The Most Powerful Personality Trait You May Never Have Heard Of

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.

The aim of the new research, published today in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, was to determine how the trait affects people’s reactions to various types of information. In one experiment, participants read essays that were fundamentally counter to their own views on religion. Then they rated how much they were aligned with the essay’s message, how it made them feel, and how they felt about the author of the essay. It turned out that people who ranked lower on intellectual humility also thought less of the essay’s author, rating them lower on morality, honesty, competence and warmth. People with more intellectual humility didn’t judge the character of the author in the same way. They were also less sure that their views on religion were correct and less likely to think their views “better” than others.

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.

 “There are stereotypes about conservatives and religiously conservative people being less intellectually humble about their beliefs,” said lead author Mark Leary in a news release. “We didn’t find a shred of evidence to support that.” Which of course has a lot of relevance to today’s climate. “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,” added Leary, a psychology and neuroscience professor at Duke University.

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.

 The results suggest that people who know that their beliefs are just beliefs may fare better than others in number of realms. The value of intellectual humility, of course, reaches into other areas still, like business and personal. “If you’re sitting around a table at a meeting and the boss is very low in intellectual humility, he or she isn’t going to listen to other people’s suggestions,” Leary said. “Yet we know that good leadership requires broadness of perspective and taking as many perspectives into account as possible.” A similar thing probably makes for a good marriage.

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.”



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