Benjamin Franklin knew he was smart, smarter than most of the people around him, but he was also smart enough to understand that he could not be right about everything. Therefore, it is known that when he was about to start an argument, he used to say: “Maybe I’m wrong, but …”.
This simple phrase reassured people and positively predisposed them to listen his message and be more open to disagreements, taking them as something less personal. However, the phrase had a double impact because it also helped Benjamin Franklin to prepare himself psychologically to listen to new ideas, sometimes completely different from his own.
This form of intellectual humility and open-mindedness, so rare in our days, is not only essential to maintain more assertive and constructive social relationships but also allows us to grow as people.
Why do we need to develop an open mind?
“Men who have dehumanized themselves by becoming the blind worshipers of an idea or an ideal are fanatics whose devotion to abstractions makes them the enemies of life”, wrote Alan Watts to alert us to the danger of believing that we have the absolute truth and to try defend blindly an ideal.
On the contrary, in life we need a good dose of intellectual humility. The open mentality is what saves us from social barbarism and allows us to progress on a personal level. An open mind is in constant change and transformation, like a river that runs incessantly. A closed mind is stuck and, therefore, is the opposite of the incessant flow of life.
Like Benjamin Franklin, we must be able to defend our ideas when we are sure of them but we must also be smart enough to admit when we are wrong, listen to different ideas and, ultimately, understand and accept other ways of seeing the world.
Only when we open ourselves to new ideas we can learn. If we believe that we have the truth in hand, we can only be sure that we will not move from our position. Believing that we are the owners of the truth implies condemning us to stagnation. After all, we learn more by listening than by talking.
Unfortunately, on many occasions we become our biggest obstacle to developing an open mind. We are victims of our thought patterns and value system, which prevent us from conceiving another truth or reality beyond our own. By simple selective laziness, we are more analytical with the ideas of the others than with ours. In fact, an experiment conducted at Lund University showed that we are able to reject our own arguments 60% of the time if presented by someone else.
In addition, because we also hate cognitive dissonance, we tend to pay more attention to those ideas that reinforce ours while we willingly ignore those that call into question our view of the world or ourselves and demand an inner work.
What is intellectual humility?
Psychologists have spent years trying to understand why some people stubbornly cling to their beliefs, even when they are presented irrefutable evidence that they should abandon them, and why others are able to quickly adopt new beliefs. Trying to find the secret of open-mindedness they developed the concept of intellectual humility.
The “intellectual humility”, unlike humility in a general sense that is defined by characteristics such as honesty, sincerity and altruism, refers to the will to change, together with the wisdom of knowing when we should stay true to our position. It is a state of openness to different ideas, showing us receptive to new evidences.
Intellectual humility is also a commitment to the search for new ideas, although these contradict ours, is to commit to listening to others preferring discovery to social status.
Psychologists from the University of Pepperdine indicate that intellectual humility is made of:
– Respect towards other points of view
– Do not be overly confident intellectually
– Separate the ego from the intellect
– Predisposition to review the own points of view
Psychologists at Loyola Marymount University add another characteristic: curiosity, which is precisely the trait that allows us to remain open to different experiences and points of view. The willingness to try new things helps us open up to other perspectives, sometimes radically different from ours, and accept them as equally valid.
How to develop intellectual humility?
First of all, we must be willing to embrace change, which means recognizing that the ideas we took for granted yesterday, today could be wrong or perhaps insufficient. For this, we need to stop identifying with our thoughts and ideas. In this way, we will not assume different ideas as an attack to our ego and we can evaluate them rationally, without adopting a defensive attitude that raises walls instead of demolishing them.
We need to learn to discuss ideas, silencing our ego. To do this, we should take up Eleanor Roosevelt’s phrase: “Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.”
To reach that level of intellectual humility we need to overcome what psychologists call our “bias blind spot.” It is the tendency to not realize our own cognitive biases and to think that we have less prejudices than the others. We need to admit that our opinions and those of the others are just that, opinions that may vary according to circumstances. Thus we will escape the trap of intellectual egocentrism.
Last but not least, we need to develop a child’s attitude, which means nurturing that desire to know, to ask and not to be satisfied with the answers we get. Developing the curiosity that allows us to go beyond what we have been taught or what we ourselves believe. Only then we can develop the intellectual humility necessary to recognize our mistakes and take the biggest step of all: change our beliefs for others more inclusive and developing.
Snow, S. (2018) A New Way to Become More Open-Minded. In: Harvard Business Review.
Whitcomb, D. et. Al. (2017) Intellectual Humility: Owning Our Limitations. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research; 94(3): 509-539.
Krumrei-Mancuso, E. J. & Rouse, S. V. (2016) The development and validation of the Comprehensive Intellectual Humility Scale. Journal of Personality Assessment; 98: 209- 221.
Trouche, E. et. Al. (2015) The Selective Laziness of Reasoning. Cognitive Science; 1-15.