The power of humility

Ashley Merryman, co-author of one of my favorite-ever books, Nurtureshock, on the importance of humility in leadership.  I’m not all that much into the study of leadership (though I loved Nathaniel Fick’s take in One Bullet Away), but I find this humility research pretty fascinating:

True humility, scientists have learned, is when someone has an accurate assessment of both his strengths and weaknesses, and he sees all this in the context of the larger whole. He’s a part of something far greater than he. He knows he isn’t the center of the universe. And he’s both grounded and liberated by this knowledge. Recognizing his abilities, he asks how he can contribute. Recognizing his flaws, he asks how he can grow.

Humility’s benefits turn out to be surprisingly concrete.

In July 2016’s Personality and Individual Differences, Duke University researchers reported on a study conducted with 155 participants. At the experiment’s onset, some people conceded their opinions weren’t always right, and–with new evidence–they’d change their views. The researchers considered them as intellectually humble. Still others were intellectually arrogant: they insisted they were rarely wrong, and they never changed their mind.

During the experiment, everyone completed three tasks. First, they read a list of 40 statements on a range of controversial topics–everything from the military’s use of drone strikes, common core curricula in schools, to same-sex marriage. Then they took a survey, measuring how familiar they were with topics such as Susan B. Anthony or Mount Rushmore. Though there was a catch. A third of the topics were bogus–for example, there was a fictitious “Hamrick’s Rebellion.” Finally, participants read another list of 60 statements. They were to determine which statements were on the first list and which were new. And they reported their confidence in each decision.

The intellectually humble took longer to read the first controversial statements–especially if the information ran counter to their beliefs. At the experiment’s end, they were better at identifying new statements, and, when wrong, they had a gut feeling about the mistake.

Meanwhile, the intellectually arrogant skimmed through the reading. They were less accurate at identifying statements as new, and they were sure their wrong responses were correct. And the intellectually arrogant were more susceptible to the fake news items: they didn’t know what they didn’t know.

In previous studies, researchers observed that the intellectually humble have a constant desire to learn and improve. They embrace ambiguity and the unknown. They like getting new information. They even enjoy finding out when they’re wrong. And when in trouble, they’re more willing to accept help. Humble college students have been found to be higher in academic achievement. They improved more over the course of a semester, and they got better grades. [emphasis mine]

Now, I’ll be honest, “humble” is not generally one of the first words people use to describe me (wait, does that acknowledgment of a flaw mean I actually am humble?), but I very much like this description of intellectual/academic humility in the paragraph above.  That feels like me.

Thing is, though, that sounds like most professors.  You simply have to be intellectually humble to succeed in this business.  Your research (unless you are aiming too low in journals) is constantly getting rejected and critiqued by peers.  If you cannot take the feedback and use it to improve your ideas and methods, you will never succeed as a scholar.  If you are not trying to find new and different ways of thinking about and solving problems, you likewise will not succeed.  Finding out we are wrong is how we learn new things.  So, short version, I would argue intellectual humility serves not only leadership, but is essential for being a successful scholar. It probably also doesn’t hurt for being a successful human being.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

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