The Interpersonal Side Of Intellectual Humility

Did you smile the first time you heard Garrison Keillor talk about Lake Wobegon, the Minnesota town “where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average?” Social psychologist David Myers seized on Keillor’s homespun slogan to provide a catchy name — the Lake Wobegon Effect — for a well-known and robust social-psychological finding: that when it comes to describing ourselves, most of us tend to overestimate our abilities and attributes.

Social psychologists have identified many different manifestations of this broad human tendency. For example, on average, most people describe themselves as better than average, especially on positive but relatively ambiguous traits such as driving ability or kindness. People generally take more credit for their successes than responsibility for their failures — if you doubt this, just look at politicians’ post-election interviews — and, all other things being equal, they see themselves as more influential in social groups than others. Also, people believe that they know more than they actually do, a tendency so reliable that late-night hosts like Jimmy Kimmel and Jay Leno have created entertaining routines around it.

Whatever the comedic value, most researchers see these tendencies as a reasonable means of bolstering our sense of self-worth: When we see ourselves as competent and effective, we are better able to confidently go about the business of daily life. But there is a darker side to this story. The more assured we are about our own abilities and the accuracy of our beliefs, the less receptive we are to recognizing room for improvement or the possibility that our beliefs might be wrong. After all, if my beliefs are correct, there’s little reason to consider the alternative.

An important and new construct in the social sciences, intellectual humility, builds on the idea that a more modest approach to self-perception might be beneficial. When people are intellectually humble, they acknowledge their limitations, assess themselves more realistically, and are more open to opportunities to grow or learn. These propensities are often a stimulus to self-improvement and better relationships with friends, family, and co-workers.

Although scholars and laypersons alike tend to think about intellectual humility as part of the self-concept, my colleagues and I believe that it also has an interpersonal side: When people feel understood and valued by their social partners, they feel supported and accepted. These feelings, in turn, lessen the need to inflate perceptions of one’s abilities and beliefs. In other words, when people don’t feel understood and appreciated by others, the need to boost self-perceptions becomes greater. Hence we believe that there is a social basis to the kind of self-confidence that allows people to be humble about what they know and can do.

Our research tested this idea in three experiments and one daily diary study. In the experiments, we manipulated the extent to which people felt understood and valued by the people close to them — a concept we call perceived partner responsiveness — in either of two ways. In the first, one group of participants was asked to recall and write about a time when someone close to them had been responsive; another group was asked about an unresponsive partner. The second method was subtler. Here, we asked one group of participants to list 2 kind and compassionate things their partner had done for them during the past week — a task that most people can readily do and that prompts feeling valued and appreciated. A different group of participants was asked to list 10 things from the past week, which most people find frustrating, if not impossible. This often leads them to wonder if their relationship is lacking, and consequently to feel undervalued and relatively unappreciated.

Our three experiments used varied indicators of self-inflation. In the first experiment, we had college students compare themselves “to the average college student” on a series of 23 trait adjectives like “athletic,” “faithful,” and “imaginative.” The second experiment asked an adult sample to rate their degree of personal responsibility for a series of 26 common household maintenance activities — for example, cooking meals, yard work, and bill-paying. The third study looked at hindsight bias — the tendency to claim “I knew it all along” after making an erroneous judgment. Here, we constructed a test of hindsight bias by posing 13 questions of the sort that typically invite curiosity on the Internet (e.g., how many singles did the Beatles issue?), showing participants the correct answer, and then asking what they would have responded had they not seen the answer. (The further one’s response from the true answer, the less hindsight bias is displayed.)

The results of all three studies supported our reasoning: When participants experienced higher levels of responsiveness, they were more intellectually humble than when they perceived their partners as unresponsive. In other words, when people feel understood and appreciated by others, they inflate their self-perceptions less, they see less reason to overclaim personal responsibility for household chores, and they are less likely to show hindsight bias.

We also sought to establish this principle in a more natural context. To do so, we had college students report on their daily activities every day for 2 weeks. To gauge perceived responsiveness, we asked them to report on how well understood and appreciated they had felt by “the people around them” on that day. We also inquired about hindsight bias — a sample question is, “Today, I made mistakes in my coursework, even though I suspected I knew the right answers all along” — and about how open they had been to viewpoints and opinions differing from their own. Consistent with our experiments, on days when the social environment was experienced as more understanding and appreciative, participants showed less hindsight bias and described themselves as more open to contradictory opinions and beliefs.

These studies establish an important interpersonal foundation for the human tendency to overestimate our abilities and attributes. Although it may be natural to regard this tendency as adaptive, as to some extent it surely is, overestimation may also betray doubts about the people one interacts with on a daily basis: Do they understand who I really am? Do they value the real me? Boosting our self-perceived qualities and contributions may be one way in which we strive to convince ourselves of their continued acceptance and appreciation.

It is common for pundits and social commentators to deride Americans’ polarization and rigidity on nearly all issues of the day. People, they say, are overly and often prematurely certain of the correctness of their beliefs and closed to even considering alternative points of view. The result, they further assert, is the factionalization of American society. Our research suggests that these analysts may have it backward: Perhaps if we felt a stronger sense of community with the people around us, we would be comfortable adopting a more intellectually humble mindset.

Published by Harry T. Reis

University of Rochester, United States

These findings are described in the article entitled Perceived partner responsiveness promotes intellectual humility, recently published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 79 (2018) 21-33). This work was conducted by Harry T. Reis and Karisa Y. Lee from the University of Rochester, Stephanie D. O’Keefe from the University of Michigan, and Margaret S. Clark from Yale University.