Intellectual humility: Scientific and Biblical

December 19, 2018 | pride | 4 Comments


“Do not be wise in your own opinion.” Romans 12:16

Breaking news! Most of us think we’re smarter than most of us.In recent surveys, 65% of Americans rate themselves more intelligent than average. Furthermore, we are often quite certain in our beliefs. But is that confidence warranted?

Intuitively, we suspect not. After decades of research in the science of cognition, we know that our thinking is misdirected by an ever-expanding list of well-documented cognitive biases. Some of the better known and most salient examples include:

  • Confirmation bias: perceiving and acknowledging only evidence and arguments in support of our opinion
  • Disconfirmation bias: ignoring or dismissing evidence against our pre-existing opinion
  • The Dunning-Kruger effect – sometimes the most confident are the least competent, while the most competent are more restrained in their self-assessment

It is difficult, at times impossible, to know when our beliefs have been distorted by confounding factors. Ancient Hebrew scripture warned against the danger of excessive confidence in our own wisdom:   

Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes,And prudent in their own sight! (Isaiah 5:21)

Empirical data collected over the last three decades show this to be a common and nearly universal failing. There may be a large disparity between what we think we know and understand, and what we actually do know and understand. This can be resolved in two ways. The first, most challenging, but least realistic is to become expert on everything. The second, simplest, and most straightforward solution is to embrace the virtue of intellectual humility. Simply put, to accept and admit we are fallible.

In a 2015 paper published in  The Journal of Positive Psychology, Don Davis and a team of researchers reported the results of two studies on intellectual humility. First they examined whether intellectual humility could be distinguished from general humility. They found strong evidence that separate from measures of general humility, specific measures of intellectual humility predicted greater openness to experience and agreeableness.

In the second study, the researchers demonstrated that individuals high in intellectual humility scored significantly higher in objectivity and “need for cognition” i.e., a propensity to think things over carefully.

Thus, three practices of sound reasoning – openness to experience, objectivity, and need for cognition – correlate with the Judeo-Christian virtue of Humility: 

For I say, through the grace given to me, to everyone who is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think soberly, as God has dealt to each one a measure of faith. Romans 12:3

Don E. Davis, Kenneth Rice, Stacey McElroy, Cirleen DeBlaere, Elise Choe, Daryl R. Van Tongeren & Joshua N. Hook(2016) Distinguishing intellectual humility and general humility, The Journal of Positive Psychology, 11:3, 215-224,DOI: 10.1080/17439760.2015.1048818

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Steven Willing

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  1. kenyachupps

    Most interesting title, Steve. From whence doth it come?


  2. Ethan Moore

    Really great Steve, as always. I'm subscribing!

  3. Steven Willing

    Greetings, Mike. Cooked it up this afternoon.

  4. Intellectual humility: From Ancient Biblical Proverbs to 21st Century Research. - The Soggy Spaniel

    […] No matter where you stand, you’ve probably noticed that a large swath of humanity confidently clings to tenets that are demonstrably untrue. Moreover, these beliefs are not borne exclusively of facts, experience, and logic but a deadly array of confounding factors. The vast complexity of most subjects, misinformation, disinformation, and information overload preclude anyone from total mastery of an issue. The solution is Biblical, and it’s called intellectual humility. […]

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