Why Humble People Make Better Decisions

Why Humble People Make Better Decisions

New research says they’re better at judging information than know-it-alls.

Image courtesy of Unsplash.

Have you ever noticed how we say that beliefs are something you “hold”? According to new research out of Duke University, the grip you keep on your ideas shapes the way you approach the world. How tightly (or not) you cling to your own opinions is called “intellectual humility” (IH), and it could have a big effect on the decisions you make.

People high in IH are less committed to being right about everything and care more about what new information is out in the world, while people low in IH want to believe what they already think. If you agree with the statement “I question my own opinions, positions, and viewpoints because they could be wrong” — used in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin study — then you may score highly on IH. Call it informational sensitivity: “People differ to the degree that they have antennae on in regard to evidence quality,” lead author Mark Leary, professor of psychology and neuroscience, tells Thrive Global.

The ramifications are broad, Leary says, since needing to be right all the time and ignoring evidence that conflicts with your opinion can create all sorts of problems, whether in relationships or business or politics. Here’s one politically relevant example from the paper: Participants read an anecdote about a politician changing his mind after he learned more an issue, and those low in IH were more likely to say that he was flip-flopping than (wisely) re-evaluating his opinion based on new evidence.

To Leary, the results speak poorly of the American ideal of “sticking to your guns,” since that’s the opposite of the open- and eager-mindedness that IH characterizes. Self-worth and identity issues might be in the mix, too. “You almost get the sense that intellectually humble people keep their ego out of their intellectual decisions,” Leary says. With IH, it’s less about being right than seeing what’s right. Troublingly, other research indicates that powerful people take their thoughts more seriously, suggesting that IH might go down the higher you climb in social structures.

IH may arise from other, more fundamental factors of personality, too. In one experiment, Leary found that people high in IH also had high openness to experience, a core personality trait measuring curiosity, and need for cognition, or how much you enjoy thinking. Leary reasons that IH arises from those drives working together, since desiring new ideas and chewing them over has a way of getting you accustomed to changing your mind.

As indicated in another experiment, IH also depends your ability spot facts. To assess this, the researchers recruited 400 people online for a critical thinking task evaluating the merits of flossing. After reporting how regularly they flossed, participants read one of two essays advocating the practice — one relied on strong, scientific arguments citing dental experts, the other on weak, anecdotal arguments from ordinary people. The results: People high in IH rated the strong argument much more highly, and more hopefully for dental (and social!) progress, the low frequency flossers were indeed more likely to change their minds after reading the stronger essay — so long as they were high in IH.

The question I really wanted to ask Leary was outside the scope of the study: namely, is there a way to get people to be higher in IH. Is there a magic wand of humility that you can wave? After telling me that’s a question for another paper, he did offer a tip from his lectures. When he’s teaching this stuff, he likes to check his students’ intellectual privilege with a couple of well-placed questions. “Probabilistically,” he likes to say, “wouldn’t it be strange if your views were always the right ones? Wouldn’t it be odd if everything you believe is true?”

Read more about the study findings here.

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