The flashier personality traits—narcissism, neuroticism and extraversion—get a lot of attention in the popular literature. But there’s a quieter trait that may be even more powerful: Intellectual humility, which, as the name suggests, refers to our capacity to be humble about our own intellect, to question whether what we know is actually correct and even to adjust our beliefs if we’re presented with new information. And rating higher in intellectual humility may go way beyond helping in our personal relationships (although it does that, too). It may be a great benefit in realms like politics, where people are famously resistant to changing their minds. Luckily, as the authors of a new study argue, the trait is very likely malleable, meaning that it’s something that can be learned, and perhaps even adjusted over time.
Follow-up experiments explored the trait in other areas—like political—where people tend to be pretty sure that they’re right about things. The team had people rate how likely they’d be to vote for a candidate who’d flip-flopped on a view based on emerging evidence. Interestingly, Republican participants were less likely to be dissuaded by flip-flopping if they were higher in intellectual humility. Democrats were on average less likely to view the politician critically for changing his mind, regardless of their intellectual humility level.
A final phase looked at how people with different levels of intellectual humility evaluated different types of evidence. They presented participants with science-based evidence for flossing one’s teeth and anecdotal evidence for it. As they’d suspected, people higher in intellectual humility were better able to differentiate between the quality of evidence than people lower in the trait.
Luckily, the trait could very likely be developed—perhaps even taught in school, and without a lot of effort. A mention or two of the importance of questioning one’s own beliefs from time to time might be enough to cultivate it in kids. And keeping that idea in mind throughout life is probably wise for the rest of us. “I think if everyone was a bit more intellectually humble,” said Leary, “we’d all get along better, we’d be less frustrated with each other.”