[A growing body of research suggests that true humility helps us grow intellectually and to learn from and connect with each other.]
In his recent essay, “You’re Wrong! I’m Right!,” Nicholas Kristof notes that our polarized culture would benefit from a willingness to engage those who challenge our own thinking and “to hear out the other side.” In a word, our civic life needs a greater spirit of humility. In his recent European Psychologist review of evidence on wise thinking, Igor Grossmann concurs with Kristof: Wisdom, he argues, grows from the integration of “intellectual humility, recognition of uncertainty [and] consideration of different perspectives.”
Humility was the animating idea of John Templeton in founding his science-supportive foundation, which declares: “In keeping with the Foundation’s motto, ‘How little we know, how eager to learn,’ we value proposals that exhibit intellectual humility and open-mindedness.” Thanks partly to support from the Templeton Foundation (which—full disclosure—I serve as a trustee), we have a new generation of humility studies with titles such as “Awe and Humility,” “Humility as a Relational Virtue,” and “Intellectual Humility.” From 2000 to 2017, the annual number of PsycINFO-indexed titles mentioning “humility” has increased from one to 85:
Psychology has a deep history in studying the powers and perils of humility’s antithesis: pride. We have, for example, documented:
- self-serving bias. We tend to see ourselves (on subjective, socially desirable dimensions) as better than most others—as more ethical, less prejudiced, and better able to get along with people.
- self-enhancing attributions. We willingly accept responsibility for our successes and good deeds, while shifting the blame elsewhere for our failures and misdeeds.
- cognitive conceit. We tend to display excessive confidence in the accuracy of our judgments and beliefs.
Humility, by contrast, entails
- an accurate self-understanding. To paraphrase C. S. Lewis, humility is not clever people believing they are fools. Humility allows us to recognize both our own talents and others’.
- modest self-presentation. When we share and accept credit without seeking attention, we are not (to again paraphrase Lewis) thinking less of ourselves but thinking of ourselves less.
- an orientation toward others. Prioritizing others’ needs helps us regulate our own impulses. With a spirit of humility we can engage others with the anticipation that, on some matters, the other is our superior—thus giving us an opportunity to learn.
True humility can be distinguished from pseudo-humility, which comes to us in two forms. One is the pretense of humility: “I am humbled to accept this award . . . to serve as your president . . . to have scored the winning goal.” No, actually, you are proud of your accomplishment—and deservedly so.
The other is the delightful new research by Ovul Sezer, Francesca Gino, and Michael Norton on “the humblebrag.” Humblebragging is boasting disguised as complaining or humility: “I’ve got to stop saying yes to every interview request.” “I can’t believe I was the one who got the job over 300 other applicants!” “No makeup and I still get hit on!” But such self-promotion usually backfires, they report, by failing to convey humility or impress others.
Although religious dogmatism can feed “You’re wrong, I’m right!” attitudes, theism actually offers a deep rationale for the humility that underlies science, critical thinking, and an “ever-reforming” open mind. Across their differences, most faith traditions assume two things: 1) there is a God, and 2) it’s not you or me.
As fallible creatures, we should hold our own beliefs tentatively. And we should assess others’ ideas with openness, using observation and experiments (where appropriate) to winnow truth from error—both in our own thinking and that of others. In a spirit of humility, we can “Test everything, hold fast to what is good” (St. Paul).