Science seeks humility's sweet spot between arrogance, servility

“Let us be absolutely clear about one thing: We must not confuse humility with false modesty or servility.” — author Paulo Coelho

Can you have too much of a good thing when it comes to intellectual humility?

The answer is yes, if it means becoming so obsessed with your shortcomings that you opt out of contentious conversations in the classroom, the workplace or the public arena, new studies suggest.

Humility is an appreciation of the strengths of others, an openness to new ideas and a recognition of one’s own strengths and weaknesses. In such a polarized age, those virtues are a striking antidote to the polluted state of so much public dialogue.

But the virtues are still stigmatized by being associated with meekness and servility. Witness the Oxford English Dictionary definition of humility: “The quality of having a modest or low view of one’s importance.”

And that can leave some of the voices most needed in the current political and academic climate on the sidelines.

What is needed, according to an emerging wave of research, is an awareness that just as narcissism, arrogance and paranoia can undermine humility, so, too, can an unhealthy focus on one’s limitations lead to a lack of intellectual humility.

True humility is more likely to flourish when individuals have an appropriate amount of pride and are assertive when the situation calls for someone with their knowledge and strengths, new research finds.

Think of intellectual humility as being on a spectrum with intellectual arrogance on one end, and intellectual servility on the other. That’s according to a group of 10 researchers from five universities, including several prominent humility scholars.

“It is important to recognize” that intellectual servility may mar intellectual humility just as much as intellectual arrogance, researchers said in the April issue of the Journal of Personality and Individual Differences.

A growing wave of research on humility has discovered multiple benefits of the virtue. Humble individuals are more likely to be healthier and more successful in areas from business to romance.

And humble people promote values from empathy to clear-eyed political leadership that contribute to more tolerant, prosperous societies, the research indicates.

Some of the latest research is also noting potential downsides.

For instance, individuals high in honesty-humility – people who generally hold high expectations of others, were particularly vulnerable to reduced trust in situations when they became uncertain about the motivations of others, according to a recent series of studies in the U.S. and Germany.

“The present research shows, remarkably, that even basically prosocial humans are not unconditionally prosocial. Every social behavior is shaped by the social situation, as is the behavior of the ‘nice guys,’” researchers reported in the Journal of Personal and Social Psychology.

In the new research focusing on how individuals “own” their limitations, researchers created measuring instruments, and tested them over time.

In a fourth study, they conducted a national survey of 612 adults ages 18 to 64.

What they found, not surprisingly, was that dogmatism, closed-mindedness and hubristic pride were negatively associated with intellectual humility.

However, contrary to some popular stereotypes, they also found that certain levels of pride and assertiveness were related to greater intellectual humility.

This does not mean President Donald Trump is an exemplar of intellectual humility because he is assertive enough to dismiss anyone who questions his actions with responses ranging from disdain to accusations of “fake news.”

Nor does it mean the grandiosity of Trump’s challenger, Hillary Clinton, models humility when she filters out any criticism of her mistakes to the point of failing to campaign in key states late in a race she considered locked up.

There is a difference between finding fulfillment in one’s work or feeling smug and superior.

“The proper attentiveness to one’s limitations … is a mean between the extremes of ignoring and obsessing about one’s limitations,” researchers said.

An intellectually humble person “may be open and agreeable but will also stand up for their beliefs and take pride in them, avoiding” intellectual servility, researchers noted.

It even could be considered selfish for someone who knows she has an important contribution to make to keep it to herself, said psychology professor Wade Rowatt of Baylor University, a member of the research team.

“When someone intellectually knows their domain,” Rowatt said, “it makes sense for them to be assertive.”

The upshot: Humility is not about servility or self-depreciation. It is a strength. You have to be strong enough to recognize the strengths of others and strong enough to recognize one’s own strengths.

In other words, be you ever so humble – and proud and assertive.

Image by David Bruce, via Flickr [CC BY-SA 2.0]

One Response to “Science seeks humility's sweet spot between arrogance, servility”

  1. Gary Sweeten says:

    The Bible calls it, “Speaking the truth in love”. The Greek word used to describe it is she notes and describes the “Golden Mean” between arrogance and servility. The Golden Rule summarizes it nicely. Treat others the way we want to be treated.

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