August 3, 2017

I Could Be Wrong: Cultivate Intellectual Humility

by Dr. Ken Broda-Bahm:


Among the readers of this blog, there are a few people who write to me and let me know what they think about various posts. Sometimes it is to applaud a post, or to share an example where they’ve faced something similar. And sometimes, it is to take issue with what I’ve written. I appreciate that. It’s actually one of the benefits of blogging: The chance to interact over something substantive, and the chance to sometimes learn that I’m wrong. And I try to be open to the possibility. I believe what I write, and that’s why I write it, but I like to see it all as part of a dialogue, and that dialogue includes being open to the possibility of being wrong. So, as is sometimes pointed out to me, I could be wrong, I could be off base, I could be showing my biases in a hundred different ways.

The attitude I’m working on is called “intellectual humility,” and being aware that you could be wrong is an important personality trait. According to a recent study (Leary, et al., 2017), in fact, those high in it are better thinkers, better able to assess evidence and more likely to stick to their principles once those principles are established. The research article, discussed in a recent Psyblog post, involves four studies built around a new survey called the “Intellectual Humility (IH) Scale.” The trait is related to openness, curiosity, tolerance of ambiguity, and low dogmatism. Based on the experimental results, people with higher intellectual humility are more likely to be nonjudgmental, better able to evaluate evidence, less likely to flip-flop on issues. Those high in intellectual humility are also more attuned to the strength of persuasive arguments, making the personality dimension similar to another factor I’ve written about: rhetorical sensitivity, or the awareness that there are multiple ways to fulfill a particular communication goal. Humility also helps to facilitate better interaction and communication. “Not being afraid of being wrong – that’s a value,” says the study’s lead author, Mark Leary, “and I think it is a value we could promote. I think if everyone was a bit more intellectually humble we’d all get along better, we’d be less frustrated with each other.” Reading about this research got me thinking about the roles intellectual humility might play in different contexts, so this post will cover a few. 

Exercise Intellectual Humility When You Testify

Confidence is key, certainly. But you don’t want to take that to the point of arrogance. Take an expert witness, for example. You want the conclusions to be strong and not “iffy.” At the same time, you want them to be at least potentially capable of being shown to be wrong. That’s in line with what the philosopher Karl Popper called, “falsifiability.” It can’t be called “knowledge” unless you can see your way to a potential means for proving it wrong. So the message for an expert witness should be a combination of confidence and humility, “I believe I am right. But, naturally, I could be wrong. Here is what we would need to see in order to think I am wrong, and at least so far, we do not see that.” 

Exercise Intellectual Humility When You Assess Your Case

Attorneys and consultants build up experience over time. And that hard-earned experience can lead to a strong, “I’ve dealt with this before” kind of feeling that tells you that you know what to expect. This can be particularly acute when attorneys work repetitively in the same kinds of cases, like personal injury, medical malpractice defense. Combined with frequent experience in a venue, it can lead to strong certainty that you know what the important issues will be, you know what facts will stand out, you know what the jury will be like, and you know what your chances will be in trial. You cannot ignore all of that, of course. But overlaying all of it, you should repeat a mental reminder: “…but I could be wrong.” So it helps to have a second pair of eyes, and it helps to have a mock trial before the real trial.

Prime Jurors and Mock Jurors for Intellectual Humility

The interesting part of the research is the finding that intellectual humility makes for more critical decision makers. Setting aside what might be the common sense view that the humble are more likely to waffle, the research found that they are actually more likely to commit to a position after considering the alternatives. But the research treated intellectual humility as a trait of people rather than as a state. It did not test the extent to which it could be manipulated in a specific situation. So, it would take further research, but it is reasonable to believe that nearly all of us see the potential to be wrong, but it is a feeling that is more accessible in some situations and less accessible in others. So, it stands to reason that people could be primed to think about intellectual humility if that’s what you want in a certain circumstance. For example, consider a case where you want jurors to be able to get past their first impressions, or to take something that really seems to be true on first blush and dig into greater detail to see that it might not be true. When picking a jury for that case, it might help to ask, “Think about a situation where you felt strongly about something and then it turned out that you were wrong. How did you react?” The point is not how they answer, rather the point is to plant the seed and get them thinking and talking about intellectual humility.

So, it seems that intellectual humility is something that advocates and witnesses should think about…but I could be wrong.


Other Posts on Personality Traits:


Leary, M. R., Diebels, K. J., Davisson, E. K., Jongman-Sereno, K. P., Isherwood, J. C., Raimi, K. T., … & Hoyle, R. H. (2017). Cognitive and interpersonal features of intellectual humility. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 43(6), 793-813.

Photo credit:, Flickr Creative Commons


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