Intellectual Humility, the Courage to Listen to New Ideas

Recognize that we do not know everything and that we are not holders of the absolute truth is to practice intellectual humility. That key that allows us to continue learning and grow personally and socially.

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Often, we can make the mistake of thinking that our point of view is the most correct and that we are possessors of absolute truth. Even, on occasion, we can come to hold the strong conviction that we are experts in a subject and that no one knows more than we do-or, at least, that we know more than the people around us.

Whether it is years of experience, dedication to the study of a specific topic or simply “because it is so” – as many claim – we leave no room for doubt. We lock ourselves in our convictions and from there it is impossible to get us out. It is as if we had awarded the prize to the universal expert and any objection that we make is labeled as nonsense.

It’s funny, as sometimes, we cling so much to the belief of knowing everything about a subject. Or maybe not, maybe we are those who prefer to navigate in the ocean of indecision or, at least, to be open to what they can tell us the rest. The question is whether they are others or are we, intellectual humility often shines by its absence. Let’s deepen.

“Humility is not thinking less about yourself, but thinking less about yourself”.

-C.S. Lewis-

What is intellectual humility?

We have that bad habit of overestimating how much we know. We cling to what we believe and despise what others offer us. Instead of seeing a possibility of enrichment, what we see is an attack. In general, we believe that we are better or more correct than others, something that can be observed more clearly in political, religious contexts and even when talking about lifestyles.

In relation to this ability to voluntarily blind ourselves to intellectual blindness, journalist and writer Ryszard Kapuściński said “If among the many truths you choose a single one and you blindly pursue it, it will become false, and you will fanatic”. And reason was not lacking. Enslaving ourselves to a belief and granting it the power of absolute truth hinders change and prevents our personal and social growth. In short, it limits us.

Faced with this panorama, it seems that scientists have discovered – or rather have brought back to light – a concept – or antidote – known as intellectual humility. It is about the ability to be flexible in the field of knowledge, that is, to be open to new ideas.

Intellectual humility would be something like a tendency to be receptive to other perspectives, to accept that we are wrong and to cultivate an open mind.

Origins of the concept of intellectual humility

Now, this concept that, at first sight, seems so novel, has its roots in Socrates and later in the philosopher and theologian Nicholas of Cusa.

In Plato’s Dialogues we can see how Socrates was in a constant search for the truth and recognized his ignorance as the starting point to find that truth. In fact, one of his most famous phrases is “The true wisdom is in recognizing one’s own ignorance”.

As for Nicolás of Cusa, we can rescue his work La docta ignorancia to understand the presence of intellectual humility in his thought. Thus, the philosopher thought that due to human limitations – or cognitive limitations – the sage can not reach absolute knowledge, however much he desires it. In this way, he is aware that he ignores more than he knows, yes, he is aware of it, therefore he is learned and hence the learned ignorance.

As we can see, intellectual humility has been with us for a long time. This capacity is configured as that middle point between believing to know everything or on the contrary, nothing; that is to say, mediates between the intellectual arrogance, characterized by the rigid minds, and the intellectual cowardice fruit of an extreme timidity.

Rigid minds: the illusion of knowing everything

To be humble at the intellectual level is to be able to recognize that we do not know everything and that what we think we know may be wrong. Now, why are there so much intellectual egocentrism?

Although personal traits may be the most responsible, according to psychologist Tania Lambrozo of the University of California, technology increases the illusion of knowledge.

Having access to any type of information with just one click creates the illusion that we have at our disposal an infinite knowledge about anything.

On the other hand, mental rigidity is one of the personality traits most related to intellectual egocentrism. It is about this tendency to discard ideas or ideas different from one’s own to accommodate oneself and to enclose oneself within the bars of one’s own mental schemas. It would be that person who tries to fit the world to his way of thinking, instead of the other way around.

This mental rigidity is usually caused by an excessive need for cognitive closure, that is, by the desire to eliminate any vestige of uncertainty from a thought or situation, as this would imply not having control of the situation. Recall that uncertainty is one of the greatest enemies of human beings…

“Great minds discuss ideas, mediocre minds discuss events and little minds argue with people.”

-Eleanor Roosevelt-

How to cultivate intellectual humility

We must be willing to know other perspectives, other arguments and, of course, to embrace the changes. Because the ideas that yesterday we considered right may be wrong today or fall short, who knows. But how to do it?

Although there are several strategies that allow us to cultivate intellectual humility and that we will see below, it is fundamental to be aware that we have to silence and dethrone our ego. For this, it is necessary to admit that, sometimes, we are victims of cognitive biases and slaves of the belief that we harbor less prejudice than others.

Opinions, both our own and those of others, vary according to the circumstances and, in our opinion, ultimately. Because how many times have you surprised yourself by doing or saying something you did not even think about a while ago? Think about it.

Thus, if we want to plant the seed of mental flexibility to cultivate the fruit of intellectual humility we can:

Accept that we make mistakes, that we can be confused.

Practice active listening That is, free our mind from thoughts when another person speaks to us and put all our attention on what he wants to tell us. For this we will have to fight against that trend so ours to prepare what we are going to tell him while he speaks to us.

Respect other points of view. We do not always have to agree with what other people tell us, but this does not mean that we do not respect their opinions. Often, we fight in a war that seldom has a winner: that in which we try hard to convince the other; In fact, what usually happens, is the opposite. The other clings more to his ideas and we to ours. Hence, knowing when to stop is absolutely necessary.

Be willing to learn from others. Flexibility and curiosity, the two fundamental ingredients for learning and to fight against rigidity. Because if we do not learn from others, from whom are we going to do it?

Question us from time to time. An exercise to develop intellectual humility is to question our beliefs and above all, our need to be right. What do we always want to have it for? The answer to this question can give us the key.

Travel or know other cultures. Discovering other lifestyles, other conceptions and visions of reality, although of first shock, is still a way to expand our perspectives. In addition, it is a good way to train our brain to be open to the search for alternatives.

The most important scientist of the 20th century, Albert Einstein, whose IQ was 160, also had in mind the concept of intellectual humility. Proof of this is his statement “A true genius admits that he knows nothing”. Like Benjamin Franklin, who before starting a discussion used to say “Maybe I was wrong, but…”.

As we see, intellectual humility is a good ally to fight against clinging to our beliefs and continue to grow on a personal and social level. The key that opens the door to learning, the antidote to arrogance and that reminds us that the keys to our relationships are not found in the imposition or the requirement, but in the understanding, flexibility, respect and the resulting enrichment to know other points of view.


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