We are all inclined to believe we know and understand more than we know. However, as the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates was well aware, what we think we know is not really knowledge at all. We may well want to cling stubbornly to our beliefs and believe we are more correct than others. But people who practice intellectual humility are better listeners, learners, and more self-aware. So what is intellectual humility and how can it be developed?

In this post, we will explore what it means to be intellectually humble, why intellectual humility is important, and how to develop it.

What is intellectual humility?

Intellectual humility means recognizing that the things you believe dearly could actually be wrong. Unlike general humility, it is not centered on having a low view of one’s own importance or a lack of confidence. Rather, it is a way of thinking.

At its heart, it incorporates accepting the possibility that what you think might be wrong. In addition, to be intellectually humble, you must be keen to learn from the experiences of others.

Intellectual humility demands for you to think about your own limits. This trait is classically important in the ideal application of the scientific method. Here, you are expected to actively test against one’s own hypothesis in order to ensure it is robust. In recent years, the concept has received growing attention amongst social psychologists with the loss-of-confidence project. This project aims to de-stigmatize admitting a loss of confidence in your own research results.

Why is intellectual humility important?

So why is it important to be able to admit we could be wrong about what we think? Well, for one thing, it will make us less defensive when challenged about our beliefs. This approach also forces us to think about our blind spots, opening up new lines of inquiry we may not have seen before.

Porter & Schumann’s study found that intellectually humble people are better at listening to opposing views. This makes them more likely to seek out information challenging to their own world-view and question evidence more carefully. Kross’s study confirmed this, finding the intellectually humble were more likely to be wise.

Intellectual humility is important because it demonstrates the promotion of arrogance and overconfidence prevalent in our society is foolish. When we recognize we could be wrong, we listen more to others. We can learn more from those we might have instinctively disagreed with offering benefits for scientific robustness.

We can also learn more than we thought possible with an un-fixed approach to knowledge. Indeed, being intellectually humble can enhance our drive to succeed and openness to new ideas. It frees us from a focus on our potential to be wrong necessarily being bad. Being wrong is inevitable! Breakthroughs in knowledge are only possible when we see things differently than we saw them before.

How can you develop intellectual humility?

If our ignorance is invisible to us, then how can we become aware of it? The author Shane Snow, devised an intellectual humility test to measure where you stand on 4 key areas of importance for the intellectually humble. There are 4 areas we need to work on in order to develop intellectual humility. Here, we outline what these are and how you can develop intellectual humility in each:

1. Respect for the viewpoints of others

To succeed in this, you should try to recognize the moral underpinnings of the viewpoints of others. Try to empathize with what they tell you. You can even try engaging in more playful ways with someone you wouldn’t usually. This will reduce your fear of them and their positions. Living abroad, learning new languages, and reading broadly are also great ways to increase your intellectually humble skills in this area.

2. Fostering a lack of overconfidence our own intellectual ability

Looking at the math that shows how groups can become greater than the sum of their parts by valuing diverse perspectives within them. You can easily practice this skill by actively saying ‘I might be wrong’ after expressing a strong viewpoint. Feel confident to admit when you don’t know something. This can help us be more empathetic and understand why we need it.

3. Separating our ego and our intellect

To improve your intellectual humility in this area, you should get to know your strengths and weakness when it comes to your personality traits and ego. Try to recognize when you react personally to viewpoints that challenge your own. By identifying your emotional responses, you can become more objective and open to listening. You may even seek out ego death.

4. Being willing to revise our viewpoint

Being truly intellectually humble requires us to respect the viewpoints of others. To develop this skill, we can practice actively revising our viewpoint. How could we think about what we believe differently? Can you unpick a fundamental belief you hold? Envision yourself as someone with a diametrically opposed view to your own. Try to think of what they would argue and you might see some of your invisible blind-spots.

Being intellectually humble requires us to listen more and talk less. It requires us to be empathetic to others, and be less emotionally attached to our own viewpoints. When we open our minds to water others have to offer, we can take the first steps to improved understanding and wisdom.