People who brag about their intellect don’t know as much as they think, study finds

Nobody likes a know-it-all, but new research shows that people who are able to admit that their own knowledge and views might not be correct, are actually more knowledgeable.

The new study, led by first author and psychologist Elizabeth J. Krumrei-Mancuso from Pepperdine University, examines the concept of intellectual humility, which can be characterised as accepting one’s intellectual fallibility in an open and level-headed way.

The opposite of such humility is intellectual overconfidence: being certain you are right about things. But while confidence about the things you think and believe is good, overconfidence can actually be a problem for the knowledge you are so sure you possess.

“Research demonstrates that those who believe knowledge is certain are likely to incorrectly draw definitive conclusions from ambiguous evidence,” Krumrei-Mancuso and her co-authors explain in their new paper.

“That is, individuals tend to distort information to fit their epistemological beliefs, which can affect their interpretation of information and knowledge acquisition.”

But if you’re intellectually humble, what does that say about your knowledge and your cognitive ability?

“When it comes to beliefs, people tend to appreciate others being open-minded, yet they may also view people who are unsure about their beliefs as weak or they may view those who change their viewpoint as unstable or manipulative,” Krumrei-Mancuso explained to PsyPost.

“This research was motivated out of a desire to understand the potential value of intellectual humility. Does it benefit us to recognise our intellectual fallibility?”

To find out, Krumrei-Mancuso and her team ran five separate experiments involving almost 1,200 participants in total, designed to examine the various links between intellectual humility and learning.

In the research, survey respondents were asked a series of questions, and rated on a intellectual humility scale developed by the researchers.

“The scale consists of a Knowing-It-All subscale (con-trait), assessing excessive attitudes of intellectual superiority, and an Intellectual Openness subscale (pro-trait), assessing openness to learning from others,” the researchers write.

What the results ultimately showed is that intellectual humility seems to have a mixed effect on people’s ability to acquire knowledge.

Being intellectually humble was associated with better scores in a test that assessed general knowledge, but it seemed to be unrelated to participants’ cognitive ability. This surprised the researchers, who thought they would see a link between the two.

The fact that intellectual humility was linked to general knowledge but not cognitive ability could suggest that the former is associated with crystallised intelligence (learned skills and knowledge), but not fluid intelligence (problem-solving ability), the researchers conclude.

In other words, intellectual humility “was associated with more accurate assessment of one’s general knowledge,” Krumrei-Mancuso told Psypost.

“That is, knowing (and being willing to admit!) what you don’t know may be the first step to seeking new knowledge.”

That sounds like a good thing – and it is – but intellectual humility might come with some issues.

In one of the studies, the trait was also linked with having a lower grade point average (GPA). It’s not entirely clear why that is, but the researchers hypothesise that the cohort of honours students used in the study might have affected the results somehow.

Another finding was that intellectually humble people underestimated their cognitive ability.

On the whole, the researchers acknowledge more studies needed to be done to understand how intellectual humility affects knowledge, cognition, and our ability to learn new things, but we have at least some new positive data about the trait – which is important, since humility can have a broader effect on society as a whole.

“Intellectual humility can contribute to social goods in a number of ways,” Krumrei-Mancuso explained in a blog post in January.

“Intellectual humility extends beyond perceptions of people’s opinions to perceptions of people, which has implications for social attitudes and possibly social behaviours.

“This can go a long way toward helping people treat others with civility and benevolence, even in the face of persistent disagreement.”

The findings are reported in The Journal of Positive Psychology.

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