When it comes to social and political issues, many Americans feel hostile toward those they disagree with. Unfortunately, those feelings of contempt can affect our ability to cooperate, keeping us from working together on solutions to the big issues of our day—like our economy, climate change, poverty, and racism.
In this study, Glen Smith of the University of North Georgia analyzed data from surveys in 2020 (prior to the presidential election) and 2021, where over 1,700 participants reported on how strongly they opposed or supported political issues of the day (making college free, legalizing marijuana, imposing higher tariffs on foreign goods, and abolishing the death penalty). For each issue, the participants were also asked if they thought their views could be wrong, if they might be overlooking evidence that contradicts their position, and if they might change their view if presented with additional evidence or information—all questions related to intellectual humility.
Afterward, the participants also reported how they felt about people who had a different viewpoint from theirs on each topic—meaning, how warmly they felt toward opponents and how smart, honest, moral, and open-minded their opponents were.
After analyzing the results, Smith found that those who held more intellectually humble attitudes on a topic viewed opponents in a more positive light—more warmly and as more smart, honest, moral, and open-minded. In fact, their own intellectual humility was a better predictor of their hostility toward others than their own ideology, political party, political knowledge, or strength of their opinion.
This tendency held true even within an individual. If people held more humble views on a specific topic, they were less likely to dislike or dismiss an opponent in comparison to topics where they held more arrogant views. This suggests intellectual humility can be variable and context-specific, which could be a good thing for reducing political animosity.
“When people hold opinions with humility, they feel less hostility toward those who disagree, while the more people think they know about an issue, the less humble they are and the more hostile they are towards other people,” says Smith.
Why would being humbler affect us like this? Smith says that we tend to assign negative qualities in our minds to people who disagree with us—maybe thinking they’re less educated or have a moral defect—which, in turn, makes us dislike those people. But, when we hold some doubt about the rightness of our beliefs, we’re more open to listening to others without feeling hostile just because they see things differently.
“If I’m humble, there’s an implication there that I might be wrong and you might be right. And, if that’s the case, then why would I hate you? It doesn’t make any sense,” he says.
Nudging people to be humbler can lessen hostility
This finding doesn’t necessarily prove that being humbler causes less animosity. To get at that, Smith did an experiment where he tried to increase people’s humility.
In the experiment, 306 participants were asked to rate the strength of pro and con arguments on whether marijuana should be legalized, while told to ignore how they personally felt about the issue. In some cases, people read just one pro and one con argument; in other cases, they read a third argument in which the author expressed uncertainty about the potential effects of legalizing marijuana—saying they didn’t know enough about it—and, because of that, they were afraid of legalizing it.
Afterward, the participants were asked if the arguments they read changed their opinion. They also reported how humble they were around the topic of legalization and how they felt about people who were making arguments against their own position. Smith found that none of the arguments made a big difference in people’s opinions on the topic. But those who read the humbler argument felt more humility than those who read just the pro and con arguments, even though they rated the humble argument as the least convincing. And, as a result of feeling more humility, they also felt less animosity toward opponents.
“Humility doesn’t have to change your mind on the underlying issue, but being exposed to an expression of humility has an independent effect on how you feel,” says Smith. “It can make you both humbler and more accepting of disagreement.”
Perhaps this means that humility can be cultivated in particular contexts—at least to some extent. Nudging people toward expressing less certainty and more humility around their knowledge of sociopolitical topics might lessen other people’s defensiveness, leading to less hostility and more productive conversations.
Of course, Smith’s results don’t necessarily mean that intellectual humility will always be helpful. When it comes to other, more contentious issues—like climate change or abortion rights—it may be harder to encourage people to reconsider their position or listen to the other side without rancor. Nor do the results imply that politicians and others who benefit from increased polarization will be eager to embrace intellectual humility.
But it does provide some hope. By practicing more humility, we can foster more positive dialogue, at the very least, says Smith, and maybe make a dent in political polarization.
“If you can approach arguments by admitting that you don’t know everything, it’s contagious. Other people start to question how much they know and take a less defensive approach,” he says. “If we can become humbler and accept that people disagree with us for good reasons, we can reduce some of the acrimony.”