People with greater intellectual humility have superior general knowledge

Smart people are not afraid to say "I don't know."

People with greater intellectual humility have superior general knowledge

In the era of social media and rolling news there's a constant pressure to be in the know, always on hand with an aperçus or two.


Today, intellectual humility therefore feels more important than ever – having the insight and honesty to hold your hands up and say you're ignorant or inexpert about an issue.

Psychologists are responding by taking an increasing interest in intellectual humility, including investigating its consequences for learning and the thinking styles that support it. For a new paper in The Journal of Positive Psychology a team led by Elizabeth Krumrei-Mancuso have continued this endeavour, showing, among other things, that intellectual humility correlates with superior general knowledge. This is a logical outcome because, as the researchers write, "simply put, learning requires the humility to realise one has something to learn."

Krumrei-Mancuso and her colleagues conducted five studies in all, attempting to find out more about the links between intellectual humility and knowledge acquisition; between intellectual humility and meta-knowledge (insight into one's own knowledge); and lastly between intellectual humility and other thinking styles.

A strength and a weakness of the research is the use of two different measures of intellectual humility. Some studies involved a shorter questionnaire assessing being a "know-it-all" (through agreement or not with statements like "I know just about everything there is to know") and intellectual openness (through agreement or not with statements like "I can learn from other people"); whereas other studies used a more recently developed, more comprehensive 22-item measure incorporating questions about cognitions, emotions and behaviours representative of intellectual humility (such as, being accepting of criticism of one's important beliefs; being ready to change one's mind; and respect for others' viewpoints). This use of different measures makes for a more comprehensive, varied assessment of intellectual humility, but also impedes comparison between the studies.

The findings in relation to knowledge acquisition were mixed. While an online study involving 604 adults (and using the more comprehensive measure of intellectual humility) found the aforementioned link between greater intellectual humility and superior general knowledge, another involving college students (and the briefer intellectual humility questionnaire) found that those higher in intellectual humility achieved poorer grades. Perhaps the latter result arose because the higher-achieving students used their objectively higher grades to judge their intellectual ability as higher, not having had the chance yet in life to confront their intellectual fallibility (but as mentioned, the use of different measures across the studies complicates any interpretation of the mixed results).

In terms of insight, higher scorers in intellectual humility were less likely to claim knowledge they didn't have (the researchers tested this by assessing participants' willingness to claim familiarity with entirely fictitious facts that they couldn't possibly know), and they also tended to underestimate their performance on a cognitive ability test.

Meanwhile, other thinking styles and constructs that correlated with greater intellectual humility included being more inclined to reflective thinking, having more "need for cognition" (enjoying thinking hard and problem solving), greater curiosity, and open-minded thinking. More intellectual humility was also associated with less "social vigilantism", defined as seeing other people's beliefs as inferior.

While the new findings "replicate and extend previous studies using different measures of intellectual humility", it's fair to say there remains a great deal we don't yet know about intellectual humility. Perhaps most important is the lack of longitudinal research to establish causality – for instance, we don't yet know if greater general knowledge and open-mindedness fosters intellectual humility, or if intellectual humility comes first, and promotes knowledge and curiosity. Most likely the causal associations between these constructs are complex and two-way, but at the moment, if we're honest, we just don't know.

Links between intellectual humility and acquiring knowledge

Christian Jarrett (@Psych_Writer) is Editor of BPS Research Digest.

Reprinted with permission of The British Psychological Society. Read the original article.


How tiny bioelectronic implants may someday replace pharmaceutical drugs

Scientists are using bioelectronic medicine to treat inflammatory diseases, an approach that capitalizes on the ancient "hardwiring" of the nervous system.

Left: The vagus nerve, the body's longest cranial nerve. Right: Vagus nerve stimulation implant by SetPoint Medical.

Credit: Adobe Stock / SetPoint Medical
Sponsored by Northwell Health
  • Bioelectronic medicine is an emerging field that focuses on manipulating the nervous system to treat diseases.
  • Clinical studies show that using electronic devices to stimulate the vagus nerve is effective at treating inflammatory diseases like rheumatoid arthritis.
  • Although it's not yet approved by the US Food and Drug Administration, vagus nerve stimulation may also prove effective at treating other diseases like cancer, diabetes and depression.
Keep reading Show less

Smart vultures never, ever cross the Spain-Portugal border. Why?

The first rule of Vulture Club: stay out of Portugal.

The first rule of Vulture Club: stay out of Portugal. (Image: Eneko Arrondo)
Surprising Science

So you're a vulture, riding the thermals that rise up over Iberia. Your way of life is ancient, ruled by needs and instincts that are way older than the human civilization that has overtaken the peninsula below, and the entire planet. 

Keep reading Show less

Best. Science. Fiction. Show. Ever.

"The Expanse" is the best vision I've ever seen of a space-faring future that may be just a few generations away.

Credit: "The Expanse" / Syfy
13-8
  • Want three reasons why that headline is justified? Characters and acting, universe building, and science.
  • For those who don't know, "The Expanse" is a series that's run on SyFy and Amazon Prime set about 200 years in the future in a mostly settled solar system with three waring factions: Earth, Mars, and Belters.
  • No other show I know of manages to use real science so adeptly in the service of its story and its grand universe building.
Keep reading Show less

How exercise changes your brain biology and protects your mental health

Contrary to what some might think, the brain is a very plastic organ.

PRAKASH MATHEMA/AFP via Getty Images
Mind & Brain

As with many other physicians, recommending physical activity to patients was just a doctor chore for me – until a few years ago. That was because I myself was not very active.

Keep reading Show less
Surprising Science

Here's a 10-step plan to save our oceans

By 2050, there may be more plastic than fish in the sea.

Quantcast