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When people first hear the term intellectual humility, they’re typically intrigued. When they learn that it involves the ability to recognize one’s intellectual limitations, including gaps and inaccuracies in one’s body of knowledge, they seem to directly grasp the implications. Intellectual humility seems relevant to their worlds: the political and social polarization they observe around them and even relevant to their own relationships. They tend to be curious about the concept and ask questions such as, “Does intellectual humility depend on context? I can be intellectually humble around my friends and co-workers but not when interacting with my parents?”

Some people want to know whether intellectual humility is isolated to particular topics, observing that they can be intellectually humble about politics, but not about religion (or vice versa), or that they find they can be intellectually humble in their private lives, but not in their careers. So they ask, “Are experts expected to be intellectually humble about their specialty? Isn’t there a point at which someone has earned the right to arrogance?”

And then come the very big questions: “What causes intellectual humility? Can we get people to be more intellectually humble?” And soon, the biggest questions are on the table. “Is intellectual humility the solution to [fill in the topic]? What do we know about the benefits of intellectual humility?”

This annotated reading list is organized around such questions—cocktail party questions, if you will. It’s part of a series, Conversations on Intellectual Humility, you can find on the website or wherever you get your podcasts. As always, the articles included in the reading list are either open access or free to access through JSTOR.

What is Intellectual Humility?

Dennis Whitcomb, Heather Battaly, Jason Baehr, and Daniel Howard-Snyder, “Intellectual Humility: Owning Our Limitations,” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 94, no. 3 (November 2017): 509–39.

There’s been exponential growth in the study of intellectual humility in the past ten to fifteen years. Philosophers, psychologists, and other scholars have developed a range of definitions of and ways to measure intellectual humility. Whitcomb and co-philosophers offer a well-thought out and widely accepted account of intellectual humility, defining it as an appropriate attentiveness to one’s intellectual limitations. They emphasize that the intellectually humble own their intellectual limitations by accepting and admitting that they have them, taking their intellectual limitations seriously, and feeling regret or dismay about these limitations.

Although much of the empirical work on intellectual humility has focused on people’s awareness that their knowledge might be inaccurate or incomplete, Whitcomb et al. offer a conceptualization of intellectual humility that captures people’s responses to a fuller range of intellectual limitations, including not only gaps or inaccuracies in knowledge but cognitive mistakes such as forgetting something, unreliable cognitive processes such as bad vision, learning deficits such as being “bad” at an academic discipline, and intellectual character flaws such as jumping to conclusions.

Alan T. Wilson, “Avoiding the Conflation of Moral and Intellectual Virtues,” Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 20, no. 5 (2017): 1037–50.

To understand intellectual humility, it can be helpful to grasp how it’s situated in relation to a network of concepts. Intellectual humility is an intellectual virtue. When people think of virtues, they most likely think of the moral kind, such as courage, honesty, justice, and compassion. Intellectual virtues, on the other hand, include qualities such as open-mindedness, inquisitiveness, intellectual rigor, and intellectual humility. Wilson reviews a number of theories about how intellectual virtues differ from moral ones, including Julia Driver’s outcomes-based argument that posits that intellectual virtues are distinguished by the fact that they produce epistemic goods for the individual who possesses them. Subsequently, Wilson draws on the work of Linda Zagzebski to propose a motivations-based understanding, arguing that intellectual virtues differ from moral virtues in that they have the unique underlying motivation of achieving knowledge or understanding (referred to as cognitive contact with reality). Whether or not you arrive at the same conclusions about what distinguishes intellectual virtues from moral virtues, the point here is to understand that intellectual humility exists within a larger network of intellectual virtues, which are unique from moral virtues.

Does a Person’s Intellectual Humility Depend on the Topic?

Everett L. Worthington and Scott T. Allison, “Humility, Religion, and Spirituality,” in Heroic Humility: What the Science of Humility Can Say to People Raised on Self-Focus (American Psychological Association, 2018), pp. 105–22.

It can be more challenging to be intellectually humble about some topics compared to others. In this chapter, Worthington and Allison suggest that intellectual humility exists in different topical subtypes and that intellectual humility is itself a subtype of general humility. They consider general humility to involve the four components of having accurate knowledge of one’s strengths and weaknesses, non-defensively seeking to acknowledge and correct one’s weaknesses, having a modest self-presentation, and having an other-oriented interpersonal style. Subsequently, they define intellectual humility as a subtype of general humility that involves being humble in the context of sharing ideas. They note that intellectual humility comes into play in the sharing of religious ideas (religious humility), political ideas (political humility), and any other ideas a person is personally invested in (general intellectual humility). As such, people can differ in the extent to which they possess intellectual humility on the basis of topical domain. Worthington and Allison also clarify that intellectual humility, as opposed to other forms of humility, operates on different levels. People can experience isolated instances of intellectual humility, states of intellectual humility, and the character traits or disposition of intellectual humility.

Stav Atir, Emily Rosenzweig, and David Dunning. “When Knowledge Knows No Bounds: Self-Perceived Expertise Predicts Claims of Impossible Knowledge,” Psychological Science 26, no. 8 (2015): 1295–1303.

The more you know, the less likely you are to be wrong, right? This line of thinking causes people to wonder whether knowing more about a topic mitigates the need for intellectual humility on that topic. Atir and colleagues offer evidence that this isn’t necessarily the case. They report on a series of studies indicating that self-perceived knowledge on a topic results in people overestimating their knowledge of that topic by claiming that they know concepts, events, and people that/who don’t exist (the antithesis of intellectual humility). This over-claiming of knowledge is specific to the domains in which people hold self-perceived expertise and doesn’t occur for other topics. Therefore, this line of research suggests experts might need to be particularly attuned to their intellectual weaknesses when it comes to their areas of expertise.

What Contributes to Intellectual Humility? Can We Cause People to Be More Intellectually Humble?

Mark R. Leary, “Intellectual Humility as a Route to More Accurate Knowledge, Better Decisions, and Less Conflict,” American Journal of Health Promotion 36, no. 8 (2022): 1401–1404.

For the most part, when people hear about intellectual humility, they think it sounds pretty good. Consequently, they often ask what causes some people to be intellectually humble and others not to be? Leary offers a digestible summary of the cognitive processes and motivations that encourage intellectual humility. Specifically, those high in intellectual humility put time and effort into seeking information, evaluate new information carefully, are attuned to the strength of arguments, try to understand why others disagree with them, and have insight into when they might be wrong. In addition to these cognitive factors, people can experience individual and interpersonal motives that promote intellectual humility. Specifically, people high in intellectual humility are motivated to expend effort thinking and solving intellectual problems, are motivated to learn and understand new things, have a high tolerance for uncertainty, and are more likely to change their views. In addition, they are more likely to recognize the merits of different viewpoints and are less inclined to derogate people who disagree with them. Leary summarizes helpful thoughts about how these themes might be leveraged to promote intellectual humility, including exposing people to the idea that intellectual humility is a sign of intelligence, rationality, and maturity; encouraging people to be around and interact with others who model intellectual humility; and helping people feel more comfortable with uncertainty.

Igor Grossmann, “Wisdom in Context,” Perspectives on Psychological Science 12, no. 2 (2017): 233–57.

With many research labs studying intellectual humility at the same time but independently, a variety of definitions of intellectual humility have emerged. In addition, some labs study the construct of intellectual humility under different names. Igor Grossmann, one of the early researchers of intellectual humility, defines it as the recognition of the limits of one’s knowledge. He considers intellectual humility a core component of wisdom. Grossmann’s work has focused extensively on intellectual humility in the context of social situations and interpersonal conflicts. In this review article, he highlights findings about the contexts and situations that promote intellectual humility. In general, people experience more intellectual humility when they reflect on situations involving other people than when they reflect on non-social situations. Techniques that help people transcend or decenter themselves promote intellectual humility. For example, considering what other people whose opinions you value might say about an interpersonal dilemma boosts intellectual humility. In addition, people experience greater intellectual humility when they are asked to think about a situation from the vantage point of a distant observer rather than from the viewpoint of someone watching the same situation unfold right before them. Intellectual humility also increases when individuals are asked to think about an unresolved conflict from a third-person perspective rather than a first-person perspective or from a future-oriented, rather than present-oriented, viewpoint.

Elizabeth J. Krumrei-Mancuso, Janet Trammell, and Jennifer Harriger, “Affective, Cognitive, and Environmental Inductions of Humility and Intellectual Humility That Center on Self-Transcendence,” The Journal of Positive Psychology (September 19, 2023).

Following Grossman’s themes of promoting intellectual humility through techniques that help people transcend or decenter the self, in this paper, my colleagues and I reported on three studies demonstrating that emotions, thoughts, and environments that encourage self-transcendent experiences bolster intellectual humility. Specifically, self-transcendent emotions such as awe, gratitude, love, and harmony are associated with more intellectual humility than positive emotions that are unrelated to self-transcendence (e.g., happiness, enthusiasm, and determination). In addition, when people thought about a time they viewed something as sacred (or divine, miraculous, spiritual, holy, or blessed), this was associated with greater intellectual humility. Finally, spending time in nature, which was associated with both self-transcendent emotions and interpretations of sacredness, boosted intellectual humility. A commonality among each of these triggers of intellectual humility is that they involve encounters that draw attention outward to something that’s greater than the self and difficult to comprehend. Apparently, encounters with aspects of life that are incomprehensibly magnificent reinforce people’s awareness of their intellectual limitations.

Daniel J. Walters, Philip M. Fernbach, Craig R. Fox, and Steven A. Sloman, “Known Unknowns: A Critical Determinant of Confidence and Calibration,” Management Science 63, no. 12 (2017): 4298–4307.

As we saw with the work of Atir and colleagues (see above), some of the most interesting work on intellectual humility does not use the term, “intellectual humility.” Walters and colleagues have explored how we might minimize people’s overconfidence in their knowledge. Specifically, they found that such overconfidence is often driven by failing to consider what information is unknown or missing. A simple task like asking people to list unknowns before assessing their confidence reduces overconfidence and is more effective than asking people to consider alternative viewpoints. Importantly, considering unknowns did not reduce confidence when people were at an appropriate level of confidence or were underconfident. The technique selectively addressed the problem of overconfidence in one’s knowledge, a characteristic of a lack of intellectual humility.

Tenelle Porter and Andrei Cimpian, “A Context’s Emphasis on Intellectual Ability Discourages the Expression of Intellectual Humility,” Motivation Science 9, no. 2 (June 2023): 120–30.

It’s one thing to ask what makes people intellectually humble (meaning, to possess the characteristic of intellectual humility), and it’s a slightly different thing to ask what causes people to behave intellectually humbly (that is, to express intellectual humility). In this paper, Porter and Cimpian report on a number of studies of adolescents and young adults that explore what type of educational environments encourage them to express intellectual humility by admitting their confusion, ignorance, or mistakes. They discover that an emphasis on intellectual ability as a key to successful learning in fact discourages the expression of intellectual humility. For example, in an experimental study, they found that emphasizing intellectual ability has a negative impact on students’ willingness to reveal their ignorance and mistakes to others; students assumed there would be a strongly competitive culture in learning environments that emphasize intellectual ability, which made them reluctant to express intellectual humility.

What Are the Consequences of Intellectual Humility?

Tyrone J. Sgambati and Ozlem N. Ayduk, “Is Intellectual Humility an Antidote for Our Polarized Nation?American Journal of Health Promotion 36, no. 8 (November 2022): 1411–14.

The topic of intellectual humility has garnered considerable enthusiasm, in part due to people seeing its potential to resolve some of the deep political divides in the United States. Sgambati and Ayduk review research suggesting that intellectual humility has potential not only for minimizing the extremity of people’s views but also for decreasing negative feelings toward contrapartisans. For example, those higher in intellectual humility make more respectful attributions of those they disagree with and view those with opposing views as more intelligent and less immoral than is the case for individuals lower in intellectual humility. Perhaps for these reasons, those higher in intellectual humility are more willing to engage with and befriend individuals with whom they disagree on political issues. Sgambati and Ayduk hypothesize that it’s this interpersonal contact across party lines that creates the link between intellectual humility and decreased (ideological and affective) political polarization.

Elizabeth J. Krumrei-Mancuso, Megan C. Haggard, Jordan P. LaBouff, and Wade C. Rowatt, “Links between Intellectual Humility and Acquiring Knowledge,” The Journal of Positive Psychology 15, no. 2 (March 2020):155–70.

Another area that makes the study of intellectual humility valuable is reflected by the natural assumption that people who are aware of their intellectual limitations will be more open to learn. My colleagues and I assessed this and related questions in a series of studies. We find that intellectual humility is unrelated to raw cognitive ability but is connected to possessing more general knowledge. We found that individuals higher in intellectual humility were also better able to judge what they did and didn’t know, in so far as they were less likely to claim they knew nonexistent concepts, events, and people (see the connection to Atir and colleagues’ work above). However, there was also a bit of a modesty effect, in that those higher in intellectual humility had a tendency to underestimate their knowledge in some cases.

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Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. 94, No. 3 (May 2017), pp. 509–539
International Phenomenological Society
Ethical Theory and Moral Practice, Vol. 20, No. 5 (November 2017), pp. 1037–1050
Metaphilosophy, Vol. 34, No. 3 (April 2003), pp. 367–383
Heroic Humility: What the Science of Humility Can Say to People Raised on Self-Focus, (2018), pp. 105–122
American Psychological Association
Psychological Science, Vol. 26, No. 8 (AUGUST 2015), pp. 1295–1303
Sage Publications, Inc. on behalf of the Association for Psychological Science
Perspectives on Psychological Science, Vol. 12, No. 2 (MARCH 2017), pp. 233–257
Sage Publications, Inc. on behalf of Association for Psychological Science
Management Science, Vol. 63, No. 12 (December 2017), pp. 4298-4307