Scroll To Top

Intellectual Humility Defined

What Is Intellectual Humility?

Researchers define intellectual humility, most simply, as “the degree to which people recognize that their beliefs might be wrong.” It involves knowing that your knowledge is only partial and that your beliefs and opinions are fallible because of your psychological biases and because the evidence supporting them could be limited or flawed.

“Of course, it rarely feels like our beliefs are wrong, and we must usually behave as if our beliefs are true or else we’ll be paralyzed by uncertainty,” writes researcher Mark Leary. “But people who are high in intellectual humility keep in mind that whatever they believe to be true could be wrong and, thus, they might need to revise their views at any time.”

According to one of Leary’s studies, people high in intellectual humility are very concerned with the quality of the evidence for opinions. Another study suggests that intellectually humble people will spend more effort reading about viewpoints counter to their own, and they’re much more interested in understanding why people might disagree with them. People who are high in intellectual humility score higher in epistemic curiosity, which is the motivation to pursue new knowledge and ideas.

It’s important to note that intellectual humility is just one form of humility. Humility in general involves an ability to see your limitations as well as your strengths and to have an accurate perspective on your relative importance in the world. Other forms of humility include cultural humility, which starts with acknowledging the biases created by our backgrounds and experiences; we can also be humble about our skills or abilities. Intellectual humility is the form of humility centering on our knowledge, beliefs, opinions, and intelligence.

What are the Limitations?

Featured Articles

Why Practice It?

The science of intellectual humility is growing rapidly, and scientists are beginning to find evidence that this kind of humility has far-reaching benefits, ranging from our careers and relationships to the health of our democracy. Here’s an overview of what the research to date suggests about the benefits of intellectual humility.

  • Intellectual humility can help you learn new things: A series of five studies found that people higher in intellectual humility exerted more effort to learn and showed greater resilience after a learning setback (e.g., receiving a poor grade on a test). Building on prior evidence, the researchers suggest that people who are intellectually humble may be more genuinely curious and interested in learning—and so they are more likely to persist in the face of failure and seek out challenges.
  • You’re less susceptible to false information: Several studies suggest that intellectually humble people aren’t as easily led astray by misinformation, perhaps because they are more likely to investigate further when confronted with views that oppose their own (rather than being quick to believe anything that confirms their presumptions). For instance, in an a 2018 study, researchers offered participants the opportunity to learn more about reasons that either supported or contradicted their opinions—and it was those higher in intellectual humility who chose to learn more about reasons that opposed their own view. Another study found that intellectually humble people presented with false headlines about COVID-19—such as “mask wearing can be dangerous and ineffective”—were more likely to spend time fact-checking the headlines or reading more about the source of the headlines. That’s a result echoed by other recent studies.
  • It might improve your relationships: One study found that after only 30 minutes of interaction, people rated those high in intellectual humility more positively than those who were low in it. In a 2017 study, researchers asked romantic partners to rate each other’s intellectual humility—and found that individuals rated humble by their partner were also more likely to be seen as warm, friendly, and generous. Other research has found that people who are more intellectually humble tend to be more empathic, compassionate, and altruistic.
  • You can become a better leader. Research suggests that people are more satisfied with leaders who are higher in intellectual humility. These leaders rate themselves as being more oriented toward “servant-leadership,” which emphasizes that the role of a leader is, first and foremost, to serve their people or community. Indeed, studies suggest that intellectually humble leaders who are open to alternative views may motivate others to contribute ideas to discussions. Another study found that people were more willing to forgive leaders they viewed as intellectually humble. It may be that people who view their leaders as intellectually humble have greater hope that their leaders will learn from their mistakes, make corrections, and do better in the future.
  • It can help you to better build bridges. Intellectual humility is associated with more tolerance toward ideological opponents, more favorable perceptions of them, and a greater willingness to affiliate with them, in both religion and politics. Indeed, intellectual humility is unrelated to political orientation, according to most studies to date.

There are possible downsides to intellectual humility, most of which involve becoming indecisive or anxious in the face of uncertainty. For example, humbler people have greater apprehension about death, according to work by Daryl Van Tongeren and his colleagues, perhaps because they harbor more doubt about the afterlives described by the world’s religions. To Van Tongeren, this suggests that cultivating intellectual humility involves developing tolerance for uncertainty as “a natural part of being alive.”

The list of benefits is adapted from three Greater Good articles: “Five Reasons Why Intellectual Humility Is Good for You” by Tyrone Sgambati; “Three Reasons for Leaders to Cultivate Intellectual Humility” by Elizabeth Krumrei Mancuso; and “What Does Intellectual Humility Look Like?” by Mark Leary, as well as the GGSC’s “Introduction to Intellectual Humility Research.”

Featured Articles

How to Cultivate It

While the benefits of intellectual humility are well-documented, less research has studied how individuals and organizations can increase it. Recently, a team of scientists launched a large-scale effort to catalyze new research on how to foster intellectual humility. In the meantime, we can offer some guidelines for cultivating more intellectual humility within yourself, as well as in your home and workplace, drawing on existing research.

  • Acknowledge your own limitations: Humility involves an accurate perception of both strengths and weaknesses. Admitting that you have some flaws will help reshape your ideas and self-perception, which will make seemingly challenging information—like negative feedback or constructive criticism—less threatening. After all, if you know that you have limitations and can own them, when you receive feedback that contradicts the way you see the world, you can fit it more neatly into how you make sense of things.
  • Ask yourself questions: When you find yourself disagreeing with someone, ask yourself these questions: Why do I disagree? Do I have all the information about this? Am I making any assumptions? How did I come to hold this view and where did I get this information? And then flip it around and ask yourself similar questions about the other person’s views: Where did their beliefs come from? What information might they have that I don’t?
  • Seek to prove yourself wrong: You can develop an open mind by intentionally seeking to prove yourself wrong. Consider one of your most deeply held beliefs—perhaps your religious beliefs, political opinions, or view of climate change or immigration policy. Begin by arguing against yourself. What weak spots might you have in your argument? Where have you not yet searched for facts or evidence regarding this topic? What evidence is there that you might be incorrect? Who are knowledgeable people about this issue whom you’ve previously disregarded—and what do they have to say about the topic? What are some counterpoints to your arguments? What might motivate you to have this belief, and in what areas might you have blind spots?
  • Try getting distance from yourself: A 2021 study found that “self-distancing”—looking at oneself like an outside observer—could increase intellectual humility. In this study, participants were asked to keep a diary for a month and write about each day’s most significant event. One group wrote in the first person (e.g., “This happened to me”), and the other group wrote in the third person (e.g., “This happened to Bob”). The people who wrote in the third person—or who “self-distanced” from the incident—became much more intellectually humble when reflecting on challenges they had with other people.
  • Try to be patient: “The brain evolved the capacity to think in order to guide our behavior in adaptive ways,” says psychologist Mark Leary. “If we assume that our understanding of almost anything . . . improves over time, then there’s no reason to draw a firm conclusion until we need to act on it. Then, we go with the best information—from the most credible sources—that we have.” That means simply being patient as you gather information and keeping an open mind until you need to act.
  • Embrace mistakes and practice admitting that you made them: In the 2017 paper “Learning from Errors,” psychologist Janet Metcalfe argues that students may benefit from making mistakes (and correcting them) rather than avoiding them at all costs. When you discover that you were wrong about something, suggests psychologist Rick Hanson, “Start by reminding yourself how it is in your own best interests to admit fault and move on. We might think that admitting fault is weak or that it lets the other person off the hook for [their] faults. But actually, it takes a strong person to admit fault, and it puts us in a stronger position with others.” Research suggests that people will see the strength it took to admit you made a mistake—and they’ll like you for it.
  • Embrace a “growth mindset.” People who believe intelligence can grow and improve over time are said to have a “growth mindset”—in contrast to a “fixed mindset,” which holds that our intellectual limitations cannot be changed. One study found that having a growth mindset can lead to more intellectual humility: People who were assigned to read an article about growth mindsets (vs. an article on fixed mindsets) showed higher intellectual humility afterwards, as well as more kindness and respect toward people who disagreed with them.
  • Diversify your relationships: Because our defenses are often sharpened by people who share our beliefs, you need a network of friends, family, and colleagues who hold different ideas from yours. By weaving together a rich tapestry of voices in your life, you will engage with divergent viewpoints, which should reduce your defensive responses by familiarizing you to different ways of seeing the world that are held by people you like.
  • Seek out awe: Sometimes it can feel like we’re at the center of our own universe. Experiencing awe can jolt us out of this self-focused mindset, stirring feelings of wonder and inspiration by reminding us that we’re all just one piece of a greater puzzle. Research suggests that experiencing awe not only enhances happiness and physical health but also helps us to feel more humble. It is most likely to occur in places that have two key features: physical vastness and novelty. These could include natural settings, like a hiking trail lined with tall trees, or urban ones, like at the top of a skyscraper.

The list of practices is adapted from two Greater Good sources: The feedback to participants in the “The Intellectual Humility Quiz” by Jeremy Adam Smith and “Four Ways to Cool Down Your Defensiveness” by Daryl Van Tongeren.

Featured Articles