"Intellectual Humility" Is Surprisingly Bipartisan

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“Intellectual humility” – awareness that one’s beliefs may be wrong – is a little-studied personality trait. However, new, and very timely, research has found that intellectual humility is surprisingly bipartisan.

The study into the characteristic has found that there is very little difference in the level of recognition that your beliefs may be wrong between liberals and conservatives, Republicans and Democrats, and religious and non-religious people, smashing a few stereotypes along the way.

"There are stereotypes about conservatives and religiously conservative people being less intellectually humble about their beliefs," said lead author Mark Leary of Duke University in a statement. "We didn't find a shred of evidence to support that."

Leary and his colleagues define the term “intellectual humility” in their study, published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, as the opposite of intellectual arrogance and conceit – the assumption that your views and beliefs are always correct. Intellectually humble people are open-minded, willing to recognize their fallibility, and are open to being proven wrong. 

The researchers conducted four studies to learn more about how the trait functions. One study had people read essays arguing for or against religion, and then asked about the personality of the author. Intellectually arrogant people tended to rate the author as having low morality, honesty, competence, and warmth, whereas intellectually humble people were less likely to judge someone’s character based on whether they agreed with them or not. The researchers said this demonstrated that intellectual humility is associated with “curiosity, tolerance of ambiguity, and low dogmatism.”

Another study showed that those with intellectual humility did a better job evaluating the quality of evidence, for example, when reading an essay on flossing teeth, they correctly identified the strong fact-based argument from the weak one.

When it came to their views on politicians who change their position, the findings showed that, despite stereotypes, there were intellectually humble Republicans and people who described themselves as religiously conservative that would still vote for a politician whose position had changed over time due to new evidence. Democrats that were intellectually arrogant or humble were also less likely to reprimand a politician for changing their stance. 

"Not being afraid of being wrong – that's a value, and I think it is a value we could promote," Leary said. "I think if everyone was a bit more intellectually humble we'd all get along better, we'd be less frustrated with each other."

This is good news in a political world that feels like it has been divided down the middle into “us” and “them”, with reductive assumptions and name-calling being thrown about by both sides. Perhaps we’re not so different after all?

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