Detail from Interior with Young Man Reading by Vilhelm Hammershøi, 1898. Courtesy Wikimedia
‘If I only had a little humility, I’d be perfect,’ the media mogul Ted Turner supposedly said sometime in the 1990s, in a moment of narcissistic exuberance. While Turner has been much humbler since, today’s breed of tech entrepreneurs often display a similar arrogance.
Why be humble? After all, Aristotle said: ‘All men by nature desire to know.’ Intellectual humility is a particular instance of humility, since you can be down-to-earth about most things and still ignore your mental limitations. Intellectual humility means recognising that we don’t know everything – and what we do know, we shouldn’t use to our advantage. Instead, we should acknowledge that we’re probably biased in our belief about just how much we understand, and seek out the sources of wisdom that we lack.
The internet and digital media have created the impression of limitless knowledge at our fingertips. But, by making us lazy, they have opened up a space that ignorance can fill. On the Edge website, the psychologist Tania Lombrozo of the University of California explained how technology enhances our illusions of wisdom. She argues that the way we access information about an issue is critical to our understanding – and the more easily we can recall an image, word or statement, the more likely we’ll think we’ve successfully learned it, and so refrain from effortful cognitive processing. Logical puzzles presented in an unfriendly font, for example, can encourage someone to make extra effort to solve them. Yet this approach runs counter to the sleek designs of the apps and sites that populate our screens, where our brain processes information in a deceptively ‘smooth’ way.
What about all the commenting and conversations that happen online? Well, your capacity to learn from them depends on your attitudes to other people. Intellectually humble people don’t repress, hide or ignore their vulnerabilities, like so many trolls. In fact, they see their weaknesses as sources of personal development, and use arguments as an opportunity to refine their views. People who are humble by nature tend to be more open-minded and quicker to resolve disputes, since they recognise that their own opinions might not be valid. The psychologist Carol Dweck at Stanford University in California has shown that if you believe intelligence can be developed through experience and hard work, you’re likely to make more of an effort to solve difficult problems, compared with those who think intelligence is hereditary and unchangeable.
Intellectual humility relies on the ability to prefer truth over social status. It is marked primarily by a commitment to seeking answers, and a willingness to accept new ideas – even if they contradict our views. In listening to others, we run the risk of discovering that they know more than we do. But humble people see personal growth as a goal in itself, rather than as a means of moving up the social ladder. We miss out on a lot of available information if we focus only on ourselves and on our place in the world.
At the other end of the scale lies intellectual arrogance – the evil twin of overconfidence. Such arrogance almost always stems from the egocentric bias – the tendency to overestimate our own virtue or importance, ignoring the role of chance or the influence of other people’s actions on our lives. This is what makes us attribute success to ourselves and failure to circumstance. The egocentric bias makes sense, since our own personal experience is what we understand best. It becomes a problem when that experience is too thin to form a serious opinion, yet we still make do with it. Studies have shown that people find it difficult to notice their own blind spots, even when they can identify them easily in others.
From an evolutionary perspective, intellectual arrogance can be seen as a way of achieving dominance through imposing one’s view on others. Meanwhile, intellectual humility invests mental resources in discussion and working towards group consensus. The Thrive Center for Human Development in California, which seeks to help young people turn into successful adults, is funding a series of major studies about intellectual humility. Their hypothesis is that humility, curiosity and openness are key to a fulfilling life. One of their papers proposes a scale for measuring humility by examining questions such as whether people are consistently humble or whether it depends on circumstances. Acknowledging that our opinions (and those of others) vary by circumstance is, in itself, a significant step towards reducing our exaggerated confidence that we are right.
In the realm of science, if necessity is the mother of invention, then humility is its father. Scientists must be willing to abandon their theories in favour of new, more accurate explanations in order to keep up with constant innovation. Many scientists who made important findings early on in their careers find themselves blocked by ego from making fresh breakthroughs. In his fascinating blog, the philosopher W Jay Wood argues that intellectually humble scientists are more likely to acquire knowledge and insight than those lacking this virtue. Intellectual humility, he says, ‘changes scientists themselves in ways that allow them to direct their abilities and practices in more effective ways’.
Albert Einstein knew as much when he reportedly said that ‘information is not knowledge’. Laszlo Bock, Google’s head of people operations, agrees. In an interview with The New York Times, he said that humility is one of the top attributes he looks for in candidates, but that it can be hard to find among successful people, because they rarely experience failure. ‘Without humility, you are unable to learn,’ he notes. A little ironic, perhaps, for a company that has done more than any other to make information seem instant, seamless, and snackable. Perhaps humility’s the sort of thing you can have only when you’re not aware of it.