Intellectual Humility: Are You Open to Being Wrong?

Updated: Jul 10

If I asked you if you identify as a racist, a xenophobe, or a bigot, chances are pretty good you’d say, “Of course not!”  But, I’d like to pose a tougher question.  Are you ignorant?  Before you answer, let’s establish a working definition of ignorance for the purpose of this exercise.


ig·no·rant| ˈiɡnərənt | adjective 

  1. lacking knowledge; uneducated about a particular topic;

  2. one who makes inaccurate assumptions based upon a lack of awareness or insight.

Psychologist Daniel Kahneman wrote, "Our comforting conviction that the world makes sense rests on a secure foundation: our almost unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance." There is something intellectually impressive about having the kind of humility necessary to acknowledge there is a lot you don't k now and that a lot of what you think you know is distorted or wrong.


The vast majority of us would not self-identify as ignorant. Statistically speaking, more than 75% of us would claim to be of above average intelligence. Given our working definition of ignorance, when was the last time you made an inaccurate assumption about someone with whom you disagreed based upon a lack of awareness or insight into that individual's personal point of view?  Have you ever generalized those on the other side of the issue as idiots who just don’t get it? Pick a topic.


Politics.

Abortion.

Immigration.

Police reform.

Health care.

Even face masks have become the litmus test of "ignorance." 


How receptive are you to understand why someone disagrees with you rather than persuade that person to see it your way? Two open-minded people trying vehemently to convince the other of “rightness” is something of an oxymoron. Everyone seems to be increasingly more convinced of their “rightness” and the “wrongness” of those with a different opinion.




Most of us simply are not as open-minded as we’d like to think. When was the last time you made an assumption about someone who held an opposing opinion? Did you take the time to ask questions to really understand why they felt the way they did – and then truly listened to the answers?

It’s human nature to see ourselves as more insightful, and more “right” than others. It’s a prime example of illusory superiority bias, and it’s true for politics, religion, social issues, and even fashion. Those topics often make for contentious, uncomfortable, and frustrating conversations. And, at a time when conflicting opinions are everywhere, it’s easier to walk away from the discussion altogether and disregard the person as an “idiot.”

Consider a 2017 study in which scientists asked 2,400 well-educated adults to consider arguments on politically controversial issues — same-sex marriage, gun control, marijuana legalization, abortion, etc. When asked to discuss these issues with people who opposed their viewpoints, approximately two thirds of people stuck so firmly to their positions they gave up a chance to win extra money in order to avoid the conversation much less entertain opposing views.

The rate at which you learn depends upon how willing you are to consider opposing ideas, even if you don’t instinctively like them –especially if you don’t like them.

At a time when it seems that we’re all more convinced than ever of our own rightness, social scientists are exploring a concept called intellectual humility. People with high levels of intellectual humility don’t try to convince others of their perspective, rather they search to discover their own distorted thinking. Intellectual humility is not just being open to the possibility of being wrong. It’s actively searching for evidence toprove they are wrong.

"Out of crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made." - Immanuel Kant

People with intellectual humility come from the "crooked timber" school of humanity - moral realists who believe that character is demonstrated through internal struggle rather than external superiority. This is not an instinctive behavior. It is uncomfortable to be wrong; it’s even more uncomfortable to search out why we are wrong about a deep-seated belief. The ingrained idea that our own unique life experiences give us greater insight than those around us may be the biggest obstacle to growth.



In a 2017 study conducted at Duke University, researcher Mark Leary and his colleagues conducted a series of studies illustrating that by building our capacity for intellectual humility, we also increase empathy, and emotional intelligence, improve decision-making, and significantly build our base of knowledge.


“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”— F. Scott Fitzgerald



Intellectual Humility on Company Culture

Intellectual humility is just as important in business as it is in politics and religion. New research shows that people with intellectual humility are better learners and collaborators because they don’t disregard opposing viewpoints, rather they intentionally search them out. Teams comprised of people committed to incorporating alternative perspectives into their discussions are much more productive than teams comprised of members firmly entrenched in their own views.

Diverse thinking not only opens the door for new ideas, it also enables people to better identify costly potential pitfalls and flaws. Leaders who exhibit low intellectual humility aren’t open to new ideas and may even become defensive or hostile when their ideas are challenged. This not only dilutes the quality of ideas, but it sends a very strong message to team members about their value and ability to contribute.

Lazlo Bock, former senior VP of People Operations at Google, claims it was one of the most important qualities he looked for in a candidate. According to Bock, people with no sense of intellectual humility are incapable of learning. "The most successful people are those who “argue like hell and are zealots about their point of view, but when a new fact emerges are able to admit that the situation has changed–and they’re not right.”


Countless psychologists agree with Bock, and a growing number of HR executives are incorporating intellectual humility into their requisite qualifications for new hires. Having the ability to see the world through another’s lenses doesn’t mean you don’t have convictions. It means that you are open to other new people, new perspectives, new experiences.  It also means you understand the limitations of your own thinking.  


"Not knowing the scope of your own ignorance is part of the human condition. But the problem with it is we see it in other people, and we don’t see it in ourselves. The first rule of the Dunning-Kruger club is you don’t know you’re a member of the Dunning-Kruger club.” - David Dunning
















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