views in light of strong evidence.

Interpersonally, it means keeping your ego in check so you can present your ideas in a modest and respectful manner. It calls for presenting your beliefs in ways that are not defensive and admitting when you’re wrong. It involves showing that you care more about learning and preserving relationships than about being “right” or demonstrating intellectual superiority.

Another way of thinking about humility, intellectual or otherwise, is being the right size in any given situation: not too big (which is arrogance), but also not too small (which is self-deprecation).

Having confidence in your area of expertise is different than thinking you know it all about everything.

I know a fair amount about psychology, but not much about opera.

When I’m in professional settings, I can embrace the expertise that I’ve earned over the years. But when visiting the opera house with more cultured friends, I should listen and ask questions, rather than confidently assert my highly uninformed opinion.

Four main aspects of intellectual humility include being open-minded, curious, realistic and teachable. And that’s often hard work, especially when the stakes are high.

Starting with the admission that you, like everyone else, have cognitive biases and flaws that limit how much you know, intellectual humility might look like taking genuine interest in learning about your relative’s beliefs during a conversation at a family get-together, rather than waiting for them to finish so you can prove them wrong by sharing your superior opinion.

It could look like considering the merits of an alternative viewpoint on a hot-button political issue and why respectable, intelligent people might disagree with you. When you approach these challenging discussions with curiosity and humility, they become opportunities to learn and grow.

Intellectually humble people are more accepting of people who hold differing religious and political views. A central part of it is an openness to new ideas, so folks are less defensive to potentially challenging perspectives.

Finally, humility helps facilitate personal growth. Being intellectually humble allows you to have a more accurate view of yourself.

When you can admit and take ownership of your limitations, you can seek help in areas where you have room to grow, and you’re more responsive to information. When you limit yourself to only doing things the way you’ve always done them, you miss out on countless opportunities for growth, expansion and novelty — things that strike you with awe, fill you with wonder and make life worth living.

Despite these benefits, sometimes humility gets a bad rap, so it’s important to dispel some myths.

Intellectual humility isn’t lacking conviction; you can believe something strongly until your mind is changed and you believe something else. It also isn’t being wishy-washy. You should have a high bar for what evidence you require to change your mind. It also doesn’t mean being self-deprecating or always agreeing with others. Remember, it’s being the right size, not too small.

There was one other thing that religion taught me that was slightly askew. I was told that too much learning could be ruinous; after all, you wouldn’t want to learn so much that you might lose your faith.

In my experience, what I learned through loss may have salvaged a version of my faith that I can genuinely endorse — one that feels authentic to my experiences. The sooner we can open our minds and stop resisting change, the sooner we’ll find the freedom offered by humility.

From The Conversation, an online repository of lay versions of academic research findings found at https://theconversation.com/us. Used with permission.


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