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Tuesday, August 8, 2023

Predictors and consequences of intellectual humility

Porter, T., Elnakouri, A., Meyers, E.A. et al. 
Nat Rev Psychol 1, 524–536 (2022).


In a time of societal acrimony, psychological scientists have turned to a possible antidote — intellectual humility. Interest in intellectual humility comes from diverse research areas, including researchers studying leadership and organizational behaviour, personality science, positive psychology, judgement and decision-making, education, culture, and intergroup and interpersonal relationships. In this Review, we synthesize empirical approaches to the study of intellectual humility. We critically examine diverse approaches to defining and measuring intellectual humility and identify the common element: a meta-cognitive ability to recognize the limitations of one’s beliefs and knowledge. After reviewing the validity of different measurement approaches, we highlight factors that influence intellectual humility, from relationship security to social coordination. Furthermore, we review empirical evidence concerning the benefits and drawbacks of intellectual humility for personal decision-making, interpersonal relationships, scientific enterprise and society writ large. We conclude by outlining initial attempts to boost intellectual humility, foreshadowing possible scalable interventions that can turn intellectual humility into a core interpersonal, institutional and cultural value.

Importance of intellectual humility

The willingness to recognize the limits of one’s knowledge and fallibility can confer societal and individual benefits, if expressed in the right moment and to the proper extent. This insight echoes the philosophical roots of intellectual humility as a virtue. State and trait intellectual humility have been associated with a range of cognitive, social and personality variables (Table 2). At the societal level, intellectual humility can promote societal cohesion by reducing group polarization and encouraging harmonious intergroup relationships. At the individual level, intellectual humility can have important consequences for wellbeing, decision-making and academic learning.

Notably, empirical research has provided little evidence regarding the generalizability of the benefits or drawbacks of intellectual humility beyond the unique contexts of WEIRD (Western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic) societies. With this caveat, below is an initial set of findings concerning the implications of possessing high levels of intellectual humility. Unless otherwise specified, the evidence below concerns trait-level intellectual humility. After reviewing these benefits, we consider attempts to improve an individual’s intellectual humility and confer associated benefits.


Individual benefits

Intellectual humility might also have direct consequences for individuals’ wellbeing. People who reason about social conflicts in an intellectually humbler manner and consider others’ perspectives (components of wise reasoning) are more likely to report higher levels of life satisfaction and less negative affect compared to people who do not. Leaders who are higher in intellectual humility are also higher in emotional intelligence and receive higher satisfaction ratings from their followers, which suggests that intellectual humility could benefit professional life. Nonetheless, intellectual humility is not associated with personal wellbeing in all contexts: religious leaders who see their religious beliefs as fallible have lower wellbeing relative to leaders who are less intellectually humble in their beliefs.

Intellectual humility might also help people to make well informed decisions. Intellectually humbler people are better able to differentiate between strong and weak arguments, even if those arguments go against their initial beliefs9. Intellectual humility might also protect against memory distortions. Intellectually humbler people are less likely to claim falsely that they have seen certain statements before116. Likewise, intellectually humbler people are more likely to scrutinize misinformation and are more likely to intend to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.

Lastly, intellectual humility is positively associated with knowledge acquisition, learning and educational achievement. Intellectually humbler people are more motivated to learn and more knowledgeable about general facts. Likewise, intellectually humbler high school and university students expend greater effort when learning difficult material, are more receptive to assignment feedback and earn higher grades.

Despite evidence of individual benefits associated with intellectual humility, much of this work is correlational. Thus, associations could be the product of confounding factors such as agreeableness, intelligence or general virtuousness. Longitudinal or experimental studies are needed to address the question of whether and under what circumstances intellectual humility promotes individual benefits. Notably, philosophical theorizing about the situation-specific virtuousness of the construct suggests that high levels of intellectual humility are unlikely to benefit all people in all situations.

What is intellectual humility? Intellectual humility is the ability to recognize the limits of one's knowledge and to be open to new information and perspectives.

Predictors of intellectual humility: There are a number of factors that can predict intellectual humility, including:
  • Personality traits: People who are high in openness to experience and agreeableness are more likely to be intellectually humble.
  • Cognitive abilities: People who are better at thinking critically and evaluating evidence are also more likely to be intellectually humble.
  • Cultural factors: People who live in cultures that value open-mindedness and tolerance are more likely to be intellectually humble.
Consequences of intellectual humility: Intellectual humility has a number of positive consequences, including:
  • Better decision-making: Intellectually humble people are more likely to make better decisions because they are more open to new information and perspectives.
  • Enhanced learning: Intellectually humble people are more likely to learn from their mistakes and to grow as individuals.
  • Stronger relationships: Intellectually humble people are more likely to have strong relationships because they are more willing to listen to others and to consider their perspectives.

Overall, intellectual humility is a valuable trait that can lead to a number of positive outcomes.