Intellectually humble people tend to possess more knowledge, study finds

People who are intellectually humble tend to score better on a test of general knowledge, according to new research published in The Journal of Positive Psychology. The new findings also provide some insights into the particular traits that could explain the link between intellectual humility and knowledge acquisition.

“It has been interesting to me to observe how people think about intellectual humility and related concepts. When it comes to beliefs, people tend to appreciate others being open-minded, yet they may also view people who are unsure about their beliefs as weak or they may view those who change their viewpoint as unstable or manipulative,” said study author Elizabeth J. Krumrei-Mancuso, an associate professor of psychology at Pepperdine University.

“These social perceptions might make people afraid to admit the fallibility in their thinking. They may believe they should be confident in their viewpoints, which can lead people to be afraid to change their minds.”

“This research was motivated out of a desire to understand the potential value of intellectual humility. Does it benefit us to recognize our intellectual fallibility? And if so, in what ways?”

To examine how being humble about one’s own knowledge was associated with acquiring more knowledge, Krumrei-Mancuso and her colleagues conducted five studies with nearly 1,200 participants in total.

“We observed that intellectual humility related to crystallized, but not fluid intelligence. Higher levels of intellectual humility were associated with possessing more general knowledge, but were not related to cognitive ability,” Krumrei-Mancuso told PsyPost.

“The observed links between intellectual humility and possessing more general knowledge may be explained by the finding that intellectual humility was associated with more accurate assessment of one’s general knowledge. That is, knowing (and being willing to admit!) what you don’t know may be the first step to seeking new knowledge.”

Their first study found that people who were not intellectually humble (and agreed with statements such as “My intellectual ideas are usually superior to others’ ideas”) tended to overestimate their cognitive abilities, which were assessed with tests of vocabulary, arithmetic, reasoning, and spatial abilities. But more intellectually humble people did not score any better or worse on average on the cognitive tests.

The researchers’ second study found that intellectually humble people tended to have slightly lower GPAs in college compared to those who were more intellectually arrogant.

For their third study, the researchers switched to a more comprehensive measure of intellectual humility. They found that people who agreed with statements like “I welcome different ways of thinking about important topics” and “I’m willing to change my mind once it’s made up about an important topic” tended to be better at discriminating between real and fictitious concepts — indicating they had a higher level of knowledge.

The fourth study found that those who were more intellectually humble were more likely to report participating in and enjoying challenging cognitive tasks, and also more likely to have a high motivation to seek out knowledge and new experiences.

The final study found that those who were more intellectually humble tended to be more motivated to learn for the sake of gaining knowledge, rather than being motivated by external rewards (such as school grades.) Intellectually humble participants were also more open to considering alternative evidence and more willing to change perspectives.

“We found intellectual humility to relate to a number of other variables that might facilitate learning. These included reflective thinking, need for cognition, intellectual engagement, intellectual curiosity, intellectual openness, open-minded thinking, and an intrinsic motivation to learn for the sake of gaining knowledge,” Krumrei-Mancuso explained to PsyPost.

“We theorized that intellectual humility, as a non-threatening awareness of one’s intellectual fallibility, may free people from egotistical concerns about their intellectual correctness and thereby allow them to spend greater energy engaged in cognitive efforts, exploration, and learning without being mentally burdened with concerns about being wrong or not measuring up intellectually.”

The study — like all research — includes some caveats.

“Given the limited research in this area, we took a broad approach in this work. Some of our results were mixed, in particular when comparing across different measures of intellectual humility,” Krumrei-Mancuso said.

“It would be beneficial to continue studying how intellectual humility relates to learning with the use of experimental research designs. This may clear up some of the inconsistencies and nuances in our research findings across the studies we conducted.”

The study, “Links between intellectual humility and acquiring knowledge“, was authored by Elizabeth J. Krumrei-Mancuso, Megan C. Haggard, Jordan P. LaBouff, and Wade C. Rowatt.