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Tenelle Porter

Humility Boosts Learning

Postdoctoral Scholar of Human Development at the University of California, Davis.

Silicon Valley may seem like an odd place to study humility of any kind. But in the last few years, Google, the valley’s juggernaut of innovation, named intellectual humility one of its five essential qualities for new hires. “Without humility,” said Laszlo Bock, the executive in charge of hiring, “you are unable to learn.”

Is he right? Although intellectual humility is only beginning to emerge on the social science scene, research that my colleagues and I have been doing for the last two years suggests that he may be on to something and that intellectual humility can actually foster learning.

First, it’s important to define the term. For the purposes of our research, we defined intellectual humility as acknowledging the partial nature of one’s understanding and valuing others’ intelligence, and we developed a survey to measure this version of intellectual humility.

In one set of studies, Karina Schumann, Carol Dweck, and I tested whether people with higher levels of intellectual humility would be more open to learning from those who disagreed with them. We asked participants to report their positions on important issues (e.g., gun control, capital punishment, affirmative action in college admissions). We then asked them to imagine discussing the issue they found most important with someone who had the opposing view. As predicted, people who were higher in intellectual humility were more likely to report that they would listen to the opposition’s perspective and try to learn something from it.

We replicated this finding in a different study, suggesting that intellectual humility is associated with being more willing to learn from the opposing view. Those higher in intellectual humility appear to have more of an open mind—definitely an asset in any setting in which one is likely to encounter disagreements.

We were also interested in whether intellectual humility mattered for learning in school. In these studies, we started out by assessing college students’ intellectual humility, study strategies, and achievement goals (i.e., whether students were primarily concerned about learning or wanting to look smart in school). We found that the more intellectually humble students were more motivated to learn and were using a number of effective learning strategies with greater frequency to further their learning.

The next study we did was with high school students. Adolescents on the whole are not renowned for their humility, and we wanted to test whether intellectual humility would matter at all for learning among this notoriously cocky group.

Again, the results were promising. High school freshmen and sophomores who had higher intellectual humility were rated by their classmates as being more admired, more respected, and more intelligent. Their teacher also rated them as being more engaged in learning. The intellectually humble students ended up earning higher grades in math, and growing more in math achievement over the school year.

Interestingly, in the same high school study, students who didn’t like it when others pointed out their mistakes (an indicator of lower intellectual humility) also ended up earning higher grades in math. However, when we looked at how the intellectually humble students ended up with higher grades compared to how the students who were not as comfortable owning up to their mistakes ended up with higher grades, we found very different paths to achievement.

The students who were high in intellectual humility cared a lot about learning and their strong motivation to learn fueled their achievement. By contrast, the students who didn’t like it when others pointed out their mistakes cared a lot about looking smart, and their motivation to look smarter than others is what propelled their achievement.

Although both types of motivation – wanting to learn and wanting to look smarter than others – boosted kids’ grades in the short run, in the long run, wanting to learn is the motivation that pays off. This is because caring mostly about looking smart can sabotage intellectual growth, particularly when students encounter challenging material. For example, if a student cares most about looking smart in school and enrolls in an advanced calculus class where he quickly realizes that he is unlikely to look smart, he may disengage from the course, stop trying to contribute in class, stop trying to understand the material, and perhaps withdraw from the class altogether. However, if he cares most about learning, he is more apt to persist in the course because it is a valuable learning opportunity.

Bottom line: our research showed that intellectual humility boosted students’ achievement by fostering a more durable and adaptive motivation to learn.

Because intellectual humility appeared to benefit students, we wanted to find a way to cultivate it. We predicted that intellectual humility would be shaped by people’s beliefs about the malleability of intelligence – that is, their beliefs about whether intelligence is a fixed trait (fixed mindset) or something that can be grown and developed (growth mindset).

We suspected that beliefs about intelligence might make it more or less easy to acknowledge what you don’t know. If you have a fixed mindset of intelligence, believing that each person has a certain amount of intelligence and that’s that, when you don’t know something, you may feel that you are simply not smart. By contrast, someone with a growth mindset, who believes that intelligence is something that can develop and grow, is not adversely affected by not knowing something. In other words, not knowing does not brand someone with a growth mindset a loser in the intellectual lottery.

We ran an experiment to test whether beliefs about intelligence were one source of intellectual humility. For this study we randomly assigned college students to read an article that described research evidence for either a fixed or growth view of intelligence. The articles were ostensibly written for a well-known magazine, but were actually written by our research team. Reading the articles temporarily put participants into more of a growth mindset or more of a fixed mindset.

We found the students who read the growth mindset article became more intellectually humble, and their intellectual humility boosted their openness to learn from someone with the opposing view. By contrast, reading the fixed mindset article dampened students’ intellectual humility, and made them less open to learning from the opposing view. This finding suggests that teaching individuals to have a growth mindset of intelligence may be one way to foster intellectual humility.

Certainly there is a lot about intellectual humility that we don’t yet understand. Nevertheless, the burgeoning empirical research suggests that having intellectual humility has benefits for learning both in and out of school.  

Those with intellectual humility are more willing to consider views that don’t align with their own, and higher levels of intellectual humility may improve academic performance in positive, sustainable ways. We also may be able to foster intellectual humility by helping people understand that intelligence is not a fixed asset, but something you can work to develop throughout your life.

This exciting work suggests that Google is onto something in their search for intellectual humility. And, in our humble opinion, individuals, government officials, schools, universities, and, of course, tech companies would be well-served by embracing intellectual humility.

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