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JSTOR Daily features editor Sara Ivry speaks with Mark Leary, professor emeritus at Duke University about the concept of intellectual humility.


Sara Ivry: Hi, everybody. I’m Sara Ivry. I’m the features editor at JSTOR Daily, and I’m happy to be part of the team, bringing you a special series of conversations on the topic of intellectual humility. Today, I’m speaking with Mark Leary. He is an emeritus professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke. And Mark has done a lot of research on the topic of intellectual humility. So I’m going to let him explain what that is. Mark Leary, welcome.

Mark Leary: Thank you.

Ivry: Tell us, what is intellectual humility and how do you define it?

Leary: Well, in a sentence, intellectual humility is simply recognizing that something that you believe might, in fact, be wrong. Of course, it never feels like it’s wrong. We wouldn’t believe things that feel wrong, but an intellectually humble person recognizes that many of the things they confidently believe might, in fact, be inaccurate.

Ivry: How did this turn into an area of academic inquiry?

Leary: Well, philosophers have been talking about this as an intellectual virtue for a long time, that people should recognize the possibility that they might be wrong about things. But then in the last twenty years or so, behavioral researchers, psychologists and others became interested in the overconfidence phenomenon. This is the fact that almost all of us are far more confident in ourselves than we probably should be. Most people think that they are better than average on most dimensions, which of course is impossible. And we just go through life believing that we’re on the side of the truth most of the time. And about ten years ago, the John Templeton Foundation became interested in this topic and began to ask the question, Well, what would it mean if we could get people to be a little more intellectually humble? If we get people to realize that their confidence and what they believe—in their attitudes and their viewpoints—is sometimes misplaced, would it improve their decisions and would it improve how they deal with disagreements and conflicts with other people? So it was really just the right time and the right place to begin to ask the question: What can we do to sort of make people more realistic in the accuracy of their views?

Ivry: Mm hmm. Tell me, is intellectual humility a way of being that you can cultivate? Or is it a personality trait that some people may have and some people just don’t have it?

Leary: Well, certainly people differ in the degree to which they tend to be intellectually humble, and that’s probably due to some genetic factors in terms of people’s tolerance of uncertainty. It’s hard to be intellectually humble and admit you may not know things if you want certainty all the time. But it’s also has a lot to do with how people were raised. Did your parents require you to sort of defend the things you were saying? So where’d you get that? Where’s that information from? So it is both a personality characteristic, but also a state of mind that just emerges some of the time. Can we cultivate it? That’s the big question. People are beginning to study—can we develop ways to make people more intellectually humble?

Ivry: Are there certain variables that help determine whether somebody will be intellectually humble or not intellectually humble? I mean, whether it’s gender or education level or, you know, favorite ice cream flavor, what have you? What are those parameters, such as they may be.

Leary: The ones that have been studied the most are personality characteristics. So, for example, we know that people who enjoy thinking more tend to be higher in intellectual humility. Some people just like thinking more. They like playing intellectual games, and they like the trivia contests in newspapers and things like that. They like pondering issues that don’t have any answers. Other people don’t like thinking unless they really have to. This, oh, why are you wasting your time just pondering all this stuff for? The more you enjoy thinking, the more likely you are to be intellectually humble. So that’s one thing that helps to contribute. Another is what I mentioned earlier—a tolerance for ambiguity or uncertainty. None of us like uncertainty. When we believe something, we want to be certain: are we right or we wrong? But some people tolerate that uncertainty better than others. And if you tolerate uncertainty better, it’s easier to be intellectually humble because you can hold your beliefs and you can hold them firmly while still saying to yourself, “Yeah, but I can’t be completely sure that I’m right about this.” So there are some psychological dispositions that make it easier or harder to be high in intellectual humility.

This won’t surprise your female audience, but a lot of studies show that men are slightly less intellectually humble than women in terms of being certain in what they believe. You ask about education. That’s an interesting one. There’s only one study I know about, and it hasn’t been published, so I don’t want to put too much credibility on it, that suggests that education has two effects on intellectual humility. The more you learn and the more schooling you have, the more intellectually humble you tend to be, in the sense that you begin to recognize all of this information out there that you don’t have a clue about. So it increases intellectual humility in general. But education decreases intellectual humility in the areas in which you are an expert or specialist, which makes a little bit of sense. It makes a little sense that an expert ought to be more confident of their beliefs than someone who’s not. So it increases general intellectual humility, but decreases intellectual humility when it comes to your own areas of expertise and specialization.

Ivry: So how do you cultivate intellectual humility, if you want to do that?

Leary: A couple of thing I think help. One is simply recognizing that I can be wrong. Wouldn’t it be odd if I was always right about everything? We did a study where we asked American adults to think of all of the situations in which they disagree with other people. Think of every disagreement you’ve had in the last two weeks: over really trivial things, really stupid things, or maybe really serious existential issues. And what percentage of those disagreements do you think you were the one who was correct? The average person thinks they were correct more than two-thirds of the time, which can’t be. It just can’t. So once you begin to realize that we all have a tendency, it’s part of human nature, there’s nothing wrong with this. I’m not pointing fingers. I’m the same way. Once we realize we all have this tendency to overestimate how correct we are, then you can begin to try to check yourself when you feel like you’re completely right and other people are saying, “No, I don’t think so. I disagree.” I think you got your facts wrong–to be a little bit more humble, to say, well, may maybe I am wrong doesn’t mean you just cave in and say, “Okay, I give up, I’m wrong.” But it means that you hold your beliefs a little less confidently, and you go looking for more reasons. The other thing has been shown is that you can increase intellectual humility in people through role modeling. For example, in school classes, teachers, who openly confess when students ask questions, you know, “I don’t know.” Or they give an answer and say, “But, you know, I could be wrong about that. I haven’t really looked at this deeply”—begins to role model that it’s absolutely okay that I don’t completely understand and I don’t know about you, I’d love to see a politician someday, just once, when asked a question say, “I don’t know,” instead of giving an answer.

Ivry: Right. It’s so interesting because in politics, when we see people reverse course, they’re tarnished as wishy washy, and it’s seen as a deficit.

Leary: Yes. Yeah, that’s right. But when you stop and think about that, it seems odd. And there is some new research in organizational psychology showing that managers, CEOs, leaders who are higher in intellectual humility, are actually more respected by the people that they manage. The manager who says, “Hey, you guys, I think we should do this, now there’s chance I’m wrong about this, so let’s talk about it.” Now there are times you can’t do that. You know, if you’re if you’re the general in the army leading an army into battle, “I think we’re going to go win this. Although I might be wrong about that. We might get wiped out.” You can’t do that. There’s times you can’t express it. But that’s just a difference not in true intellectual humility, but what are the conditions under which you should show it? And I think it’s important for people to understand the distinction. It’s one thing in your mind to say, “I could be wrong about this,” and there are times to say that and be honest about it. And if other times maybe not to be intellectually humble publicly, that it’s not the right thing to do is like in a battle. But my own belief is that teaching everybody that it’s okay to consider the possibility you’re wrong and admit you’re wrong–and that’s in fact a sign of maturity and intelligence instead of weakness, I think is a really good thing.

Ivry: Tell me, what’s the difference between open mindedness and intellectual humility?

Leary: I think they’re very closely related. Intellectual humility involves beliefs you already have and entertaining the possibility that you may be incorrect. You can be open minded about things that you had never thought about before, and you’re hearing it for the first time and you’re willing to accept it and you listen to it and say, “Well, that’s really interesting.” There’s no humility involved because it’s not that you were somehow believing that you were correct about it in some other way, and now you’re considering the possibility you might be wrong.

Ivry: What about the difference between the general concept of humility and the category of intellectual humility? How do those relate to one another?

Leary: That’s a great question. Those two concepts are both a bit of a mess in the research literature. It depends on who you talk to, how those are defined. I am not sure that intellectual humility is really a subtype of general humility. What general humility is, when we say somebody’s being humble, it’s not somebody who’s denigrating their performance or their ability or their accomplishments. A humble person knows exactly how good they are. They’re willing to admit it, but they don’t expect special treatment. Just because you happen to come from a great family or you have had a great career or you’re a famous actor or you did some great thing, you say, “Sure, I did. Yeah. I’m an outstanding athlete (if that’s accurate). But what’s the big deal? You know, you don’t have to treat me differently. I’m just a normal person like you on every other dimension. I’m as messed up as you are. Yeah, I just happen to be a famous actor or a great athlete” or whatever it happens to be. That’s not quite what intellectual humility is. The thing we call intellectual humility is just simply this recognition that I could be wrong about something.

Ivry: What about the opposite? Like, if you have too much intellectual humility and you’re so suggestible, any time somebody says to you, well, you know you’re wrong on this or you’re wrong on that, and then it sort of seems like it would be paralyzing in just the everyday living of life.

Leary: Absolutely. And I’ve had a lot of people say, I don’t want to be intellectually humble because that means I’m going to be a pushover. I’m going to be wishy-washy. I won’t take a stand on things. In the research, we don’t find that. And I think the reason is that intellectual humility is based on three things. I mean, why is it that I could be wrong about something? One is that I simply don’t have all of the information that I need. The second possibility is that I have plenty of information, but that information may be biased in ways that I don’t appreciate. And the third is that maybe I don’t have the background or ability to really understand all of the evidence that’s involved. There’s a lot of things we believe, we believe that some expert told us, and not because we really figured it out. So what happens, I think, with intellectually humble people is when they think to themselves, I could be wrong about this. They go on a search for the validity of the information that supports the belief. They want to know, do I have all the information? Is that information biased? Do I have the ability to understand that information? It’s a very logical and rational assessment of the validity of the belief. It’s just not caving in because somebody else says that you’re wrong. And in fact, you can be completely intellectually humble and almost never cave in to people. I recognize that I could be wrong, but in this particular topic, you know, I don’t think I am. All the evidence points in my direction. It’s just continuing to consider the possibility that you might be incorrect.

Ivry: Mark, I’m curious what drew you to this concept to investigate it in your work. What compels you about intellectual humility?

Leary: Well, really two things, one personal and one more professional. And the personal experience I had was back when I was a senior in college. We were reading a book in a class by Carlos Castaneda. I think it was Tales of Power. Carlos Castaneda was a UCLA anthropology graduate student who was studying with a Mexican shaman. He was trying to understand shamanism and all the things that shamen in a tribe do for their community. And there’s one point in the book where the shaman is trying to convince Carlos Castaneda that Carlos’s views of the world—all of our views of the world are sort of socially constructed, that we think the world is the way it is, because that’s what we’ve been taught and it isn’t necessarily true. And as an example, he asked Carlos, they’re in this Mexican marketplace and there’s hundreds of people, and the shaman asked, “Carlos, what makes you believe that every person in this crowd is a human being?” Now. I came up short with that. I thought, “What, what, what the heck? Of course, these people are all human beings. What else would they be?” And the shaman’s point was, wasn’t that they might be something else, that they were aliens or shape shifters or automatons or something. His point was, “Do you really have evidence that every person in this crowd is a human being?” And I realized that I didn’t. And before your listeners think I’ve lost my mind, it’s not that I think the people in a crowd are not human beings. But if you say, “Do you really have evidence? Do you know for sure?” I’d have to say, “No, I haven’t tested the DNA of all of these people in this crowd to find out.”

And so I realized I couldn’t say for sure with absolute confidence that all of the people in that crowd were human beings. And that made me begin to realize that I was simply clinging to an awful lot of ideas, somewhat blindly without considering their merits. And again, I didn’t change my mind. If you’d have said a day after that, “Do you think most of these people are human beings?” I go, Yeah, “I think they’re all human beings.” But if they say, “Are you absolutely certain?” I’d say, “Well, no, how could I possibly be absolutely certain?” So that really—it shook me. It was one of those moments that sort of changed my view of my own beliefs about the world. So then speed ahead twenty or thirty years. A lot of the topics I was interested in, in my own research had to do with people’s biases, particularly biases about themselves, their overconfidence, and believing they were better than they were. So in some ways, intellectual arrogance, low intellectual humility is one of those biases that characterize every single one of us. No matter how hard we try, we are more certain about things than we should be. So combining that personal experience with this interest in biases, when the topic of intellectual humility came up, it just it really, really suited me as something that I wanted to study.

Ivry: Mark, in the scope of your work in intellectual humility, what is one of the things that you’ve worked on, one of the projects that you know is most meaningful to you? Your favorite?

Leary: The one that I got the biggest kick out of that people seem to find interesting, it’s not published yet—we’re still working on getting it written up–had to do with the role of intellectual humility in close romantic relationships. In other words, what’s it like to be in a relationship with sort of a low, intellectually humble know-it-all, compared to a relatively intellectually humble person? And I got the idea for this study, I was standing at a Hallmark gift shop, and there was a little placard, a little card there for sale, a picture of a woman. And she’s going, “I married Mr. Right. I just didn’t know that his first name was Always.” And the little light bulb went off and said, “Okay, what’s it like? What’s it like to be in a relationship with Mr. or Ms. Always Right?” So we brought in several dozen romantic couples. They ranged in age from their twenties to their sixties, brought in both members of the couple, and we separated them, gave them both a measure of intellectual humility, and then had them answer questions about each other and about the relationship. And what we found was that the woman’s level of intellectual humility didn’t make that much of a difference to the quality of the relationship. But the man’s did. Women who were in relationships with men who were low in intellectual humility were much less satisfied with their relationships. They said they argued more. They didn’t have as much respect for him, and he was also less satisfied. Low, intellectually humble men in relationships were less satisfied than more intellectually humble men. And it was an interesting gender difference. It’s as if in a relationship, low intellectually humble men exhibit a particularly toxic way of dealing with conflicts and disagreements. We asked them about the ways that they argued and did they slam doors and yell and that kind of thing. And the low, intellectually humble men tended to do that kind of thing more. So this needs to be pursued in greater detail, but it’s clear that it’s awfully hard to live with someone who every time you guys have a disagreement, that person thinks he or potentially she is the one that’s right as opposed to being more intellectually humble about your disagreements, about beliefs and decisions and that sort of thing.

Ivry: That is fascinating. I look forward to reading that research when it comes out. How would you like to see the concept of intellectual humility play out in the world?

Leary: I think if people could begin to have disagreements and conflicts and agree to disagree, we use that phrase a lot, but we really don’t agree to disagree. We say that we still really disagree and we’re angry about it. To be able to have conversations that are more civil and agreeable disagreements because we each recognize that as firmly as I believe this thing I believe, “I might be the one that’s wrong. I don’t think I am. So I’m going to disagree with you.” And maybe we won’t be able to even compromise on this issue. But that’s different than us hating each other because the other person is not only wrong, but may be evil for believing this thing when in fact maybe, no, maybe you’re the one that’s wrong and maybe we’re both completely dead wrong about this thing. Or that’s the other thing I often think in ideological disagreements, you know who’s right? Me or you? Well, you know. We might both be completely wrong. And we’re arguing about this, so there’s plenty of room for disagreement. We’ve got to disagree in order to come to an understanding of how do we negotiate and compromise and find a common path forward. But that’s going to be a lot easier if we have people who are more intellectually humble.

Ivry: Mark, thank you so much. This has really been so fascinating and a great pleasure to speak with you.

Leary: It’s been great being here.

Ivry: We’ve been talking with Mark Leary, a retired professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University in North Carolina. This conversation kicks off a series on intellectual humility and the issues and challenges that arise when it’s applied in different niche communities, like a religious congregation or a bar. Each conversation will feature a pairing between a scholar of intellectual humility and a member of that particular niche community. There’s a lot to think about with these conversations. We hope you enjoy them. We hope you share them, and we hope you talk about them. We also have a reading list about intellectual humility for your pleasure to enjoy and engage with. This conversation is the first in a mini series. JSTOR Daily is presenting on the topic. Funding for these conversations on intellectual humility comes from UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center as part of its “Expanding Awareness of the Science of Intellectual Humility” initiative. It’s supported by the John Templeton Foundation. We thank them both. Also, thanks to Cathy Halley, JSTOR Daily’s editor-in-chief, and to Julie Subrin, who helped us produce this series. And finally, a shout out to you, dear listeners, for spending your time with us.

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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