If you have spent any time on Twitter, you will recognize that knowing we could be wrong is becoming more pressing by the day. The fact of the matter is that no matter how much of an expert we are, we will be wrong. The history of science testifies to it when it admits that the Earth is round and no longer the center of our solar system, much less the universe. The legal system, no matter the strength of its precedent, will be overturned or will encounter a new situation in which the existing laws do not apply. What is more concerning are the recent political divisions that have torn through religious communities that have had the Bible as their cornerstone. I have chosen to name intellectual meekness (IM) as a virtue that has been so far underappreciated, at the very least. It isn’t that it has never been mentioned… to my knowledge. Socrates, after all, made a living claiming not only that he knew nothing, but that he was aware of it. But in our day, intellectual meekness seems to be in short supply. From cancel culture to gender conversion therapy, from the January 6, 2021 attack on the American Capitol to the widespread denial of human impact on global warming, people are more than ever enforcing their opinions regardless of their correctness – all the while assuming their correctness.
Little research has addressed either the situations that affect the virtue of intellectual meekness as it appears in particular contexts or in the psychological factors that lead some people to be more aware of their own fallibility than others. That is, we are only dimly aware of it. But it is my hunch that intellectual meekness is correlatively connected to our authentic identities. In other words, the greater the capacity of intellectual humility exists in an individual, the more authentic they likely are. While intellectual meekness is not the same thing as authenticity, intellectual meekness combines a number of other core features of authenticity: sincerity, honesty, particularity, awareness of one’s own deficiency and error, and assertiveness of one’s realistic individual worth as a participant in discovery. That is, we aren’t simply true to ourselves, but we employ an agency on the world that impacts it, for better or worse.
In the research, this virtue, the awareness of our own fallibility, is often called intellectual humility. Although technically correct, “humility” often connotes at least a mild shame in oneself, in addition to an awareness of fallibility. A humble individual may be wrong but he must also feel bad about it. Even if one doesn’t feel bad about being wrong there is often real or imagined pressure to virtue signal; I may not feel bad that I was wrong, but I have to apologize as if I did. And this is certainly neither virtuous nor is it authentic.
Focusing on humility then – Intellectual humility is very often cognitive and emotively dependent. On the other hand, IM is a state, a way of being, which is certainly a feature of all virtues. Virtues are structured patterns of behaviour that can be improved or eroded by individual practice or lack of it. Virtues are embodied principles, not a mental trick or an emotionally dependent signal. That is why we should understand it as intellectual meekness, rather than simply humility.
For the purpose of this piece, I will assume that we understand the term “intellectual” to mean our cognitive processing and frameworks. However, meekness is not a term that is naturally at home within cognitive structures. Coming from its origins in Greek, the term “meek” (πράος
práos), was originally used to denote “controlled capacity” that would be the relationship of a stallion with its bridle. For our purposes then, it is important to understand this controlled capacity as a combination of manifest self-control and unbridled power. While our common understanding of the term “humility” is heavy on self-control, it tends to be overly submissive. By contrast, meekness lives gently, yet not necessarily submissively. Intimately tied to our authentic identities, intellectual meekness is a way of being that impactfully discloses who we are on the issues that matter to us in a gentle way. Intellectual Meekness has a number of overlapping factors that influence its manifestation in reality as a way of being.
IM and Genetics
Let’s consider first consider genetics. Given that virtually every personal characteristic has at least a weak genetic basis, it would be surprising if intellectual meekness (IM) was not partly heritable. IM correlates moderately with the trait of openness (Krumrei-Mancuso & Rouse, 2016; Leary et al., 2017; McElroy et al., 2014; Meagher et al., 2015), which has a sizable heritability, and overconfidence in one’s cognitive ability also shows signs of genetic influences (Cesarini, Johannesson, Lichtenstein, & Wallace, 2009). Given that being open to ideas and having a reasonably accurate view of one’s ability is associated with high IM, it almost certainly has genetic underpinnings. Importantly, the fact that people are genetically predisposed to respond in certain ways does not indicate either that their reactions are out of their control or that their general tendency to be low or high in IM cannot be changed. Although most psychological characteristics are influenced by the effects of genes on the brain, they are also affected strongly by people’s experiences, including how they are raised, their interactions with other people, what they learn, and the other things that happen to them throughout life.
IM and Upbringing
In addition to genetics, one’s upbringing will also influence the presence of IM. Social learning will play a role in IM as children observe how parents, teachers, and others express certainty and uncertainty about their beliefs, manage disagreements with other people, and change (or do not change) their minds when evidence warrants. Some parents may also encourage their children to explain and justify their beliefs, attitudes, and decisions, thereby teaching the importance of basing one’s views on the evidence. Parents also differ in the degree to which they socialize their children to be open to new ideas and experiences, which may contribute to IM.
IM and Cultural Influence
Thirdly, cultures vary in the degree to which they value openness and flexibility and tolerate uncertainty and ambiguity (Hofstede, 1991). People who live in cultures characterized by high “uncertainty avoidance” learn to experience anxiety and distrust in situations that are uncertain, ambiguous, or unpredictable. Such societies emphasize strict rules and laws, shared beliefs, and fixed ways of behaving that render the world stable and predictable. Such cultures discourage IM because uncertainty is threatening and people are encouraged to adopt a common set of beliefs. Such is the case with South Korea. Even within countries that are not generally high in uncertainty avoidance, certain belief systems may discourage IM. For example, many religions teach that they alone have the truth, thereby discouraging IM. In countries like Italy, Canada, and the United States, even though they are liberal democracies, their religious origins have bequeathed a strong tendency to avoid uncertainty. Of course, people may be arrogantly nonreligious as easily as arrogantly religious; atheists are often as convinced that their views are correct as religious fundamentalists are (Leary et al., 2017). In Thailand, by contrast, is primarily Theraveda Buddhist, with much more tolerance of uncertainty.
IM and Education
Fourthly, education (and especially higher education) may have opposing effects on IM. On one hand, the more people learn, the more they see how much they do not know and the more complicated, nuanced, and endless knowledge becomes. On the other hand, the more people learn, the more justifiably confident they become in their knowledge, particularly in areas in which they develop deep expertise. An expert in an area should be more confident in his or her beliefs in that area than a nonexpert. Although no evidence exists, education may increase IM overall, while lowering IM in the domains of one’s expertise. That is, when one becomes an expert in a particular area, one will be less submissive, but the likelihood of gentleness decreases as well. To complicate matters, more education may lead people to develop more complete, refined, and nuanced beliefs than they held previously. As a result, education may lower IM because it leads people to conclude, perhaps justifiably, that their current views are better than they were previously and likely better than those of people who have not undergone extensive study. So, the picture is mixed. Perhaps the primary effect of education is to improve the degree to which one’s IM is calibrated with respect to one’s knowledge. As people learn more—and particularly as they learn more about the evidentiary basis of their knowledge—they may develop a clearer idea of what they do and do not know, leading them to track the epistemic status of their beliefs more accurately than they otherwise might (Church & Barrett, 2017).
IM and the Presence of Threat
Research shows that people become more entrenched in their views when they feel under existential threat, whether the threat involves economic downturns, war, terrorism, rising immigration, thoughts about one’s mortality, or simply making a list of past instances of threatening experiences from one’s own life. In all instances, increased threat is associated with greater closed-mindedness (see Thórisdóttir & Jost, 2011). Thus, people who experience a greater ongoing sense of threat in life may be inclined to be lower in trait IM, and episodes of threat may decrease IM for most people.
IM and the Role of Ideology
Neither religiosity (the degree to which people believe in and practice a religion) nor political affiliation is consistently correlated with IM (Leary et al., 2017; Meagher et al., 2018). However, people with more extreme religious and political views—in whatever direction—tend to be lower in IM than people with moderate views. Across a number of beliefs, IM is related to belief extremity such that people with moderate beliefs tend to be higher in IM than people who hold extreme beliefs (Hopkin et al., 2014; Leary et al., 2017; Toner et al., 2013). In other words, people with more extreme views—for example, those whose political views are further toward the left or right—tend to be lower in IM and, thus, hold their beliefs more strongly than people who hold moderate beliefs, and tend toward violent expressions. (Interestingly, however, Krumrei-Mancuso  found that while intellectual humility was slightly higher among people at the low and high extremes of religious belief than those in the middle, their willingness and ability to assert their opinions gently was reduced.) Although the relationship between belief extremity and certainty may seem straightforward and commonsensical, people could, in fact, be intellectually arrogant about the superiority of moderate views over extreme ones. (Benjamin Franklin reputedly referred to himself as an “extreme moderate.”) However, the general pattern is for people with more extreme views to be less intellectually gentle. This pattern may occur because moderate views often acknowledge the complexity, nuance, and equivocal nature of the issue at hand.
Can a Person’s Level of Intellectual Meekness Change? Although no research has directly tested efforts to change either intellectual humility or meekness, there is every reason to assume that IM can change. Research reveals that, although IM scores show a certain degree of stability (i.e., test-retest reliability is moderately high), they can and do change over time. Furthermore, to the extent that IM is fundamentally a virtue about the fallibility of one’s views, a great deal of psychological research shows that one’s implementation of the virtue changes. IM can change both through a personal decision to be more intellectually gentle and through outside intervention. In both cases, two considerations may help to promote IM.
First, people rarely change their views or behavior unless they perceive a benefit in doing so. So, people must understand that approaching the world in a more intellectually gentle fashion is beneficial and desirable. As will be discussed, IM can be beneficial in a number of ways—in improving the quality of one’s decisions (because people are open to a greater variety of information and perspectives), fostering more positive interactions and relationships (because people are more open to others’ views, less defensive, and more likely to admit when they are wrong), and promoting progress in organizations and society (because people high in IM are more inclined to compromise). In addition to perceiving possible benefits, people also need to comprehend that being higher in IM does not have notable downsides—such as being perceived by other people as uncertain, unintelligent, or wishy-washy.
Second, people must accept the fact that their beliefs and attitudes are fallible and that what they believe to be true may be unfounded. Of course, none of us thinks that our beliefs and attitudes are incorrect; if we did, we wouldn’t hold those beliefs and attitudes. Yet, despite the subjective sense that they are correct, people must accept that their views are sometimes wrong. To change people’s general level of IM, this recognition cannot be a one-time affair. Since being intellectually humble goes against the strong tendency to maintain and defend one’s views of the world, people must learn to be vigilant for instances in which they hold their views with unfounded confidence.
Consequences of Intellectual Meekness
Most researchers have assumed that IM has benefits for individuals, relationships, and society, but the possibility that it could also create problems has received less attention. As a virtue, it ought to play across experienced life, and not just a limited number of instances. Intellectual humility is generally understood as a psychological characteristic, and as such, is likely not to benefit in all instances.
Testable Personal Implications
(*Note – the majority of research refers to the subject being studied as Intellectual Humility. Thus, the research included below is about Intellectual Humility – which I have renamed Intellectual Meekness. For a thorough review of the literature, see the research sponsored by the John Templeton Foundation.)
Knowledge – Having accurate knowledge requires that people consider the evidence on which their beliefs are based, remain vigilant to the possibility of being incorrect, solicit and consider the perspectives of other informed people (especially those whose viewpoints differ from theirs), and revise their views when the evidence warrants. People high in IM are more curious, distinguish strong from weak arguments more clearly, are more accurate in recalling whether they have been exposed to certain information, and think more about information that contradicts their views. But no research has directly examined whether these intellectual proclivities result in having a more accurate storehouse of knowledge or in making better decisions, although it seems likely.
Decisions – One possible liability of IM may be lower efficiency when processing information and making decisions. People who are high in IH may consult more sources of information (including other people), consider information more carefully, and weigh more alternatives than people low in IM. As in many areas of life, there is a trade-off between efficiency and effectiveness (in this case, speed and accuracy) in information processing (Heitz, 2014).
Well-being – Some theorists have suggested that IM may have benefits for psychological well-being. However, this hypothesis is based mostly on an extrapolation from research on general humility which is rather different from IM. Research on this question is needed. If research confirms that IM is positively correlated with adjustment and well-being, the question arises whether these psychological outcomes are a consequence of being high in IM. It is just as plausible that psychological adjustment promotes the development of IM or that well-being and IM are co-effects of a common process. Psychologically, one could argue for all three causal explanations, which are exceptionally difficult to tease apart except through a controlled experiment in which people are trained to become more intellectually humble and the consequences assessed. Even if research shows that IM is associated with higher well-being overall, downsides are possible. For example, people with a low tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty may find that trying to keep an open mind increases their stress and anxiety. Yet, whether the certainty that arises from intellectually arrogant closed-mindedness constitutes greater well-being than intellectually humble uncertainty is an open question.
Between close and significant others – IM has clear interpersonal benefits. As noted, people high in IM are more tolerant of views that differ from their own and are less likely to derogate people who disagree with them (Leary et al., 2017; Porter & Schumann, 2018). IM also correlates with a range of beneficial interpersonal responses—including gratitude, forgiveness, altruism, and empathy—and with values that reflect concern for other people’s well-being (Krumrei-Mascuso, 2017; Zhang, Farrell, Hook, Davis, Van Tongeren, & Johnson, 2015). High IM is also associated with more satisfying relationships. A study of heterosexual couples showed that men who were high in IM were more satisfied with their partners and relationships than men low in IM and, perhaps more importantly, their female partners were more satisfied as well (Leary, 2018). For reasons that are not clear, women’s IM scores were less strongly related to their and their partners’ ratings of the relationship than men’s scores were. Given their open, agreeable, and less contentious nature, people high in IM are liked better than those low in IM. Even after only 30 minutes of contact, people rate those who are high in IM more positively than those who are low (Meagher et al., 2015). People also seem to forgive people whom they view as intellectually meek more easily (Hook et al., 2015). Whether high IM also has negative interpersonal effects is not clear. Certainly, some people do not like others who seem wishy-washy or overly conciliatory, so IM may not always be perceived positively – even though the submission and equivocation are likely the culprits. More research on possible negative implications is needed.
Social Benefits – Many conflicts in society stem from disagreements about values, politics, religion, cultural practices, and other topics. These conflicts become intractable when people are unable or unwilling to consider the possibility that their personal views might be, if not incorrect, at least no better overall than other perspectives. All evidence suggests that IM should be associated with lower acrimony that is based on differences in beliefs and ideology (Hook et al., 2017; Krumrei-Mancuso, 2017; Leary et al., 2017; Porter & Schumann, 2017). For example, pastors who are high in IM with respect to their religious views display greater tolerance of other people’s religious beliefs than those who are low in religious IM (Hook et al., 2017). IM should also pave the way toward greater negotiation and compromise, which are difficult when all parties are convinced that they are wholly correct. In increasingly heterogeneous societies, higher IM should promote compromise solutions for the good of all.
Academic and Practical Conclusions
For many years, psychologists avoided studying characteristics that, in everyday life, are regarded as virtues or character strengths, partly from a concern with appearing to endorse particular ethical or moral positions. However, this hesitation has waned in the past 15 years. Just as psychologists regularly study pathology, they are now interested in particularly desirable, beneficial virtues as well. The emerging study of intellectual humility and intellectual meekness reflects this growing interest in the positive side of human behavior.
In other words, academics from a variety of disciplines (not only psychology) ought to feel invited and compelled to study IM and its implications for the kind of people (and persons) we want to become.
Practically, we can connect Intellectual Meekness with larger aspirations toward authenticity which are in full articulation already. In other words, it may be wise of us to consider fostering greater intellectual meekness as a way to become more authentically ourselves. That is, we need to put a gentle agency back into our thin opinions.
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