Being humble about what you know is just one part of what makes you a good thinker

What does it mean to be a good thinker? Recent research suggests that acknowledging you can be wrong plays a vital role.

I had these studies in mind a few months ago when I was chatting with a history professor about a class she was teaching to first-year students here at Wake Forest University. As part of my job as a psychology professor who researches character – basically, what it means to be a good person – I often talk to my colleagues about how our teaching can develop the character of our students.

In this case, my colleague saw her class as an opportunity to cultivate character traits that would allow students to respectfully engage with and learn from others when discussing contentious topics. Wanting to learn about and understand the world is a distinctive human motivation. As teachers, we want our students to leave college with the ability and motivation to understand and learn more about themselves, others and their world. She wondered: Was there one characteristic or trait that was most important to cultivate in her students?

I suggested she should focus on intellectual humility. Being intellectually humble means being open to the possibility you could be wrong about your beliefs.

But is being humble about what you know or don’t know enough?

I now think my recommendation was incorrect. It turns out good thinking requires more than intellectual humility – and, yes, I see the irony that admitting this means I had to draw on my own intellectual humility.

view from behind of students walking on campus in fall

To be ready to learn, you need to acknowledge that what you currently believe could be wrong.
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Acknowledging you might not be right

One reason for my focus on intellectual humility was that without acknowledging the possibility that your current beliefs may be mistaken, you literally can’t learn anything new. While being open to being wrong is generally quite challenging – especially for first-year university students confronting the limits of their understanding – it is arguably the key first step in learning.

But another reason for my response is that research on intellectual humility has exploded in the past 10 years. Psychologists now have many different ways to assess intellectual humility. Social scientists know that possessing a high level of intellectual humility is associated with multiple positive outcomes, like having more empathy, more prosocial behavior, reduced susceptibility to misinformation and an increased inclination to seek compromise in challenging interpersonal disagreements.

If you want to focus on one trait to promote good thinking, it seems that intellectual humility is hard to beat. Indeed, researchers, including those in my own lab, are now testing interventions to promote it among different populations.

A single trait won’t make you a good thinker

However, was I right in recommending just a single trait? Is intellectual humility by itself enough to…

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