'Intellectual humility' could be key to becoming a better person, scientists say

Andrew Griffin
Intellectual humility would prove useful in Washington, the authors said: Getty

Scientists might have figured out one of the keys to becoming a better person.

Showing "intellectual humility" – recognising that you might be wrong about what you believe – is a reliable marker of how good people are at making choices and understanding, according to a new study.

The personality trait is little studied but doing so could shed light on how people make decisions in politics, health and other arenas, according to the researchers from Duke University.

The trait is equally spread between liberals and conservatives, and religious and non-religious people. But it affects how people make decisions about all those things and more, according to the study.

The authors define intellectual humility as the opposite of arrogance or conceit. It means that people are open-minded, they write – while people with the trait can have strong beliefs, they also recognise those beliefs as fallible and are willing to be proven wrong about them, according to lead author Mark Leary.

The researchers conducted four different studies to test out how he trait works and measure it in people.

In one, for instance, they read essays arguing for and against evolution, and then asked about the personality of the person writing it. Intellectually arrogant people tended to say that the person writing was immoral, dishonest, incompetent and cold – but intellectually humble people didn't judge the authors based on their views.

Those people who proved intellectually humble were better at evaluating the quality of evidence, the research found. They could distinguish good arguments from weak ones much better, they found.

And they criticised politicians less if they changed their mind on issue, accusing them less often of "flip-flopping". Intellectually humble people were more likely to think that it was actually good when a politician changed what they thought based on new evidence.

That would prove helpful in a range of different arenas, the authors said. Showing a little more intellectual humility would be better in politics, for instance.

"If you think about what's been wrong in Washington for a long time, it's a whole lot of people who are very intellectually arrogant about the positions they have, on both sides of the aisle," Leary said. "But even in interpersonal relationships, the minor squabbles we have with our friends, lovers and coworkers are often about relatively trivial things where we are convinced that our view of the world is correct and their view is wrong."

And it would make better business people, too.

"If you're sitting around a table at a meeting and the boss is very low in intellectual humility, he or she isn't going to listen to other people's suggestions," Leary said. "Yet we know that good leadership requires broadness of perspective and taking as many perspectives into account as possible."

The researchers hope that they can work to encourage and teach intellectual humility, to help improve people.

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