Posts on Master Virtues

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By Tenelle Porter, Post-Doctoral Researcher, University of California, Davis

It’s commencement season and last week I found myself listening to David Foster Wallace’s speech to Kenyon College graduates. He tells a story of two young fish that pass an older fish who is swimming in the opposite direction. The older fish says “Morning boys, how’s the water?” The young fish swim along for a while until one looks at the other and says “What the heck is water?”

The point of the fish story, Wallace explains, is that we are often blind to the most obvious and important realities. Even more, lots of things that we are absolutely, automatically certain about turn out to be completely wrong.

Research suggests Wallace is right. Lots of work in psychology shows that we routinely overestimate how much we know, that we have self-serving biases that distort our thinking, and that we are blind to our own bias (while holding fast to the belief that others are biased).

This sounds like a bunch of bad news -- especially for those us who strive to be (and want to educate children to be) fair thinkers, and genuinely open-minded. Are our strivings in vain? Is there any overcoming the forces that incline us to thick-headedness?

New research coming out of Duke, Brown, Princeton, Cornell, and Stanford (among other places) suggests that the answer is yes. This research investigates Intellectual Humility – one of IVA’s intellectual virtues.

Intellectual humility is about acknowledging that in the vastness of all there is to know, what I know is only partial. It’s about owning my intellectual mistakes, and believing that I have something to learn from everyone.

New research is suggesting that, despite the many tendencies that make it hard to have intellectual humility, it’s possible to have it. And when you do have it, it can help you.

For example, in research that I did at Stanford University with Karina Schumann and Carol Dweck, we found that the more intellectually humble an adult was, the more likely they were to learn from those who disagreed with them. They were also more liked and respected by others.

In other research, we found that freshman and sophomores in high school who were higher in intellectual humility were rated by their classmates as being more admired, more respected and more intelligent. Their teacher also rated them as being more engaged in learning. The intellectually humble students also ended up earning higher grades in math (those were the only grades we looked at), and growing more in math achievement over the school year.

Interestingly, in the same high school study, students who didn’t like it when others pointed out their mistakes (a negative indicator of intellectual humility) also ended up earning higher grades in math. However, when we looked at how the intellectually humble students ended up with higher grades vs. how the students who were uncomfortable with their mistakes ended up with higher grades, we found very different paths to achievement.

The students who were high in intellectual humility cared more about learning and their strong motivation to learn is what fueled their achievement. By contrast, the students who didn’t like it when others pointed out their mistakes cared more about looking smart, and their motivation to look smart is what propelled their achievement.

In the long run, caring a lot about looking smart can sabotage intellectual growth – particularly when the going gets tough. For example, if I care a lot about looking smart and enroll in a course in quantum mechanics where I quickly realize that I don’t look smart, I may disengage from the course– stop doing the homework, stop coming to class, maybe even drop the class. But if I care a lot about learning – and care more about learning than looking smart – I can persist in the course because it is a valuable learning opportunity.

Bottom line: in our study, intellectual humility boosted students’ achievement, and it also seemed to foster a more durable, adaptive motivation to learn.

Because intellectual humility seemed beneficial in our research, we wanted to investigate how to foster it. Our research suggests that one way to become more intellectually humble is to monitor how you think – particularly, how you think about the nature of intelligence.

We found that when we taught college students that intelligence can grow and develop (a growth mindset of intelligence) they became more intellectually humble. When we taught students that intelligence is a fixed, stable trait (a fixed mindset of intelligence), it dampened their intellectual humility.

We believe one reason these mindsets about intelligence affect intellectual humility is because they make it more or less easy to acknowledge what you don’t know. In a growth mindset, if you don’t know something you can learn it and get smarter. In a fixed mindset, if you don’t know something, your innate, fixed level of intelligence is called into question.

Certainly, there is a lot about intellectual humility, and other intellectual virtues, that we don’t yet understand. But the burgeoning empirical research is beginning to uncover the nature and consequences of these constructs. Indeed, how little we know, how eager to learn.