Intellectual humility might help to reduce political polarization by promoting interactions with those who hold views that differ from one’s own, according to new research published in Political Psychology. The findings indicate that more intellectually humble people tend to have greater political diversity within their social network.
“I was drawn to the idea of intellectual humility because of my deep appreciation for a concept a philosophy professor of mine coined, ‘re-entrenchment.’ The idea is that in evaluating our beliefs, it is important to begin reasoning from the ground up, with no assumptions, to see if we arrive at the same conclusion,” said study author Tyrone Sgambati, a PhD candidate in the Department of Psychology at UC Berkeley.
“To me, this is a practice in intellectual humility — in facing our limitations curiously and accepting that we may be wrong. At the same time, around the 2020 U.S. presidential election, I saw politics bring out alarming intransigence and, frankly, hatred, in so many people around me. In this paper, I set out to demonstrate that intellectual humility was related to political polarization and now I’m investigating ways that we can leverage intellectual humility to help bridge political divides.
The study used a longitudinal design with five data collection points over eight months. The first data collection point (Time 1) was on November 2, 2020, the day before the US presidential election. The participants were 429 adults residing in the United States recruited through Prolific, a research participant recruitment platform.
Prolific’s political-orientation screening tool was used to recruit approximately equal numbers of self-identified liberals and conservatives on the U.S. political spectrum. The final sample consisted of 387 participants, with 23 excluded for failing attention checks and 16 excluded for not reporting their political party affiliation.
The study used several measures to investigate the relationships between intellectual humility, political heterophily, and attitude polarization.
Intellectual humility refers to a person’s ability to recognize the limitations of their own knowledge and expertise, while political heterophily refers to the extent to which a person engages with those who have different political views. Attitude polarization refers to the extent to which a person’s beliefs and opinions become more extreme and entrenched over time.
At Time 1, participants completed a 6-item scale to measure intellectual humility, a measure of political heterophily, and a measure of attitude polarization on four contentious social issues. Participants also reported their political orientation and open-mindedness as covariates. At Times 2-4, participants completed a shorter version of the political heterophily measure and several unrelated variables. At Time 5, participants completed all measures from Time 1, as well as a newly added set of items measuring intergroup anxiety as a proxy for affective polarization.
The researchers found that individuals who scored higher on measures of intellectual humility tended to have more politically diverse social networks and engage in more conversations with people who held different political views. This finding is consistent with previous research that has shown that intellectual humility is associated with greater openness to alternative perspectives. Higher levels of political heterophily, in turn, were associated with reduced polarization.
Sgambati and his co-author also found that among conservative participants, intellectual humility was associated with less attitude polarization on highly politicized social issues, such as universal healthcare and environmental regulations. However, this relationship was not observed among liberal participants. The study authors suggest that this finding may be due to differences in how conservatives and liberals approach political issues.
In addition, exploratory analyses conducted at Time 5 suggested that the buffering effect of intellectual humility against attitude polarization may be attenuated for individuals who have put more thought into the social issues examined in the study. This is because as an individual thinks more about an issue and expands their evidence base, the influence that their personal intellectual limitations might have on their beliefs likely diminishes.
The findings highlight that the political impact of intellectual humility “is a more complicated question than it seems,” Sgambati told PsyPost.
“Ultimately, some people don’t want to be less polarized (or feel their polarization is justified), in which case my study isn’t very useful. However, if you do, there is growing scientific evidence that an intellectually humble mindset is linked to decreased political polarization. Having close friendships/relationships with people from the other party also appears to be important. So, take a moment and ask yourself: What don’t I know?”
The study provides new insights into the relationship between intellectual humility and political polarization. But the study, like all research, includes some limitations. For instance, the study relied on self-reported data, which may be subject to biases. The researchers recommend that future studies manipulate intellectual humility directly or examine the effect of intellectual humility in a context where new political attitudes are forming.
The study, “Intellectual Humility and Political Polarization: An Exploration of Social Networks, Attitudes, and Affect“, was authored by Tyrone J. Sgambati and Ozlem N. Ayduk.