Expanding Awareness of the Science of Intellectual Humility: Introduction to Intellectual Humility Research

A main goal of this initiative is to raise public awareness about some of the big ideas, specific findings, and provocative questions that have emerged from the science of intellectual humility. The grants we are offering to journalists and other nonfiction media producers are designed to encourage more coverage of this science. Because we don’t expect that grant applicants will already be familiar with this science, here we have assembled a variety of resources that distill some of its main findings to date. These include:

And to zero in on key studies that are especially relevant to this initiative and grant opportunity, below we offer an Introduction to Intellectual Humility Research, summarizing some of the key insights into what intellectual humility is, why it matters, and how it can be developed. We hope that it inspires or enhances your ideas for your project and helps you ground your proposal in the science. 

What Is Intellectual Humility?

While this is still a matter of discussion among researchers and scholars, consensus is emerging that intellectual humility centers on recognizing the limitations of one’s own knowledge and beliefs (Porter et al., 2021). Indeed, a seminal paper on intellectual humility referred to it, most simply, as “the degree to which people recognize that their beliefs might be wrong” (Leary et al, 2017). Building on that notion, definitions of intellectual humility also involve acknowledging one’s limitations without feeling defensive or threatened, and being open to other people’s views.

Almost all attempts to measure intellectual humility have relied on questionnaires that ask people to indicate how well certain statements describe them—and those statements shed light on what researchers see as the main components of intellectual humility. For instance, they include: “I am willing to admit it if I don’t know something,” “I welcome different ways of thinking about important topics,” and “I accept that my beliefs and attitudes may be wrong.”

A common concern with this approach is the potential for those higher in intellectual humility to actually score lower on these questionnaires, by virtue of being humble, while those lower in intellectual humility report relatively high scores, due to their inflated self-assessment. While this is a reasonable concern, researchers have developed and validated several questionnaires that predict patterns of behaviors and other attitudes that are consistent with the concept of intellectual humility, suggesting that these questionnaires accurately assess what they intend to.

Below, we review three research papers that reveal more about what intellectual humility is, what different kinds of intellectual humility look like, and how intellectual humility is measured. 

Porter, T., Baldwin, C. R., Warren, M. T., Murray, E. D., Cotton Bronk, K., Forgeard, M. J., ... & Jayawickreme, E. (2021). Clarifying the content of intellectual humility: A systematic review and integrative framework. Journal of Personality Assessment, 1-13.

This paper tries to define the core dimensions of intellectual humility, based on a thorough review and synthesis of the many definitions proposed for it. Examining overlap among 16 scales developed to measure intellectual humility, the authors identify what they see as its defining feature: “an awareness of personal intellectual limitations.” What’s more, they propose that, more generally, there are two key dimensions to intellectual humility: 1) the internal vs. expressed dimension—i.e., it can be kept internal to one’s thoughts/awareness or expressed to other people, and  2) the self-directed vs. other-directed dimension—i.e., it can involve recognizing the limits of one’s own knowledge or valuing other people’s perspectives. The relationship between these two dimensions makes for four separate types of intellectual humility:

  1. Internal and self-directed—an awareness of one’s own fallibility (e.g., agreeing with the statement, “I accept that my beliefs and attitudes may be wrong.”)
  2. Internal and other-directed—an awareness that other people’s views have value (e.g., “I recognize the value in opinions that are different from my own.”)
  3. Expressed and self-directed—admitting one’s ignorance and fallibility (e.g., “I am willing to admit if I don’t know something.”)
  4. Expressed and other-directed—listening to other people’s ideas and being open to corrective feedback (e.g., “I am willing to hear others out, even if I disagree with them.”).

Leary, M. R., Diebels, K. J., Davisson, E. K., Jongman-Sereno, K. P., Isherwood, J. C., Raimi, K. T., ... & Hoyle, R. H. (2017). Cognitive and interpersonal features of intellectual humility. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 43(6), 793-813.

Building on the work of philosophers and psychologists, this research team defines intellectual humility as the recognition that one’s beliefs may be fallible, accompanied by an awareness of the limitations one faces in obtaining and evaluating information. Guided by this definition, they developed a six-item intellectual humility questionnaire, which is now widely used in the scientific literature. Some items from their questionnaire include: “I question my own opinions, positions, and viewpoints because they could be wrong” and “In the face of conflicting evidence, I am open to changing my opinions.” In several studies, they find that people who score high on this questionnaire (i.e., people high in intellectual humility) are less certain about their beliefs, are less disposed to thinking that their views are better than others’, and prefer essays with balanced evidence over essays that are more one-sided. Further, they find that high-scorers on the questionnaire pay greater attention to the quality of evidence being presented to them.

Krumrei-Mancuso, E. J., & Rouse, S. V. (2016). The development and validation of the comprehensive intellectual humility scale. Journal of Personality Assessment, 98(2), 209-221.

The authors of this study define intellectual humility as a “nonthreatening awareness of one’s intellectual fallibility” and present a 22-item questionnaire that offers a wider view of intellectual humility than what’s covered in the prior study by Leary and colleagues. Their Comprehensive Intellectual Humility Scale (CIHS) aims to measure four distinct factors of intellectual humility; we summarize them below, along with a sample item for each factor: 

  1. Independence of intellect and ego—e.g., you disagree with the statement, “I feel small when others disagree with me on topics that are close to my heart.” 
  2. Openness to revising one’s viewpoints—e.g., you agree with the statement, “I am open to revising my important beliefs in the face of new information.”
  3. Respect for others’ viewpoints—e.g., you agree with the statement, “I can respect others, even if I disagree with them in important ways.”
  4. Lack of intellectual overconfidence—e.g., you disagree with the statement, “My ideas are usually better than other people’s ideas.”

Why Does Intellectual Humility Matter?

The burgeoning research suggests that intellectual humility may have important implications and benefits for many aspects of our lives. These include:

  • Bridging political divides: Intellectual humility is associated with more tolerance toward, and favorable impressions of, one’s ideological opponents, as well as a greater willingness to affiliate with them (Stanley et al., 2020; Bowes et al., 2020; Hook et al., 2017). 
  • Scrutinizing (mis)information: In several studies, people higher in intellectual humility were more likely to investigate suspect information—for instance, compared to people lower in intellectual humility, they did more digging after reading a fake headline about COVID-19 and were more willing to read information that supported a viewpoint that countered their own (Koetke et al., 2021; Porter & Schumann, 2018).
  • Leadership: Leaders higher in intellectual humility have been found to be respected more. These leaders also rate themselves as being more oriented toward “servant-leadership,” which emphasizes that the role of a leader is, first and foremost, to serve their people or community (Krumrei-Mancuso & Rowatt, 2021).
  • Social relationships: People higher in intellectual humility are viewed as more agreeable and competent by their peers and are more likely to be forgiven after committing a moral transgression (Meagher et al., 2015; Zhang et al., 2015). 
  • Education/learning: Because intellectually humble people are more intellectually curious and open-minded, they are more likely to view failures as opportunities to learn rather than shortcomings (Porter et al., 2020).  
  • Religion: Christian pastors who are high in intellectual humility display more religious tolerance toward non-Christians (Hook et al., 2017).

Research has also found that intellectual humility is positively related to, but distinct from, traits like open-mindedness, agreeableness, and empathy (Leary et al., 2017; Krumrei-Mancuso, 2017); on the flip side, intellectual humble people are not likely to have traits like right-wing authoritarianism and intolerance for ambiguity (Krumrei-Mancuso, 2018; Leary et al., 2017). Generally speaking, intellectual humble people do not have a particular political orientation or religious faith; however, people with more moderate political and religious views show higher intellectual humility than those with more extreme views (Hopkin et al., 2014; Leary et al., 2017; Toner et al., 2013).

Below we summarize studies that zero in on specific benefits of intellectual humility for different areas of life.

Education/Learning

Porter, T., Schumann, K., Selmeczy, D., & Trzesniewski, K. (2020). Intellectual humility predicts mastery behaviors when learningLearning and Individual Differences, 80, 101888.

Across five studies, this paper reports that intellectually humble people are more likely than others to seek out challenging tasks and persist in the face of failure. The authors found that after failing on an educational task (e.g., receiving a poor score on a test), people with more  intellectual humility showed a greater desire to persist on the task and learn more about the topic with which they were struggling. The authors attribute their findings to the fact that intellectually humble people also tend to be intellectually curious. They suggest that when faced with failures or challenges in a learning environment, it is their intellectual curiosity that leads people higher in intellectual humility to persevere longer. Importantly, the authors also found evidence that by encouraging intellectual humility, they could foster this kind of persistence and thirst for knowledge—it wasn’t only demonstrated by people who were naturally intellectually humble: When they had people read an article promoting either intellectual certainty or intellectual humility, those who read the intellectual humility article were significantly more likely to persist and try to learn more after a failure. 

Political Dialogue and Polarization

Stanley, M. L., Sinclair, A. H., & Seli, P. (2020). Intellectual humility and perceptions of political opponentsJournal of Personality, 88(6), 1196-1216.

This article focuses on how an individual’s intellectual humility is related to their attitudes and behaviors toward people with whom they do not agree. In several studies, the authors find that people lower in intellectual humility are more likely to devalue the moral character and intellect of people who do not share their sociopolitical beliefs on a wide variety of issues, ranging from highly charged issues like abortion and immigration to more innocuous ones like standarized testing. In addition, they find that this pattern extends beyond attitudes to behavior: When given the opportunity to befriend or “follow” (on Twitter) someone who does not share beliefs with them, people low in intellectual humility are less likely to do so. The authors argue that this decreased willingness to affiliate with people who hold different beliefs may be a key driver of socio-political polarization—suggesting that intellectual humility may help to reduce it.

Religion

Hook, J. N., Farrell, J. E., Johnson, K. A., Van Tongeren, D. R., Davis, D. E., & Aten, J. D. (2017). Intellectual humility and religious tolerance. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 12(1), 29-35.

This paper examines the relationship between religious intellectual humility (i.e., being more open to different religious beliefs and identities) and religious tolerance among Christian pastors. The authors begin by establishing that, indeed, pastors who are higher in intellectual humility demonstrate more tolerance for different religious beliefs and identities. This was the case regardless of the pastors’ level of religious commitment or political views. They also find suggestive evidence that exposure to religious diversity increases religious tolerance—but only among pastors who are high in intellectual humility.

Susceptibility to Misinformation

Koetke, J., Schumann, K., & Porter, T. (2021). Intellectual Humility Predicts Scrutiny of COVID-19 MisinformationSocial Psychological and Personality Science, 13(1), 277–284.

The dangers of misinformation have taken center stage during the COVID-19 pandemic, as politicians and health experts alike struggle to combat misinformation that threatens public safety. In this article, researchers find that people high in intellectual humility are more willing—and more likely—to investigate the credibility of news articles about COVID-19. When presented with a (fabricated) headline about the pandemic, on topics ranging from mask-wearing to social distancing, people high in intellectual humility opened a new tab in their Internet browser to investigate the source of the headline more often than those who were lower in intellectual humility. They also reported being more willing to seek out alternative opinions on the topic covered in the headline. Importantly, these findings persisted even when taking into account participants’ education level, political orientation, or level of concern about the COVID-19 pandemic. Taken together, these findings suggest that intellectual humility could be a lever to combat the proliferation of misinformation.

How Can We Foster Intellectual Humility?

The studies reviewed above suggest that intellectual humility is relevant and valuable to many different aspects of our lives. However, relatively little research so far has explored whether people can actually increase their levels of intellectual humility: To date, there have been only three studies that have successfully boosted intellectual humility in the lab. 

We summarize all three of them below (Reis et al., 2018; Porter & Schumann, 2018; Kross & Grossman, 2011). That said, this line of research is just starting to take off, with a significant number of new studies now in the works to identify methods of fostering intellectual humility. 

While this research is still in its early stages, other studies do provide some insights into the moment-to-moment factors that may influence intellectual humility. For example, findings suggest that people may demonstrate less intellectual humility in moments when they feel threatened, as increased perceptions of threat are associated with being more close-minded (Thorisdottir & Jost, 2011). Indeed, neuroscience research has found that when people’s political beliefs are challenged, their brains respond to those intellectual threats in much the same way that they respond to threats to physical safety (Kaplan et al., 2016). Though they’re not quite the same as developing methods to actively teach or encourage intellectual humility, contextual factors like these do help us understand the causes of intellectual humility, and they are sure to be the focus of further empirical research in the years to come.

Reis, H. T., Lee, K. Y., O'Keefe, S. D., & Clark, M. S. (2018). Partner responsiveness promotes intellectual humility. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 79, 21-33.

This paper suggests that your day-to-day relationships with other people can actually affect your levels of intellectual humility. The authors found that after they asked study participants to bring to mind someone who is responsive to their needs (i.e., someone who is “interested in what you are thinking and feeling”), the participants showed more intellectually humble attitudes about themselves. In a separate study, the authors found that on days when people felt that others around them were more responsive to their needs, they reported more openness to exploring others’ viewpoints and considering conflicting opinions. The authors argue that feeling like others care about you makes you less defensive and leaves you feeling more like your authentic self—which, in turn, makes you more open to opposing beliefs and gives you a more realistic, and less inflated, view of yourself.

Porter, T., & Schumann, K. (2018). Intellectual humility and openness to the opposing view. Self and Identity, 17(2), 139-162.

In this article, the authors propose that one factor that may impair intellectual humility is the perception that any intellectual limitations you have cannot be changed—a quality that psychologists call a “fixed mindset.” They theorize that having people learn about “growth mindset”—the idea that intelligence is not fixed but rather can grow and be improved over time—will lead to more intellectual humility. The findings of this research suggest exactly that: People who were assigned to read an article about growth mindsets (vs. an article on fixed mindsets) showed higher intellectual humility, as well as more kindness and respect toward people who disagreed with them. Further research will have to determine how long these positive effects may last.

Kross, E., & Grossmann, I. (2011). Boosting wisdom: Distance from the self enhances wise reasoning, attitudes, and behaviorJournal of Experimental Psychology: General, 141(1), 43.

The authors of this study suggest that people may be more intellectually humble when they practice “self-distancing,” which is where people regard their thoughts or experiences from a “fly on the wall” perspective, such as replaying a past experience in their mind but viewing it from a distant vantage point. Indeed, when the study’s participants were instructed to reason about a personal event (e.g., career prospects) from a “distanced” perspective, they demonstrated more intellectual humility in their reasoning than participants who were instructed to reason about the same event as if it were before their own eyes, “as if  [they] were right there.” The authors also found that these results applied to politics: When asked to reason about the possibility of a candidate they did not endorse winning the presidential election, people who practiced “self-distancing” displayed more intellectual humility, described their political ideology as less extreme, and were more willing to sign up for a bipartisan discussion group. The authors argue that self-distancing may encourage intellectual humility by allowing people to “transcend their egocentric viewpoints” and see the “big picture.”

Works Cited

Bowes, S. M., Blanchard, M. C., Costello, T. H., Abramowitz, A. I., & Lilienfeld, S. O. (2020). Intellectual humility and between-party animus: Implications for affective polarization in two community samplesJournal of Research in Personality, 88, 103992

Hook, J. N., Farrell, J. E., Johnson, K. A., Van Tongeren, D. R., Davis, D. E., & Aten, J. D. (2017). Intellectual humility and religious tolerance. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 12(1), 29-35

Hopkin, C. R., Hoyle, R. H., & Toner, K. (2014). Intellectual humility and reactions to opinions about religious beliefs. Journal of Psychology and Theology, 42(1), 50-61

Kaplan, J. T., Gimbel, S. I., & Harris, S. (2016). Neural correlates of maintaining one’s political beliefs in the face of counterevidenceScientific reports, 6(1), 1-11

Koetke, J., Schumann, K., & Porter, T. (2021). Intellectual Humility Predicts Scrutiny of COVID-19 MisinformationSocial Psychological and Personality Science, 1948550620988242

Kross, E., & Grossmann, I. (2011). Boosting wisdom: Distance from the self enhances wise reasoning, attitudes, and behaviorJournal of Experimental Psychology: General, 141(1), 43

Krumrei-Mancuso, E. J., & Rouse, S. V. (2016). The development and validation of the comprehensive intellectual humility scale. Journal of Personality Assessment, 98(2), 209-221

Krumrei-Mancuso, E. J. (2017). Intellectual humility and prosocial values: Direct and mediated effects. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 12(1), 13-28

Krumrei-Mancuso, E. J. (2018). Intellectual humility's links to religion and spirituality and the role of authoritarianism. Personality and Individual Differences, 130, 65-75

Krumrei-Mancuso, E. J., & Rowatt, W. C. (2021). Humility in novice leaders: links to servant leadership and followers’ satisfaction with leadershipThe Journal of Positive Psychology, 1-13

Leary, M. R., Diebels, K. J., Davisson, E. K., Jongman-Sereno, K. P., Isherwood, J. C., Raimi, K. T., ... & Hoyle, R. H. (2017). Cognitive and interpersonal features of intellectual humility. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 43(6), 793-813

Meagher, B. R., Leman, J. C., Bias, J. P., Latendresse, S. J., & Rowatt, W. C. (2015). Contrasting self-report and consensus ratings of intellectual humility and arrogance. Journal of Research in Personality, 58, 35-45

Porter, T., & Schumann, K. (2018). Intellectual humility and openness to the opposing view. Self and Identity, 17(2), 139-162

Porter, T., Schumann, K., Selmeczy, D., & Trzesniewski, K. (2020). Intellectual humility predicts mastery behaviors when learningLearning and Individual Differences, 80, 101888

Porter, T., Baldwin, C. R., Warren, M. T., Murray, E. D., Cotton Bronk, K., Forgeard, M. J., ... & Jayawickreme, E. (2021). Clarifying the content of intellectual humility: A systematic review and integrative frameworkJournal of Personality Assessment, 1-13

Reis, H. T., Lee, K. Y., O'Keefe, S. D., & Clark, M. S. (2018). Partner responsiveness promotes intellectual humility. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 79, 21-33

Stanley, M. L., Sinclair, A. H., & Seli, P. (2020). Intellectual humility and perceptions of political opponentsJournal of Personality, 88(6), 1196-1216

Thórisdóttir, H., & Jost, J. T. (2011). Motivated closed‐mindedness mediates the effect of threat on political conservatismPolitical Psychology, 32(5), 785-811

Toner, K., Leary, M. R., Asher, M. W., & Jongman-Sereno, K. P. (2013). Feeling superior is a bipartisan issue: Extremity (not direction) of political views predicts perceived belief superiorityPsychological Science, 24(12), 2454-2462

Zhang, H., Farrell, J. E., Hook, J. N., Davis, D. E., Van Tongeren, D. R., & Johnson, K. A. (2015). Intellectual humility and forgiveness of religious conflict. Journal of Psychology and Theology, 43(4), 255-262