Intellectual Humility: What Happens When You Love to Learn–From Others

April 18th, 2015 3 Comments Features


Why do we enjoy learning? Is it because we actually like the process of learning, which often involves a struggle and occasionally requires failure, or is it because we like the end result– namely, the prospect of being right?

I ask this question because I think the answer sheds light on a major issue plaguing education today: intellectual humility (or lack thereof). We don’t like being wrong, and we don’t allow our students to be wrong. That’s how we end up with learners more interested in appearing intelligent than in actually being intelligent.

But things are changing. Employers are starting to value skills like creativity, innovation, and resourcefulness– skills that forgive, even require, missteps and mistakes. Even more importantly, they’re starting to value humility, especially the kind that motivates us to consider other perspectives and admit when we are wrong.

One of the most desirable skills at Google is intellectual humility, or the willingness to learn from others.

“Without humility, you are unable to learn,” says Laszlo Bock, VP of hiring. “Successful bright people rarely experience failure, and so they don’t learn how to learn from that failure.” Instead, he says, they commit the “fundamental attribution error,” which means attributing positive results to your own genius and negative results to someone else’s shortcomings (i.e., intellectual arrogance).

“What we’ve seen is that the people who are the most successful here, who we want to hire, will have a fierce position. They’ll argue like hell. They’ll be zealots about their point of view. But then you say, ‘here’s a new fact,’ and they’ll go, ‘Oh, well, that changes things; you’re right.’”

But most of us don’t think this way. When it comes to learning, we don’t derive pleasure simply from “knowing” something, from building our treasure trove of facts. We derive pleasure from the idea of bestowing our knowledge upon someone else. And while the urge to share what we’ve learned is natural and good, it has become one-sided in the sense that we enjoy learning for ourselves more than we value the input of others.

So what is intellectual humility, exactly, and where did it come from?

Were Our Ancestors Intellectually Humble?

Socrates, the patron saint of intellectual humility, said it is only when we understand the depth of our own ignorance, only when we appreciate how little we know, that we are ready to develop the lifelong habits that will best support learning.

Richard Paul, author of The Art of Socratic Questioning, writes, “Socrates philosophised by joining in a discussion with another person who thought he knew what justice, courage, or the like was. Under Socrates’ questioning, it became clear that neither [of the two] knew, and they cooperated in a new effort, Socrates making interrogatory suggestions that were accepted or rejected by his friend. They failed to solve the problem, but, now conscious of their lack of knowledge, agreed to continue the search whenever possible.”

Aware of the inconsistencies of his own thoughts, and shrewdly suspecting that similar inconsistencies were to be found in other men, Socrates was always careful to “place himself upon the standpoint of ignorance and to invite others to join him there, in order that, proving all things, he and they might hold fast to that which is good.”

Benjamin Franklin was another model of intellectual humility. In 1787, political delegates gathered in Philadelphia with the task of reaching consensus on a United States Constitution. During the last day of deliberations, Benjamin Franklin made a speech urging fellow delegates to accept the document. He began by confessing, “There are several parts of this constitution which I do not at present approve.” But, he continued, “I am not sure I shall never approve them. For having lived long, I have experienced many instances of being obliged by better information, or fuller consideration, to change opinions even on important subjects.” Towards the end of his remarks, Franklin made a final request of delegates who, like him, “may still have objections” to the Constitution: he urged each one to “doubt a little in his own infallibility and sign,” and soon after, the Constitution was approved.

Often referred to as the Miracle at Philadelphia, some scholars have attributed the success of the Constitutional Convention not to the near-divine insights of individual delegates, but to the tone of intellectual humility that Franklin and others helped establish (Webb, 2012).

Drawing on the habits of historical figures like these, Paul outlines the modern definition of intellectual humility as follows: 1) having a consciousness of the limits of one’s knowledge, including a sensitivity to circumstances in which one’s native egocentrism is likely to function self-deceptively; and
2) having a sensitivity to bias, prejudice, and the limitations of one’s viewpoint.

“Intellectual humility does not imply spinelessness or submissiveness,” says Paul. “It implies the lack of intellectual pretentiousness, boastfulness, or conceit, combined with insight into the logical foundations, or lack of such foundations, of one’s beliefs.”

Simply put, Socrates and Franklin were trying to tell us not to claim more knowledge than we have. But where has this advice landed us today?

How Does Intellectual Humility Aid Learning?

Post-doctoral researchers Ian Church and Peter Samuelson have been studying intellectual humility for nearly a decade. Church and Samuleson define intellectual humility as “holding a belief with the firmness the belief merits.” Some beliefs, like the belief that 2+2=4, merit being held with the utmost firmness; to do otherwise, such as to have serious, lingering doubts as to whether or not 2+2=4, is to be intellectually diffident or intellectually self-deprecating. Other beliefs, like the beliefs regarding the number of gumdrops in a jar, merit being held with very little firmness; to do otherwise is to be intellectually arrogant. Intellectual humility can be seen as the sort of middle ground between the two.

So what’s the difference between intellectual humility and general humility?

As part of a larger body of work to explore the science of intellectual humility, Church and Samuelson investigated the differences between two types of humility. The two types are each characterised by a cluster of traits: general humility by social traits, and intellectual humility by a composite of traits that add up to a love of learning.

“We were happy to discover that intellectual humility seems to be a concept that has its own place in the minds of the general population distinct from general humility,” Samuelson told Justin Munce of The Speaker in an interview. “By the same token, there are many shared characteristics between an generally humble person and an intellectually humble person in the folk conception (such as modesty) which we expected.”

What surprised the researchers was that intellectual humility was distinctly tied together with love of learning, curiosity, and a desire to seek the truth. These were not words used by participants to describe wise people; they were unique descriptors of people viewed as intellectually humble.

“Intellectual humility uniquely impacts how a person learns and acquires new knowledge,” Samuleson says. “While characteristics of general humility may help a person be willing to learn from others and open to new knowledge, the unique characteristics of intellectual humility– such as an understanding of the limits of one’s knowledge, a search for the truth, a love of learning, among others– can motivate learning beyond what general humility can.”

Samuelson adds that these qualities are “sorely needed in an era when in every sector of our society people seem quite sure they are right and those who disagree with them are wrong, who seem to want to listen to people who will only confirm what they already know.”

More research is being carried out by Yale, Stanford, and Brown Universities.

In four recent studies, to be presented at APS in New York this May, Kristi Lockhart, Mariel Goddu, and Frank Keil from Yale University examined developmental shifts in perceptions of boasting during childhood. They found that, unlike older age groups, young children endorsed telling everyone about positive accomplishments and were less likely to show a preference for humble peers over accomplished boasters.

“As children mature,” the researchers report, “they come to see boasting as distasteful. Dislike of boasting (and boasters) in childhood may foster a preference for intellectual humility as individuals grow.”

The Stanford research group, which included Tenelle Porter, Karina Schumann, Kali Trzesniewski, and Carol Dweck, conducted a series of studies on the implications of intellectual humility for learning among adolescents and adults. The researchers found that intellectual humility was associated with more teacher-reported engagement, higher math grades, and greater growth in math achievement among high school students.

“These results suggest that adolescents are capable of exhibiting and benefitting from intellectual humility,” the authors write.

The researchers also found that intellectually humble adults expressed more openness to learning from those with the opposing socio-political view, exposed themselves to more socio-political positions that conflicted with theirs, and were more interested in studying all sides of important social issues, “including emotionally-charged issues such as immigration reform, affirmative action, and capital punishment.”

At Brown University, Mark Ho and Steven Sloman found that exposing adults to the limitations of their knowledge (what they call the “Illusion of Explanatory Depth”) can help mitigate intellectually arrogant tendencies and curb extreme political attitudes. For example, participants who were asked to provide in-depth causal explanations for complex public policies sussequently adopted more moderate political attitudes.

“Findings suggest that exposing people to the illusion of explanatory depth by asking them to generate in-depth causal explanations may be one way to encourage intellectual humility and, ultimately, civility,” Ho and Sloman write.

Studies like these are just the beginning of a long line of research on the benefits of intellectual humility for personal, educational, and professional growth.

Why We Must Teach Intellectual Humility

Jason Baehr, a philosophy professor at Loyola Marymount University and co-founder of the Intellectual Virtues Academy, says the concept of intellectual humility guides the way he teaches, as well as the way he raises his own children.

“As parents, we should create opportunities for kids to ask good, thoughtful, insightful questions,” Baehr says. “We can model curiosity and give our children opportunities to do the same. From a very young age, kids can understand qualities like curiosity, attentiveness and tenacity, and we have to help them understand what they look like.”

At the Academy, a list of “Master Examples” reminds his students that to be intellectually humble is to be like Socrates.

But there are obstacles to adopting this practice in full.

One of them, says Ian James Kidd of Durham University, is the practical reality of modern education, which “creates sub-optimal conditions for edifying education.” Obvious examples, he says, include increasing course sizes, bureaucratisation of educational practice and policy, top-down imperatives, and the decline, especially in higher education, of one-on-one-teaching. “These developments erode the edifying, humanistic conception of education as an arena for the cultivation and exercise of the virtues that are, for Plato and for Confucius, the grounds of social and civic life.”

Fortunately, some educators are managing to break free of these barriers.

Duncan Pritchard, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh and Director of the Eidyn Research Centre, currently leads two projects on the topic of intellectual humility: an Intellectual Humility MOOC and a research project aimed at developing an anti-individualistic version of virtue epistemology and to explore the relationship between epistemic dependency and intellectual humility.

“The MOOC will bring together researchers from across the world from such diverse fields as philosophy, psychology, education, and divinity to discuss, in an accessible manner, the issues raised by intellectual humility,” Pritchard explained in an interview. “The hope is that this free online course will promote a broader public understanding of this notion.”

One topic Pritchard has become especially interested in over the last few years is how education has been informed by issues in cognitive science. It’s here that he sees a lot of overlap with the topic of intellectual humility.

“Although we typically credit our cognitive skills with producing our cognitive successes, in many cases such successes are not due to these skills at all, but rather due to situational factors. If that’s right, then we are radically overestimating our cognitive abilities, and a large dose of intellectual humility is in order.”

This is why he believes it’s important to question how we should approach the current model of education, with its focus on developing a subject’s cognitive abilities. If we don’t, we run the risk of squandering our students’ full learning potential.

In his 2006 paper “Humility as a Virtue in Teaching,” William Hare acknowledges that many of us have denied humility as a virtue in teaching. Some of us may find the idea problematic in the context of establishing authority or building self-esteem. But these reservations have resulted in “narrow approaches to teaching, or have spawned simplistic solutions which confuse humility with outright scepticism,” he says. Ultimately, Hare says, rejecting the notion of intellectual humility translates to rejecting reason, and to abandoning all respect for a student’s education.

In the words of Samuelson, “Developing the virtue of intellectual humility will not only help us learn, but also help us collaborate and learn from each other, and could move the needle toward more civil discourse in our society and ultimately finding the best solutions to our intractable problems.”

What could be better than that?


Saga has taught and tutored writing at the elementary, secondary, and post-secondary levels. Her educational interests include psychology, creativity, and system reform. She earned a B.A. in Creative Writing from Oberlin College and lives in Portland, Oregon, USA.

You can reach her on Google+, @sagamilena or [email protected]

3 Responses

  1. Parthiban T R says:

    “We derive pleasure from the idea of bestowing our knowledge upon someone else.” An apt observation that is and I have observed it myself in my classes (Grades 1 to 9). Children seem to be more interested to project what they know when given opportunities. Most of them learn something because they feel it will lead them to enjoy the ‘public praise’ someday and not because that it helps build them of being an eligible human to live a healthy life.
    Even teachers need to be taught “intellectual humility” because they should understand the importance of questions raised by students. Thanks for the enlightening write up.

    • Saga Briggs says:

      Thanks for reading, Parthiban. I agree about teachers as well. While at university, I had a creative writing professor who would bring his own new material to class for the students to workshop. He was a best-selling novelist and could have easily dismissed our opinions. But the gesture–treating us like equals when we all knew we weren’t–meant so much. That, to me, is intellectual humility at its best!

  2. Brian says:

    Great article. Stumbled upon it will searching for interview questions that will help determine the level of intellectual humility that a candidate posses. Although your article is not in that vein it reinforces the point that great things can happen in life, history and in work when people work from a point of ignorance rather than pride.

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