Intellectual Humility: Are You Open to Being Wrong?

If I asked you if you identify as a racist, a xenophobe, or a bigot, chances are pretty good you’d say, “Of course not!”  But, I’d like to pose a tougher question.  Are you ignorant?  Before you answer, let’s establish a working definition of ignorance for the purpose of this exercise.

ig·no·rant| ˈiɡnərənt | adjective 

  1. lacking knowledge; uneducated about a particular topic;
  2. one who makes inaccurate assumptions based upon a lack of awareness or insight.

Psychologist Daniel Kahneman wrote, “Our comforting conviction that the world makes sense rests on a secure foundation: our almost unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance.” There is something intellectually impressive about having the kind of humility necessary to acknowledge there is a lot you don’t know and that a lot of what you think you know is distorted or wrong. The vast majority of us would not self-identify as ignorant. Statistically speaking, more than 75% of us would claim to be of above-average intelligence. Given our working definition of ignorance, when was the last time you made an inaccurate assumption about someone with whom you disagreed based upon a lack of awareness or insight into that individual’s personal point of view?  Have you ever generalized those on the other side of the issue as idiots who just don’t get it? Pick a topic.

  • Politics.
  • Abortion.
  • Immigration.
  • Police reform.
  • Health care.
  • Even face masks have become the litmus test of “ignorance.”

How receptive are you to understand why someone disagrees with you rather than persuade that person to see it your way? Two open-minded people trying vehemently to convince the other of “rightness” is something of an oxymoron. Everyone seems to be increasingly more convinced of their “rightness” and the “wrongness” of those with a different opinion.

Most of us simply are not as open-minded as we’d like to think. When was the last time you made an assumption about someone who held an opposing opinion? Did you take the time to ask questions to really understand why they felt the way they did – and then truly listened to the answers? It’s human nature to see ourselves as more insightful, and more “right” than others. It’s a prime example of illusory superiority bias, and it’s true for politics, religion, social issues, and even fashion. Those topics often make for contentious, uncomfortable, and frustrating conversations. And, at a time when conflicting opinions are everywhere, it’s easier to walk away from the discussion altogether and disregard the person as an “idiot.”Consider a 2017 study in which scientists asked 2,400 well-educated adults to consider arguments on politically controversial issues — same-sex marriage, gun control, marijuana legalization, abortion, etc. When asked to discuss these issues with people who opposed their viewpoints, approximately two-thirds of people stuck so firmly to their positions they gave up a chance to win extra money in order to avoid the conversation much less entertain opposing views.

The rate at which you learn depends upon how willing you are to consider opposing ideas, even if you don’t instinctively like them –especially if you don’t like them.

At a time when it seems that we’re all more convinced than ever of our own rightness, social scientists are exploring a concept called intellectual humility. People with high levels of intellectual humility don’t try to convince others of their perspective, rather they search to discover their own distorted thinking. Intellectual humility is not just being open to the possibility of being wrong. It’s actively searching for evidence to prove they are wrong.

Out of crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.

~Immanuel Kant

People with intellectual humility come from the “crooked timber” school of humanity – moral realists who believe that character is demonstrated through internal struggle rather than external superiority. This is not an instinctive behavior. It is uncomfortable to be wrong; it’s even more uncomfortable to search out why we are wrong about a deep-seated belief. The ingrained idea that our own unique life experiences give us greater insight than those around us may be the biggest obstacle to growth.In a 2017 study conducted at Duke University, researcher Mark Leary and his colleagues conducted a series of studies illustrating that by building our capacity for intellectual humility, we also increase empathy, and emotional intelligence, improve decision-making, and significantly build our base of knowledge.

The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.

~F. Scott Fitzgerald

Intellectual Humility on Company Culture

Intellectual humility is just as important in business as it is in politics and religion. New research shows that people with intellectual humility are better learners and collaborators because they don’t disregard opposing viewpoints, rather they intentionally search them out. Teams comprised of people committed to incorporating alternative perspectives into their discussions are much more productive than teams comprised of members firmly entrenched in their own views. Diverse thinking not only opens the door for new ideas, it also enables people to better identify costly potential pitfalls and flaws. Leaders who exhibit low intellectual humility aren’t open to new ideas and may even become defensive or hostile when their ideas are challenged. This not only dilutes the quality of ideas, but it sends a very strong message to team members about their value and ability to contribute.

Lazlo Bock, former senior VP of People Operations at Google, claims it was one of the most important qualities he looked for in a candidate. According to Bock, people with no sense of intellectual humility are incapable of learning. “The most successful people are those who “argue like hell and are zealots about their point of view, but when a new fact emerges are able to admit that the situation has changed–and they’re not right.”Countless psychologists agree with Bock, and a growing number of HR executives are incorporating intellectual humility into their requisite qualifications for new hires. Having the ability to see the world through another’s lenses doesn’t mean you don’t have convictions. It means that you are open to other new people, new perspectives, new experiences.  It also means you understand the limitations of your own thinking.

Not knowing the scope of your own ignorance is part of the human condition. But the problem with it is we see it in other people, and we don’t see it in ourselves. The first rule of the Dunning-Kruger club is you don’t know you’re a member of the Dunning-Kruger club.

~David Dunning


Melissa Hughes, Ph.D.
Melissa Hughes, Ph.D.
Dr. Melissa Hughes is a neuroscience geek, keynote speaker, and author. Her latest book, Happier Hour with Einstein: Another Round explores fascinating research about how the brain works and how to make it work better for greater happiness, well-being, and success. Having worked with learners from the classroom to the boardroom, she incorporates brain-based research, humor, and practical strategies to illuminate the powerful forces that influence how we think, learn, communicate and collaborate. Through a practical application of neuroscience in our everyday lives, Melissa shares productive ways to harness the skills, innovation and creativity within each of us in order to contribute the intellectual capital that empowers organizations to succeed with social, financial and cultural health.

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  1. I am a total fan of neuroscience applied to human interaction and behavior change. As a sales coach I have lots of opportunity to teach people to look past apparent disagreement to see what’s really going on at the root. Thanks for presenting it in the context of intellectual humility. I would not have labeled it that, yet what an appropriate description.

  2. This is such a brilliant reminder of how we can bring our best. Intellectual humility seems to me to be an essential skill we’re going to need to develop and cultivate to grow forward. And, to do so together. The Dunning-Kruger club may be ‘normal’ with lots of ‘good company’ but it’s not going to get us to where we need to be. The strength and vulnerability to develop intellectual humility is essential to good listening, effective leadership and empowering human relations. Thank you for your research and insights, Melissa! I especially loved: “Having the ability to see the world through another’s lenses doesn’t mean you don’t have convictions. It means that you are open to other new people, new perspectives, new experiences. It also means you understand the limitations of your own thinking.“ Oh yes!

  3. In life we need a good dose of intellectual humility. Open-mindedness is what saves us from social barbarism and allows us to progress on a personal level. An open mind is constantly changing and transforming, a closed mind is blocked and, therefore, is the opposite of the incessant flow of life.
    We must be able to defend our ideas when we are sure of them, but we must also be smart enough to admit that we are wrong, listen to different ideas and, in the end, understand and accept other ways of seeing the world. Only when we open up to new ideas can we learn. If we believe we have the truth in hand, we can only be sure that we will not move a millimeter from our position. To believe that we are the holders of absolute truth implies condemning us to stagnation. After all, you learn more by listening rather than speaking.
    Humility characterizes leaders who, above all, accept negative advice and feedback, are able to recognize their own mistakes and to treasure their teachings. They recognize vulnerability to experiences as the shame, judgment, reprimand. Admit our own limitations is the key to everything, is a sign of courage and ability to coexist and collaborate with others.

    • Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts on this one, Aldo. It’s so true what you say here… “Open-mindedness is what saves us from barbarism…” And yet, we seem to be more closed-minded than ever! It takes a special kind of intellect to not only be open to the possibility that you’re wrong, but also admit it and own it as evidence of personal growth. You nailed it when you expressed that admitting our own limitations is a sign of courage and the best way to coexist and collaborate with others. Thank you!

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