Why It's Good to Admit 'I Don't Know'The most powerful point of view may be a simple admission of "I don't know."
That's the word from Duke University researchers, who have determined that "intellectual humility"--an awareness that your beliefs may be incorrect--may make you better able to make decisions and increase your tolerance.
Intellectual humility is the opposite of intellectual arrogance or conceit. People who are intellectually humble are open-minded, and while they do have strong beliefs, they recognize their fallibility and are willing to be proven wrong on matters large and small.
Led by Mark Leary, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke, the team conducted four separate studies to measure the trait and learn more about how it functions. In one study, participants read essays arguing for and against religion and were then asked about each author's personality. After reading an essay with which they disagreed, intellectually arrogant people gave the writer low scores in morality, honesty, competence and warmth. By contrast, intellectually humble people were less likely to judge a writer's character based on his or her views.
People who displayed intellectual humility also did a better job evaluating the quality of evidence--even in mundane matters. For instance, when presented with arguments about the benefits of flossing, intellectually humble people correctly distinguished strong, fact-based arguments from weak ones.
The characteristic also affected people's views on politicians who "flip-flop." Intellectually humble Republicans were more likely than other Republicans to say that they would vote for a politician whose position on an issue changed over time, due to new evidence. They were also less likely to criticize that politician for "flip-flopping." There was less variability among Democrats. Whether intellectually arrogant or humble, Democrats were generally less likely to criticize a politician for changing his mind.
"If you think about what's been wrong in Washington for a long time, it's a whole lot of people who are very intellectually arrogant about the positions they have--on both sides of the aisle," Leary said. "But even in interpersonal relationships, the minor squabbles we have with our friends, lovers and coworkers are often about relatively trivial things where we are convinced that our view of the world is correct and their view is wrong."
Leary suggests that intellectual humility is a quality that could be encouraged and taught. "Not being afraid of being wrong--that's a value, and I think it is a value we could promote," he said. "I think if everyone was a bit more intellectually humble we'd all get along better, we'd be less frustrated with each other."
The study findings were published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.
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