The Benefits of Admitting When You Don’t Know

By Tenelle Porter on Friday August 10th, 2018

Can Humility Make Us Smarter?

“I disagree with myself.” This is what a third-grade boy said in front of his math class during a discussion about even and odd numbers. He believed six was both even and odd. When one classmate presented counter-evidence, he considered her point. “I didn’t think of it that way,” he said. “Thank you for bringing that up.”

This third grader was exhibiting intellectual humility—recognizing the limits of his knowledge and valuing the insight of someone else. In a culture in which confidence is admired and mistakes mocked, his admission is commendable. But does such intellectual humility have any real benefits for learning?

On the face of it, maybe not. University professors, some of the most learned individuals in the world, are not generally known for their intellectual humility. And plenty of successful scientists, CEOs, doctors, artists, and political leaders master their trades without appearing to develop much intellectual humility.

Then again, as Nobel Prize-winning astrophysicist Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar noted, believing that you “must be right”—in other words, lacking intellectual humility—can actually stymie discovery, learning, and progress.

Given this puzzle, my colleagues and I set out to test whether intellectual humility was empirically associated with learning outcomes.

Keep an open mindLacking intellectual humility can actually stymie discovery, learning, and progress.

Putting Intellectual Humility to the Test

We started by measuring high school students’ intellectual humility. We had students rate themselves on statements like “I am willing to admit it when I don’t know something” and “I acknowledge when someone knows more than me about a subject.” We wanted to know: Would this intellectual humility relate to students’ motivation to learn, their learning strategies, and even their grades? What’s more, would teachers observe any differences between students with differing levels of intellectual humility?

We found that the more intellectually humble students were more motivated to learn and more likely to use effective metacognitive strategies, like quizzing themselves, to check their own understanding. They also ended the year with higher grades in math. We also found that the teachers, who hadn’t seen students’ intellectual humility questionnaires, rated the more intellectually humble students as more engaged in learning.

Next, we moved into the lab. Could temporarily boosting intellectual humility make people more willing to seek help in an area of intellectual weakness? We induced intellectual humility in half of our participants by having them read a brief article that described the benefits of admitting what you do not know. The other half read an article about the benefits of being very certain of what you know. We then measured their intellectual humility.

Those who read the benefits-of-humility article reported higher intellectual humility than those in the other group. What’s more, in a follow-up exercise, 85 percent of these same participants sought extra help for an area of intellectual weakness. By contrast, only 65 percent of the participants who read about the benefits of being certain sought the extra help that they needed. This experiment provided evidence that enhancing intellectual humility has the potential to affect students’ actual learning behavior.

Together, our findings illustrate that intellectual humility is associated with a host of outcomes that we think are important for learning in school, and they suggest that boosting intellectual humility may have benefits for learning.

Growth mindsetGrowth mindset is the belief that intelligence is something that can change over time.

Because we observed that intellectual humility boosts learning, we wondered how to foster it.

Fostering Intellectual Humility

Our hypothesis was that adopting a growth mindset could help. A growth mindset is the belief that intelligence is something that can change over time. In contrast, a fixed mindset is the belief that intelligence is permanent, something people are ‘born with.’

It makes logical sense that intellectual humility would come more easily to those operating in a growth mindset. When people adopt a growth mindset, they tend to believe that even if they don’t know something, they can learn it and improve their intelligence. They believe they can get smarter, and being humble is one strategy for doing that.

We ran an experiment to test this prediction. We found that when we temporarily induced a growth mindset of intelligence, participants’ self-rated intellectual humility was enhanced (at least temporarily). This suggests that teaching students a growth mindset of intelligence may be one way to increase intellectual humility and its related learning benefits.

The Growth Mindset

Given the link between a growth mindset and intellectual humility, it’s reasonable to wonder whether intellectual humility offers any unique benefits or whether it’s all down to having a growth mindset. There is reason to think intellectual humility may help people learn above and beyond the benefits of a growth mindset. For example, it may increase openness to learning from the opposing view during disagreements, and decrease dogmatism in ways that a growth mindset may not.

Of course, there’s a lot about intellectual humility that we don’t yet understand. But the burgeoning empirical research suggests that intellectual humility can benefit learning and perhaps bridge ideological gaps. We all, not just school-age children, might be a bit better off by learning to say “I disagree with myself” every now and then.




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One Response to The Benefits of Admitting When You Don’t Know

  1. Strained credulity & distraction when you aren’t able to frame a question properly, i.e., “…acknowledge when someone knows more than me about a subject.”

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