How humility can win the coronavirus battle, and restore trust in politics


Vice President Pence meets with the Coronavirus Taskforce.

This is a time when we need humility more than ever.

The battle to contain the coronavirus in politics and the larger society requires us to work together. We must seek out and follow the most accurate information for the health of all.

But it must be tempting for individuals who are devoted to reasoned debate over the common good to withdraw from the public square in such a polarized society, where civil discussion is often lost amid ideological attacks.

Fortunately, there is some good news, even at a time when partisan politics is interfering with the nation’s response to the pandemic.

A new study by Pepperdine University researchers Elizabeth Krumrei Mancuso and Brian Newman finds that individuals who are open to new ideas and recognize both the strengths of others and their own limitations, have not succumbed to political apathy or indifference.

The study further suggests these intellectually humble individuals are better able to seek accurate information rather than reflexively defend their own beliefs, and to pursue discussions on critical issues with an attitude of mutual respect.

In so doing, they offer hope to the many Americans who are tired of animosity-fueled political and social dysfunction, the study indicates.

At this point, the study authors noted, “any positive impact in the often-toxic domain of sociopolitical discussion could be important.”

Humility and politics

Social science research has shown how far the social-political divide has increased in recent decades, and revealed many of its corrosive effects: from the greater likelihood of believing unsubstantiated claims to a growing suspicion of others.

At the same time, the rapidly growing field of humility research has revealed how the virtue may lead to greater open-mindedness, empathy, prosocial values, and tolerance toward diverse ideas and people.

In their study of 587 U.S. adults recruited through Amazon Mechanical Turk, the researchers looked at several measures of what they referred to as sociopolitical intellectual humility (SIH).

The Pepperdine team was interested in which individuals would:

• Be more open to reconsidering their own views.
• Be more evidence-driven and less ego-driven in working through differences.
• Show respect for diverse ways of thinking.
• Be aware of their own limitations.

The major findings include:

Keeping hope alive: People with higher SIH were “a bit more interested in politics,” less likely to avoid political discussions, and no more or less likely to report voting in the 2018 elections or otherwise participate in political life. “One of the questions we were most curious about” was whether intellectually humble individuals would distance themselves from politics, Krumrei-Mancuso said. “That wasn’t the case.”
Respecting one another: Partisan divides have gone way past policy differences to mutual trust and dislike, dismissing opponents as closed-minded and hypocritical. But the new study showed even strong Democrats and strong Republicans, and extreme liberals and extreme conservatives, were more likely to have warm feelings for one another with higher levels of intellectual humility.
Challenging bias: One part of the study asked participants to respond to a claim for which there is little evidence that immigrants were more likely to commit crimes than those born in the U.S. All were presented with information from Factcheck.org.

Challenging bias: One part of the study asked participants to respond to a claim for which there is little evidence that immigrants were more likely to commit crimes than those born in the U.S. All were presented with information from Factcheck.org. When people were asked to focus on defending their own positions, being high in sociopolitical intellectual humility helped them to remain open to changing their opinion regarding the claim about immigrant crime.

“This suggests that SIH may provide a buffer against the effects of defense motivated thinking,” Krumrei-Mancuso and Newman stated.. “That is, SIH seems to make a difference for individuals who are placed in a position of defending their own viewpoint, as may happen frequently in American society, particularly in public discourse and social media.”

Those who were asked to defend their own position showed little movement, as did those lacking in humility who were asked to respond on the basis of the information represented. But individuals high in humility who were prompted to consider the evidence displayed a noticeable shift in perspective

“This suggests that SIH may provide a buffer against the effects of defense-motivated thinking,” Krumrei-Mancuso and Newman stated.

Cultivating humility

The research suggests some interventions may be helpful in encouraging, sociopolitical intellectual humility, including helping individuals distinguish credible information from “fake news,” and to reflect on their fallibility on a particular topic.

It is encouraging to know we are not alone in this effort.

Displaying intellectual humility, not avoiding political disagreement but responding with openness and compassion, can be a critical step, notes Krumrei-Mancuso.

“Modeling is going to be a huge part of this shift,” she says. “As people do it more,” everyone gets to experience it more.

And as people become aware of the limits of their own knowledge, the likelihood for defensive attacks decreases, and people are encouraged to look for other sources of knowledge.

In the case of the coronavirus, she notes, “What intellectual humility would encourage is turning to experts more quickly.”

In its best sense, the virtue of humility can make sure all of us will be in this together.

Image by The White House, via Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain]
Image by U.S. Pacific Fleet, via Flickr [CC BY-NC 2.0]

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