a scale with an open book symbolizing intellectual humility on one side and a golden crown on the other representing arrogance

New Research Says Intellectual Humility Isn’t Always Viewed As A Positive Trait

Are we better off being humble or arrogant about what we know? A new study suggests that it depends on whom we are dealing with.

Mark Travers, Ph.D.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | November 28, 2023

A new study published in The Journal of Positive Psychology explored how intellectual humility, which is acknowledging one's limitations in knowledge, is perceived by others. The findings suggest that this perception varies depending on the observer's own levels of intellectual humility and arrogance.

I recently spoke with the lead author of the study Alex C. Huynh, an Assistant Professor of Social and Personality Psychology at California State University, to discuss the influence of narcissism on people's perceptions of others, how humility affects the perception of arrogance, and what to do if you're concerned about being seen as arrogant.

Here's an overview of our discussion.

What inspired you to investigate perceptions of intellectual humility and arrogance?

I was first inspired to investigate the topic a few years ago when I felt like I was seeing a lot of high-powered individuals expressing polarizing views on various social media and news outlets. These expressions occasionally signaled intellectual arrogance, and I can recall instances of some individuals openly admitting that they were unwilling to acknowledge that their views could be wrong.

Given the large amount of support I saw these people were receiving, I developed a strong curiosity toward trying to understand how people perceived expressions of intellectual humility and intellectual arrogance.

Specifically, I became curious how people generally interpreted these expressions and whether they favored one over the other. After looking into the psychological literature and realizing some of these questions I had were unanswered, I decided to investigate them in my research lab.

What methodologies did you use, and what do you consider your most significant findings to be?

The primary findings in my research are correlational in nature, but they demonstrate that personality traits can affect how people perceive expressions of intellectual humility and intellectual arrogance. There were two patterns around personality traits that stand out to me as the most interesting and significant findings.

The first is that those who scored higher (versus lower) on narcissism tended to view intellectually arrogant others more positively and intellectually humble others less positively. Those higher on narcissism were also more likely to see objective expressions of intellectual arrogance as less arrogant and intellectually humble statements as less humble.

As a result, the distinction between intellectual arrogance and intellectual humility for those higher on narcissism is less clear. My research also showed a second pattern around personality differences in whether people generally report being intellectually humble.

That is, those who self-reported that they tend to be intellectually humble in their day-to-day lives are better able to distinguish between objective expressions of intellectual humility and intellectual arrogance, whereas those who self-reported not being so intellectually humble showed similar patterns to those higher in narcissism.

Did you find any gender differences or other demographic differences?

We actually did not find any gender or age differences when it came to perceiving intellectual humility and arrogance, or in participants' reports of narcissism and general tendencies to be intellectually humble. As reported in some supplemental analyses in our research paper, one thing that did stand out was political orientation.

Across our research studies, we measured self-reports of political leaning between Liberal and Conservatives. Across our studies, we observed a consistent correlation that those who were more liberal also reported being more intellectually humble and less narcissistic.

These findings suggest there may be some differences across the political spectrum in how people perceive intellectual humility and arrogance, but given that these findings were correlational, they should be taken with a grain of salt.

How does your research connect with, and inform, other research on intellectual humility and arrogance?

I would argue that a lot of research on these topics thus far have treated intellectual humility and intellectual arrogance as distinctive constructs. I think this makes a lot of sense as both constructs seem oppositional in nature, but my research actually suggests that people may vary in how they perceive these constructs, with some people potentially not distinguishing between the two concepts as much.

This suggests that researchers studying these topics need to be cautious when measuring intellectual humility and arrogance, especially with modern psychologists often relying on self-reported data as a measurement tool.

What wisdom does your research hold for someone who is concerned about being perceived as intellectually arrogant or humble?

I would first point to the findings across my research studies that it is evident that people recognize and value that others should be intellectually humble and not intellectually arrogant. Thus, being intellectually humble should be what people aspire for if they're concerned about how they're being perceived.

It is important for people to continue to recognize that there are always limitations in their experiences and knowledge and to continue to be open minded in various domains of their life. Unfortunately, when it comes to how you're perceived, my research suggests that some of that may not be in your control. Rather, people will tend to see what they want to see, so like many other things, the perception of someone's intellectual humility and arrogance may be subject to the lens of the observer.

Do you have plans for follow-up research? Where would you like to see research on intellectual humility go in the future?

Yes, my research lab is currently planning a few future studies aimed at understanding how the perception of intellectual humility and arrogance might vary by the demographic factors of the expresser (e.g., race/ethnicity/gender).

My lab is also developing research around trying to understand why some people may be drawn to those who express intellectual arrogance over intellectual humility and what real-world implications that might have for the support of various public figures.

Ultimately, I would like to see research on intellectual humility focus on ways to effectively develop intellectual humility and open-mindedness in society more broadly. I think there are a lot of ways to get there, and I think psychologists have only recently begun to scratch the surface.

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