6 How Easy Is It to Be Intellectually Humble in Our Daily Lives?

Eranda Jayawickreme

In this essay, I propose that one important component of humility involves being aware of the limits of your own knowledge.[1] Possessing such intellectual humility is central to being humble (I am not alone in this belief; Valerie Tiberius has also made this point).[2] Building on Daniel Kuebler’s insights in this volume, I believe this specific epistemic virtue is critical to doing good science. Being able to think clearly about the world involves the cultivation of intellectual virtues promoting unbiased, rational thought. Contemporary scientists have, moreover, increasingly understood wise reasoning in terms of unbiased thought and have specifically argued that such thinking can be facilitated through the enactment of intellectual humility.[3]

It turns out that there are a number of definitions of intellectual humility in the literature, but my preferred definition casts intellectual humility in terms of a disposition to be alert to, admit to, and take responsibility for cognitive limitations and mistakes.[4] This variant of humility has been found to correlate with benefits in education, social relationships, forgiveness, and religious tolerance. It is also closely aligned with the intellectual strengths of open-mindedness and curiosity, and the interrelations between these becomes clear when one considers that intellectual humility can be seen as a subset of open-mindedness, and open-mindedness in turn a subset of curiosity. This view is based on the perception, in many cases, that one cannot be intellectually humble without being both curious and open-minded. From a developmental standpoint, moreover, open-mindedness may be a prerequisite for intellectual humility. On the other hand, as the philosopher Jason Baehr mentioned to me a few years ago, one could imagine someone being intellectually humble (that is, they might freely acknowledge their cognitive limitations when pressed) but not particularly curious about the world. Moreover, it seems that one’s motivation to manifest intellectual humility is likely predicated on one’s willingness to evaluate different and novel types of information, that is, to be open-minded. Finding clarity on these distinctions may require a career’s worth of investigation.

However, an additional question that I believe merits investigation is the following: which social contexts are more likely to elicit intellectual humility?[5] Typically, current empirical research on intellectual humility has conceptualized it as a stable, trait-like virtue.[6] On this account, some people are typically more or less humble than others. However, although it is indeed likely that individuals differ in their characteristic levels of intellectual humility, there is also reason to believe that this virtue can be manifested in response to specific situations. If we begin from the premise that some situations are more likely to promote intellectual humility than others, then what are the situational contingencies that promote intellectual humility in adults?

It may be worth explaining here what I mean by a situational contingency. It refers to a systematic relationship between a given thought, feeling, or behavior that a person enacts on the one hand, and a given characteristic of the situation on the other. For example, an individual may experience an increase in intellectual humility when debating a political issue with a friend. In this example, there is a contingency of intellectually humble thoughts, feelings, and behaviors (example items: “I viewed the challenging of my ideas as an opportunity to grow and learn”; “I felt that it was important to work through competing solutions to the problem”; “I complimented the good ideas of those who disagreed with me”) as a function of engagement with that specific situation. Such contingencies do not represent the trait of intellectual humility; rather, they refer to changes in the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors characteristic of the trait of intellectual humility that describes the way the individual is being at the moment. So, the focus here is on whether intellectually engaging situations (as reported by the participant) increase the extent to which individuals can be described as intellectually humble while they are in the situation.

Our team speculated that compared to the situational contingencies associated with other personality traits such as conscientiousness, situational contingencies of intellectual humility would be unlikely to occur as frequently, since we likely do not encounter situations relevant to owning our cognitive limitations as often as we would situations relevant to other traits. Thus, we conducted a three-week study in which a sample of 111 undergraduate students between 18 and 22 years of age (M = 19.06, SD = 0.94) filled out a questionnaire sent to their smartphones about their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors twice a day (typically studies collect assessment between five and ten times per day). We were interested in their manifestations of intellectual humility and the situational contingencies associated with these manifestations. Specifically, participants were asked about the situations they had been in over the previous twelve hours and the extent to which those experiences made them feel intellectually humble. We developed the questionnaire so as to capture the central thoughts, feelings, and behaviors associated with intellectual humility (to be alert to, admit to, and take responsibility for cognitive limitations and mistakes).

What did our study find?[7] It turned out that seeing interpersonal situations as disagreeable, rather than amicable, caused intellectual humility to go down. But seeing the interlocutor in a given situation as a moral actor caused intellectual humility to go up. Perception of one’s interlocutor was actually the best predictor of intellectual humility. Additionally, we found that people varied significantly in their manifestation of intellectual humility from questionnaire to questionnaire. In fact, they differed more from their own assessments at other time points than they did from other people. This confirmed that intellectual humility can be seen as a “tool” manifested in relevant situations—it can be deployed when circumstances demand—as opposed to a “fixed” trait.

Of course, this is just one study, and more work needs to be done (including replications of this study itself). But some interesting future directions present themselves. Igor Grossmann and his colleagues, for example, have shown that the broad construct of wise reasoning (including intellectual humility, as I noted earlier, although he used different assessments to study it) increases in situations when subjects reflect on other people’s challenges as opposed to their own challenges.[8] Additionally, his own diary studies have shown evidence for increased wise reasoning in situations where work colleagues or friends were present, as opposed to when strangers were present. Future work should examine these contingencies, and further capture the manifestations of intellectual humility in different aspects of daily life.

Additionally, I think we need to integrate research on intellectual humility and other dimensions of wisdom with current integrative approaches to personality. For example, Whole Trait Theory[9] claims that individual differences in manifestations of trait-relevant behavior (such as intellectual humility as captured by the study described above) can be explained by specific social-cognitive mechanisms—that is, the specific ways in which people process, store, and apply information about people and situations. Given that successful interventions to increase intellectual humility will require knowledge of how such mechanisms can be successfully manipulated, I think this project will be an especially important one. Studies that replicate existing findings such as the ones reported here as well as those that successfully “scale up” interventions based on basic research[10] will be essential for translating basic research for societal benefit.

Finally, I confess to initially finding the results of this study somewhat disappointing. Despite the fact that we seem capable of expressing intellectual humble thoughts, feelings, and behaviors to different degrees across situations, one lesson of this research seems to be that being intellectual humble is hard. Why do I say this? It seems that we find it easy to manifest it in “easy” situations (for example, when the other individual is perceived as moral and therefore trustworthy) but struggle to deploy in situations where intellectual humility could be most valuable (for example, when an interpersonal situation is disagreeable). There are likely other factors that distinguish those individuals who can manage to exhibit intellectual humility in “hard” situations from the rest. Additionally, these results may vary by age and experience—I should note that our study focused on undergraduate students. Future research with samples from different age groups and backgrounds can answer this question, and hopefully help us develop ways to promote it in society.

ERANDA JAYAWICKREME is Associate Professor of Psychology at Wake Forest University. He is the Project Co-Leader of the Pathways to Character Project, a $3.4 million initiative funded by the John Templeton Foundation examining the possibilities for strengthening character following adversity, challenge, or failure. His research focuses on well-being, moral psychology, growth following adversity, wisdom, and integrative theories of personality. He has published in both psychology and philosophy, and his work has been featured on Slate and in the New York Times. In addition to the John Templeton Foundation, his work has been supported by the Templeton Religion Trust, the Templeton World Charity Foundation, the European Association for Personality Psychology, and the Asia Foundation/USAID.

Bibliography

  • Fleeson, William, and Eranda Jayawickreme. “Whole Trait Theory.” Journal of Research in Personality 56 (2015): 82–92.
  • Grossmann, Igor, Tanja M. Gerlach, and Jaap J.A. Denissen. “Wise Reasoning in the Face of Everyday Life Challenges,” Social Psychological and Personality Science 7.7 (2016): 611–22.
  • Jayawickreme, Eranda, and William Fleeson. “Does Whole Trait Theory Work for the Virtues.” In Moral Psychology: Virtue and Happiness, edited by Walter Sinnott-Armstrong and Christian B. Miller, 75–103. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2017.
  • Jayawickreme, Eranda, Corinne E. Zachry, and William Fleeson. “Whole Trait Theory: An Integrative Approach to Examining Personality Structure and Process.” Personality and Individual Differences 136 (2019): 2–11.
  • Krumrei-Mancuso, Elizabeth J., and Steven V. Rouse. “The Development and Validation of the Comprehensive Intellectual Humility Scale.” Journal of Personality Assessment 98.2 (2016): 209–21.
  • Leary, Mark R., Kate J. Diebels, Erin K. Davisson, Katrina P. Jongman-Sereno, Jennifer C. Isherwood, Kaitlin T. Raimi, Samantha A. Deffler, and Rick H. Hoyle. “Cognitive and Interpersonal Features of Intellectual Humility.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 43.6 (2017): 793–813.
  • Roberts, Robert C., and William Jay Wood. Intellectual Virtues: An Essay in Regulative Epistemology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.
  • Tiberius, Valerie. “Wisdom and Humility.” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1384.1 (2016): 113–16.
  • Walton, Gregory M., and Timothy D. Wilson. “Wise Interventions: Psychological Remedies for Social and Personal Problems.” Psychological Review 125.5 (2018): 617.
  • Whitcomb, Dennis, Heather Battaly, Jason Baehr, and Daniel Howard‐Snyder. “Intellectual Humility: Owning Our Limitations.” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 94.3 (2017): 509–39.
  • Zachry, Corinne E., Le Vy Phan, Laura E.R. Blackie, and Eranda Jayawickreme. “Situation-Based Contingencies Underlying Wisdom-Content Manifestations: Examining Intellectual Humility in Daily Life.” The Journals of Gerontology: Series B 73.8 (2018): 1404–15.

  1. This work was supported by the John Templeton Foundation (grant #60450 to EJ). The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the John Templeton Foundation. I thank Corinne Zachry, Le Vy Phan, Laura Blackie, Rich Lerner, Alan Wilson, Jason Baehr, and the members of the Growth Initiative Lab. This essay summarizes research appearing in Corinne E. Zachry, Le Vy Phan, Laura E.R. Blackie, and Eranda Jayawickreme, "Situation-Based Contingencies Underlying Wisdom-Content Manifestations: Examining Intellectual Humility in Daily Life," The Journals of Gerontology: Series B 73.8 (2018): 1404–15.
  2. Valerie Tiberius, “Wisdom and Humility,” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1384.1 (2016): 113–16.
  3. See Igor Grossmann, Tanja M. Gerlach, and Jaap J.A. Denissen, "Wise Reasoning in the Face of Everyday Life Challenges," Social Psychological and Personality Science 7.7 (2016): 611–22; Elizabeth J. Krumrei-Mancuso and Steven V. Rouse, "The Development and Validation of the Comprehensive Intellectual Humility Scale," Journal of Personality Assessment 98.2 (2016): 209–21; Mark R. Leary, Kate J. Diebels, Erin K. Davisson, Katrina P. Jongman-Sereno, Jennifer C. Isherwood, Kaitlin T. Raimi, Samantha A. Deffler, and Rick H. Hoyle, "Cognitive and Interpersonal Features of Intellectual Humility," Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 43.6 (2017): 793–813.
  4. Dennis Whitcomb, Heather Battaly, Jason Baehr, and Daniel Howard‐Snyder, "Intellectual Humility: Owning Our Limitations," Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 94.3 (2017): 509–39; but for an alternate view see Robert C. Roberts and William Jay Wood, Intellectual Virtues: An Essay in Regulative Epistemology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).
  5. See Zachry et al., "Situation-Based Contingencies Underlying Wisdom-Content Manifestations.”
  6. See Krumrei-Mancuso and Rouse, "The Development and Validation of the Comprehensive Intellectual Humility Scale," and Leary et al., “Cognitive and Interpersonal Features of Intellectual Humility.”
  7. For details interested readers can refer to Zachry et al., "Situation-Based Contingencies Underlying Wisdom-Content Manifestations.”
  8. See Grossmann, Gerlach, and Denissen, "Wise Reasoning in the Face of Everyday Life Challenges.”
  9. William Fleeson and Eranda Jayawickreme, "Whole Trait Theory," Journal of Research in Personality 56 (2015): 82–92; Eranda Jayawickreme and William Fleeson, "Does Whole Trait Theory Work for the Virtues," in Moral Psychology: Virtue and Happiness, edited by Walter Sinnott-Armstrong and Christian B. Miller (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2017), 75–103; Eranda Jayawickreme, Corinne E. Zachry, and William Fleeson, "Whole Trait Theory: An Integrative Approach to Examining Personality Structure and Process," Personality and Individual Differences 136 (2019): 2–11.
  10. Gregory M. Walton and Timothy D. Wilson, "Wise Interventions: Psychological Remedies for Social and Personal Problems," Psychological Review 125.5 (2018): 617.