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Monday, July 1, 2024

Effects of intellectual humility in the context of affective polarization: Approaching and avoiding others in controversial political discussions

Knöchelmann, L., & Cohrs, J. C. (2024).
Journal of personality and social psychology, 
Advance online publication.


Affective polarization, the extent to which political actors treat each other as disliked outgroups, is challenging political exchange and deliberation, for example, via mistrust of the "political enemy" and unwillingness to discuss political topics with them. The present experiments address this problem and study what makes people approach, and not avoid, potential discussion partners in the context of polarized political topics in Germany. We hypothesized that intellectual humility, the recognition of one's intellectual limitations, would predict both less affective polarization and higher approach and lower avoidance tendencies toward contrary-minded others. Across four preregistered online-survey experiments (N = 1,668), we manipulated how intellectually humble a target person was perceived and measured participants' self-reported (topic-specific) intellectual humility. Results revealed that participants' intellectual humility was consistently negatively correlated with affective polarization. Additionally, intellectual humility of both the target person and the participants was beneficial, and sometimes even necessary, to make participants approach, and not avoid, the target person. Intellectual humility was more important than moral conviction, opinion, and opinion strength. Furthermore, the effects on approach and avoidance were mediated by more positive expectations regarding the debate, and the effects on future willingness for contact by higher target liking. Our findings suggest that intellectual humility is an important characteristic to enable political exchange as it leads to seeing political outgroups more positively and to a higher willingness to engage in intergroup contact. Implications for intergroup contact of political groups as well as ideas for future research are discussed.

Here are some thoughts as to why intellectual humility is important to practicing psychologists:

Intellectual humility involves recognizing the limits of one's knowledge and being open to opposing perspectives.  This can help therapists avoid being overly dogmatic or dismissive of their clients' beliefs, even if they disagree. Maintaining an open and non-judgmental stance is crucial for building a strong therapeutic alliance.

People higher in intellectual humility tend to be more empathetic, forgiving, and valuing of others' wellbeing.  These qualities can facilitate better rapport and understanding between therapists and clients from different backgrounds or with contrasting worldviews.

Intellectual humility is associated with reduced polarization, extremism, and susceptibility to conspiracy beliefs.  Therapists exhibiting intellectual humility can model these qualities for clients struggling with rigid ideological stances that strain their relationships.

When political or controversial topics arise in therapy, intellectual humility can allow therapists to thoughtfully consider different perspectives without getting mired in unproductive debates or power struggles with clients.  An intellectually humble stance creates space for productive dialogue.

Overall, cultivating intellectual humility may help therapists navigate affective polarization and controversial topics more constructively in the therapeutic context by increasing openness, empathy, and willingness to entertain alternative viewpoints.  This can strengthen the therapeutic relationship and facilitate progress, even when working with clients holding contrasting beliefs.