Intellectual Humility

Keywords: humility, self-reflection, foundations of doubt

Is it possible to be humble and say you are? Is it arrogance if what you say about yourself is true? Without getting into hairsplitting definitions, I’ll say that, from the viewpoint of doubt, it’s better to say you try to be humble (and mean it) and that there is a difference between arrogance, self-promotion, and acknowledging your strong points. Arrogance includes some level of proclaiming yourself superior to others. In contrast, there are times, such as job interviews, when you need to promote yourself. Also, acknowledging that you are better at something can be very useful when doing a project. (I find it mildly interesting to consider people that are arrogant about their weaknesses. I put people that loudly proclaim they are sinners in this category, with flagellants – e.g., people that whip themselves, as do some members of Opus Dei – being high on this list.)

I recently came across the concept of “intellectual humility” in the September/October 2020 issue of Skeptical Inquirer. Practicing intellectual humility helps doubters to keep ourselves in check as well as helping in how we present ourselves – and our evidence – to non-doubters. When you step beyond doubt and claim something is true, it is easy to step into arrogance as well. The article presents some “representative items from several questionnaire measures of intellectual humility.”

  1. I reconsider my opinions when presented with evidence (Leary et al. 2017).
  2. I am willing to hear others out, even if I disagree with them (Krumrei-Mancuso and Rouse 2016).
  3. When I realize that someone knows more than me, I feel frustrated and humiliated (reversed in scoring) (Alfano et al. 2017).
  4. I feel comfortable admitting my intellectual limitations (Haggard et al. 2018).
  5. I try to reflect on my weaknesses to develop my intelligence (Porter and Schumann 2018).
  6. I often get defensive if others do not agree with me (reversed in scoring) (McElroy et al. 2014).

I like to think that I do well on all of these (spoken humbly.) Number 2 might be my most difficult, mainly because I’ve come to a lot of conclusions based on evaluations of research and arguments. Where do you draw the line between hearing others out and saying, “I’ve heard the arguments before?” This rolls over to number 6, although I probably get more insistent than defensive (which can look like being defensive.) I don’t recall thinking about 4 and 5 before reading the article. I find I have difficulty with the use of the word “intelligence” in 5. I want to rephrase it as “I reflect on my weaknesses to increase my knowledge.” For 4 I want to ask the question of whether it is limitations of intelligence or time and effort. Although I am comfortable with admitting I’m not a genius, I tend to think that, given the time and resources, I can understand just about any specific thing (and my PhD in Mathematics gives some evidence of this.)  And this gets into the definition of “intelligence”. Can you change it? Does intelligence require ability in breadth as well as depth? Does intelligence require instantaneous comprehension of new material?

I generally consider number 1 – changing your mind in the presence of counter evidence – to be the hallmark of starting from doubt. But all of these represent ways in which doubt applies to self as well as to the rest of reality.

References (taken from the article, I haven’t read these):

Alfano, M., K. Iurino, P. Stey, et al. 2017. Development and validation of a multi-dimensional measure of intellectual humility. PloS one 12(8).

Haggard, M., W. Rowatt, J. Leman, et al. 2018. Finding middle ground between intellectual arrogance and intellectual servility: Development and assessment of the limitations-owning intellectual humility scale. Personality and Individual Differences 124: 184–193.

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

Leary, M., K. Diebels, E. Davisson, et al. 2017. Cognitive and interpersonal features of intellectual humility. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 43(6): 793–813.

McElroy, S., K. Rice, and D. Davis. 2014. Intellectual humility: Scale development and theoretical elaborations in the context of religious leadership. Journal of Psychology and Theology 42(1): 19–30.

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

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