It’s safe to say that these are divisive times, and public figures will seize any opportunity to catalog their opponents’ flaws. But, contrary to popular belief, scientists say intellectual humility is not the sole property of any one political party. A report published today in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin finds that Democrats and Republicans are equally willing to admit when they’re wrong, and that the same is true for religious and non-religious people.
The paper’s authors define intellectual humility as “recognizing that a particular personal belief may be fallible, accompanied by an appropriate attentiveness to limitations in the evidentiary basis of that belief and to one's own limitations in obtaining and evaluating relevant information.”
Now, in plain English: Intellectual humility boils down to openness and flexibility in the face of new information.
We all like to think we're reasonable people, and that it’s the other side that has a problem with the truth. To put this idea to the test, researchers conducted a series of online studies. They recruited 300 volunteers (110 men, 190 women) between the ages of 18 and 71, both progressive and conservative, religious and non-religious.
One experiment required the volunteers to read an essay about religion, then rate the author’s character. Intellectually rigid people who disagreed with the content of the essay were more likely to disparage the author’s morality, honesty, competence, and warmth. Humbler folks were less likely to judge an author whose work conflicted with their beliefs.
A second challenge tested volunteers’ ability to sort out facts from fiction by reading an article about flossing. The results showed that people with greater intellectual flexibility were, unsurprisingly, better at identifying the true statements.
In another experiment, the volunteers were asked whether they’d vote for a politician whose views changed over time. Intellectually humble people from both parties said they’d still vote for a flip-flopper. Democrats as a whole and intellectually humble Republicans were less likely to criticize politicians for shifting their positions.
Lead author Mark Leary of Duke University said the findings are good news, and that intellectual humility can, and should, be learned.
“Not being afraid of being wrong—that’s a value, and I think it is a value we could promote,” Leary said in a statement. “I think if everyone was a bit more intellectually humble we’d all get along better, we’d be less frustrated with each other.”