The front cover of Elaine Fox's book, Switchcraft
Health and wellbeing, Mental health, Social and behavioural

Why intellectual humility matters

Elaine Fox on a theme from her book Switchcraft: Harnessing the Power of Mental Agility to Transform Your Life

28 July 2022

‘It is unwise to be too sure of one’s own wisdom. It is healthy to be reminded that the strongest might weaken and wisest might err.’ - Mahatma Gandhi.

Being open to experience is one of the so-called Big-Five personality traits and, among other things, is associated with curiosity, creativity, and appreciation of unusual ideas. People who are open to experience have a wide and ever-increasing range of interests. They actively enjoy being confronted with new ideas and experiences; they not only enjoy but want to taste different foods, see new sights, and reconsider their values. An often-forgotten aspect of openness is the capacity to accept that your beliefs and opinions might be wrong; a trait that has been called ‘intellectual humility’.

Those high in intellectual humility agree with statements such as ‘I recognise the value in opinions that are different to my own’ and ‘I am open to revising my important beliefs in the face of new information’. In other words, being intellectually humble comes with a willingness to accept that changing your mind is sometimes the right thing to do.

The reason that intellectual humility can be useful is that it helps to strip away our natural tendency to interpret the world around us with a lens that is heavily coloured by our own personal biases, self-interests, and experience. This allows us to approach every situation as if we might be wrong, which can have a surprising impact on our lives.

No one size fits all

Most of us want to fit in well to our society. In other words, the number one goal is arguably to achieve the best psychological adjustment we can. It’s no surprise, then, that a huge range of psychological and pharmacological interventions have been developed, endless self-help books have been written, and a multitude of gurus have offered up a great variety of techniques and tricks to make our lives better.

Many of these techniques are evidence-based and have helped millions to improve their lives. Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy approaches, such as those pioneered by Mark Williams for instance, have shown remarkable benefits for many people. Likewise, Barbara Frederickson tells us that maintaining a positivity ratio of at least 3:1 for pleasant versus unpleasant experiences correlates with general wellbeing, Carol Dweck advocates for the advantages of nurturing a growth mindset, and for Angela Duckworth it’s about being gritty.

'Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy approaches have shown remarkable benefits for many people.'

And yet, there are times when even well supported interventions, such as mindfulness, can backfire. An extensive review by the Brown University psychologist Willoughby Britton, for instance, has shown that mindfulness practices can sometimes have distinctly negative effects, even for those who have previously benefited from the technique. It reminds us that no intervention is universally beneficial.

This is a theme I develop in my new book Switchcraft, which proposes that there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution to life. Instead, I argue that a more important factor in determining our happiness is knowing when and how to switch between different approaches. Opening your mind to the idea that your tried-and-tested ways of doing things may not be the best approach can make a real difference to your life. This is based on a growing realisation in psychology, for example in the work of Todd Kashdan and Jonathan Rottenberg, that psychological agility is essential for wellbeing and resilience.

It’s not hard to see why; being flexible and agile helps us choose the most appropriate actions when we are faced with a variety of ever-changing everyday challenges. If the world around us was simple, straightforward, and static then we could perfect one or two ways of thinking or acting that would serve us well in every situation. Instead, uncertainty and change are a fact of life.

In fact, uncertainty is the only real certainty in life. This is not just in the big things – such as a global pandemic, say – but also in our everyday lives. We never know when we might fall ill, a lover might leave us, or we might lose our job. To optimise our psychological adjustment, then, we must duck and dive and adapt to our ever-changing world – using what I call ‘switchcraft’.

'Being flexible and agile helps us choose the most appropriate actions when we are faced with a variety of ever-changing everyday challenges.'

Part of the armoury

And this is where intellectual humility comes in. Switchcraft is not about agility for its own sake, it is an agility that is informed by a deeper understanding of ourselves, our emotions, and the world around us. This in turn allows us to make decisions that are more finely tuned to our personal circumstances.

I discuss several ways to deepen self-awareness in Switchcraft, including personality testing (sometimes called the ‘psychology of the stranger’), uncovering your own life narrative, as well as ways to tune in to your physical body and physiological reactions. Developing a humble mindset is just part of this wider armoury.

Those who are intellectually humble show a willingness to reconsider even their most cherished beliefs when faced with new evidence; tend not to get overly defensive when challenged; and strive for accuracy without undue regard for protecting their own worldview. While it flies in the face of typical cognitive processing – which is of course heavily influenced by self-interest, in-group pre-conceptions, and our experiences – intellectual humility is a mindset that seeks out the truth of a situation.

Being intellectually humble does not mean being a pushover or lacking conviction. Instead, as the psychologist Brian Resnick has written, it is a method of thinking that involves being genuinely open to learning from other people and simply accepting that you might be wrong.

Research backs this up: Tenelle Porter and Karina Schumann’s 2017 study found that those who score highly on intellectual humility are indeed more open to opposing views, and Mark Leary’s team in the same year found they pay more attention to the evidence even when it conflicts with their beliefs. In an interesting line of research, Leor Zimgrod and a team of Cambridge psychologists have also found that the ability to come up with lots of alternative uses for everyday objects – a standard measure of mental agility – is associated with a higher degree of intellectual humility.

Being intellectually humble also has implications for the polarisation of society. A study by Shauna Bowes and her colleagues, for instance, found that, at least for those with moderate political views, people who report high degrees of intellectual humility are less likely to systematically prefer political arguments that support their own viewpoint, and they are more likely to learn from those with contrasting political views to their own. It is therefore perhaps not surprising that in Elizabeth Krumrei-Mancuso’s 2017 study, intellectual humility was correlated with a prosocial orientation and greater empathy for other people.

Developing intellectual humility

So, given the personal and societal benefits, how can we develop our intellectual humility?

  1.  Nurture a growth mindset – the sense that our ability is not fixed but can be encouraged and improved through hard work and good strategies – can help (Porter and Schumann, Study 4). The remarkable impact that ‘fixed’ and ‘growth’ mindsets can have on a person’s life is described beautifully by psychologist Carol Dweck in her 2007 book Mindset. When you are open to learning, you are also more likely to accept that you might sometimes be wrong. You can start by focusing on actions and not on traits, facing your challenges head on and seeing them as opportunities to learn, and take a deeper step into self-awareness.
  2. Celebrate your failures – this is obviously easier said than done, but is a great way to accept you got it wrong. Listen carefully to feedback from others and take on board suggestions of how you might improve.
  3. Expose yourself to alternative viewpoints – it is all too easy to cocoon ourselves into bubbles of people with views and opinions very similar to our own. If we are not exposed to facts or points of view that we don’t agree with then it is very difficult to learn. So, prepare to be offended. Listen to arguments and opinions that you disagree with and see whether you can find any value in them. Follow people and conversations on social media that you know will have very different views. You don’t have to change your mind, of course, but be open to the possibility that they may have something of value to say.

There is a need for more research in this area of course, but in embracing these three changes, you can nurture and grow your own intellectual humility.

  • Professor Elaine Fox is Head of School of Psychology at the University of Adelaide. Switchcraft: Harnessing the Power of Mental Agility to Transform Your Life is published by Hodder & Stoughton.
References
  • Bowes, S.M., Costello, T.H., Lee, C., McElroy-Heltzel, S., Davis, D.E., & Lilienfeld, S.O. (2022). Stepping outside the echo chamber: Is intellectual humility associated with less political myside bias? Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 48, 150-164.
  • Britton, W. B. (2019). Can mindfulness be too much of a good thing? The value of a middle way. Current Opinion in Psychology, 28, 159-165.
  • Duckworth, A. (2016). Grit. The Power of Passion and Perseverance. Schribner Books.
  • Dweck, C. (2006). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Ballotine Books.
  • Fredrickson, B.L. (2013). Positive emotions broaden and build. In P. Devine & A. Plant. (Eds). Advances in Experimental Social Psychology (Vol 47, pp. 1-54). San Diego: CA: Academic Press.
  • Kashdan, T.B., & Rottenberg, J. (2010). Psychological flexibility as a fundamental aspect of health. Clinical Psychology Review, 30, 865-878.
  • Krumrei-Mancuso, E. (2017). Intellectual humility and prosocial values: Direct and mediated effects. Journal of Positive Psychology, 12, 13-28.
  • Leary, M., et al. (2017). Cognitive and interpersonal features of intellectual humility. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 43, 793-813.
  • Porter, T., & Schumann, K. (2018). Intellectual humility and openness to the opposing view. Self and Identity, 17, 139-162.
  • Resnick, B (2019). https://www.vox.com/science-and-health/2019/1/4/17989224/intellectual-humility-explained-psychology-replication.
  • Williams, Mark and Danny Penman (2011). Mindfulness: Finding Peace in a Frantic World. Generic.
  • Zmigrod, L., Zmigrod, S., Rentfrow, P.J., & Robbins, T.W. (2019). The roots of intellectual humility: The role of intelligence and cognitive flexibility. Personality and Individual Differences, 141, 200-208.