What virtue is more needed in today’s contentious and polarized world than humility? We need deep-rooted convictions to fuel our passions, but also humility to restrain bull-headed fanaticism.
Along with curiosity and skepticism, humility forms the foundation of all science. Humility enables critical thinking, which holds one’s untested beliefs tentatively while assessing others’ ideas with a skeptical but open mind. To accept everything is to be gullible; to deny everything is to be a cynic.
In religion and literature, hubris (pride) is first and foundational among the seven deadly sins. When rooted in theism—the assumption that “There is a God, but it’s not me”—humility reminds us of our surest conviction: Some of our beliefs err. We are finite and fallible. We have dignity but not deity. So there’s no great threat when one of our beliefs is overturned or refined—it’s to be expected. In this spirit, we can, as St. Paul advised, “test everything, hold fast to what is good.”
Humility also underlies healthy human relations. In one of his eighteenth-century Sermons, Samuel Johnson recognized the corrosive perils of pride and narcissism: “He that overvalues himself will undervalue others, and he that undervalues others will oppress them.” Even Dale Carnegie, the positive thinking apostle, foresaw the danger: “Each nation feels superior to other nations. That breeds patriotism—and wars.”
Unlike pride and narcissism, humility contributes to human flourishing. It opens us to others. Show social psychologists a situation where humility abounds—with accurate self-awareness + modest self-presentation + a focus on others—and they will show you civil discourse, happy marriages, effective leadership, and mental health. And that is the gist of this new 3.5 minute animated Freethink video, “The Joy of Being Wrong.”
Note: The video was supported by the Templeton Foundation (which I serve as a trustee) as an expression of its founder’s science-friendly motto: “How little we know, how eager to learn.” The Foundation is also supporting a University of Connecticut initiative on “Humility and Conviction in Public Life,” including blog essays, a monthly newsletter, podcast interviews, and videos of forums and lectures.
(For David Myers’ other essays on psychological science and everyday life, visit TalkPsych.com.)