Do you prefer someone who admits they don’t know everything but is confident in what they do know, or someone who constantly brags about their knowledge? A recent study sheds light on how our personalities influence our perceptions of intellectual humility and arrogance. The findings have been published in The Journal of Positive Psychology.
Intellectual humility is the quality of being open to acknowledging our limitations in knowledge and being willing to learn from others. On the other hand, intellectual arrogance refers to a tendency to overemphasize one’s knowledge and downplay the importance of learning from others. Narcissism is characterized by excessive self-love, a grandiose sense of self-importance, and a lack of empathy for others.
Previous research has shown that people generally prefer individuals who display intellectual humility rather than intellectual arrogance. We tend to view humble individuals as warmer and more competent. However, this study goes a step further by exploring how individual differences in trait intellectual humility and narcissism influence these perceptions.
“I became interested in this topic a few years ago when I was noticing a large amount of support for public figures who were expressing a great deal of confidence in their beliefs and values,” said study author Alex C. Huynh, an assistant professor of psychology at California State University San Marcos.
“I can recall specific instances where people even openly admitted that they were unwilling to admit they could be wrong. This was puzzling to me because it signaled a form of intellectual arrogance, which clashed with my understanding that people value intellectual humility. After looking through the research literature on this topic and not really finding a satisfactory answer to my curiosity, I decided to investigate how people perceive expressions of intellectual humility and intellectual arrogance and what factors might shape these perceptions.”
The researchers conducted three studies, which included 734 participants in total, to investigate the role of individual differences in intellectual humility and narcissism in shaping perceptions of intellectual humility and arrogance.
In Studies 1 and 3, they asked participants to evaluate individuals expressing either intellectual humility or arrogance. These expressions were represented through written statements. The participants assessed these individuals on dimensions of warmth and competence, which are fundamental aspects of social perception. The researchers also examined how these perceptions changed as participants’ trait intellectual humility or trait narcissism levels varied.
Study 2 took an experimental approach. Participants were asked to predict how they would be perceived when discussing why they were knowledgeable about a topic (emulating arrogance) or acknowledging they could learn more about it (emulating humility). The researchers wanted to see if participants’ expectations of how they’d be perceived differed based on their levels of intellectual humility and narcissism.
In the first and third studies, participants consistently favored individuals who displayed intellectual humility. They rated these individuals as warmer and more competent. This favorability increased as participants’ trait intellectual humility levels rose and decreased as trait narcissism levels increased.
Statements that openly acknowledged limitations in knowledge were seen as more intellectually humble as trait intellectual humility increased. However, they were perceived as less humble as trait narcissism increased. This suggests that how we perceive statements of humility depends on our own personality traits.
“My studies show that people do generally recognize and value intellectual humility over intellectual arrogance. People reported that they view intellectually humble others more positively (e.g., see them as more friendly and intelligent) than those who express intellectual arrogance,” Huynha told PsyPost.
“However, interpreting expressions of intellectual humility and intellectual arrogance is surprisingly subjective. That is, when someone see a person expressing intellectual humility (e.g., I believe there is still much to learn) and intellectual arrogance (e.g., I know a lot), they will vary in how much they think the intellectually humble expression is actually humble, and how much that arrogant expression is actually arrogant. For example, one of the findings in my research suggests that those who score higher on narcissism, report seeing less humility in expressions of intellectual humility and less arrogance in expressions of intellectual arrogance.”
In the second study, participants expected to be viewed more favorably when discussing why they were knowledgeable about a topic than when acknowledging they could learn more about it. Importantly, trait intellectual humility and narcissism did not significantly affect these expectations. However, individuals high in narcissism believed they would be perceived as equally high in humility regardless of the topic, possibly indicating a lack of self-awareness.
The studies suggest that the concepts of intellectual humility and intellectual arrogance may not be perceived in the same way by everyone. For individuals lower in intellectual humility or higher in narcissism, these concepts may blur.
“I think the most surprising finding to me was that people can look at an arrogant statement and see some hints of humility in it,” Huynha said. “For example, people higher on narcissism can look at a statement like ‘I know a lot’ and report that these statements have elements of intellectual humility in it. They do not necessarily indicate that it is a humble statement, but they don’t disregard it as not humble, which others tend to do. When I first came across these findings I was a bit stunned. I remember double checking my results to ensure I had run the analyses properly.”
While these findings offer valuable insights, the studies had some limitations.
“A major caveat to my studies is that the results were largely correlational,” Huynha explained. “As with any correlational results, you have to be careful about drawing any causal inferences. My studies show patterns in how people vary in their observations of intellectual humility and intellectual arrogance.”
“In addition, my studies were not able to address why people have different interpretations of intellectual humility and intellectual arrogance. Might narcissists see intellectual humility as less valuable, or perhaps a sign of weakness? Those are questions I think still need to be addressed and is currently part of ongoing work in my research lab.”
Despite the limitations, the current study’s findings provide valuable insights into how trait intellectual humility and narcissism influence perceptions of intellectual humility and arrogance. Understanding these dynamics can have implications for interpersonal relationships, learning, decision-making, conflict resolution, and psychological well-being.
“I’m excited to see this work receive some attention and I’m hopeful that is contributes to a broader understanding of intellectual humility in general,” Huynha said. “I am a big proponent of encouraging people to be more intellectually humble in their day-to-day lives and I believe it is a crucial factor in trying to support and maintain a more open-minded society.”
“I think there are a lot of ways to get there and it begins with understanding what these concepts mean to people. I think this work can also inform broader social questions, such as how people might justify support for leaders who express a great deal of confidence in their beliefs. Psychologists are working on these questions and I’m excited for the future directions of research on this topic.”
The study, “The fine line between intellectual humility and arrogance: Perceiving humility among the intellectually humble and narcissistic“, was authored by Alex C. Huynha and Rosalva A. Romero Gonzalez