What Is Intellectual Humility?

Intellectual humility describes the virtue of accepting one's own cognitive limitations. Discover its characteristics and how to practice it.
What Is Intellectual Humility?
Laura Ruiz Mitjana

Reviewed and approved by la psicóloga Laura Ruiz Mitjana.

Last update: 11 February, 2023

Intellectual humility refers o the virtue of measuring one’s own knowledge, being receptive to the knowledge of others, and accepting possible errors of knowledge. This is a relatively new term, although in fact, it’s something that has already been practiced for millennia. Consider, for example, the famous phrase of Socrates: I know that I know nothing.

In very simple terms, it’s the ability to recognize that you don’t know everything about a subject. Its counterpart is pride, arrogance, and ego. There are many benefits to practicing intellectual humility, both for yourself and for those around you. We’ll teach you everything about this term and some ways to practice it.

The characteristics of intellectual humility

The word humility derives from the Latin humilitas, and this in turn from humus (“soil”, “earth”) and humilis (“humble”). It’s also related to humiliate (“to humiliate”); that is, the action of prostrating oneself on the ground or making someone prostrate on the ground as a sign of recognition. Therefore, humility is an earthly quality; far removed from the qualities of the gods or the heavens.

There’s no single definition of intellectual humility, but clearly, it can be summarized in two ways: First, the ability to recognize the limitations of what one knows; second, the flexibility to accept the knowledge of others. As expected, both characteristics are very close, so much so that one can’t be understood without the other.

According to researchers, intellectual humility is positively related to intellectual independence (that is, the rejection of dogmatism), respect for the point of view of others, the absence of intellectual overconfidence, and being open to checking your own knowledge. In general, experts point to cognitive flexibility as being responsible for this virtue.

Cognitive flexibility is the ability of a person to adapt their knowledge and thinking to the surrounding environment. Anyone who has a great ability to do this is more permissive when assimilating the qualities of this type of humility. Those who are more dogmatic, uncompromising, and intolerant are more closed about it.

How to practice intellectual humility

Evidence suggests that intellectual humility is positively related to the acquisition of new knowledge, intellectual engagement, curiosity, and reflective thinking. Practicing intellectual humility isn’t only something that’s done for the benefit of others, but also has a direct impact on the practitioner. We’ll leave you with some ideas on how to assume its qualities.

1. Value the point of view of others

Intellectual humility is quite nice.
Knowing how to listen is a very good quality in any person. This helps to improve social relationships and optimize work processes.

Intellectual humility can be summed up as valuing the point of view of others. This doesn’t mean accepting it all the time, or always agreeing with the other person; just listening to it and not rejecting it immediately. When we automatically reject opinions that are different than our own, we assume that everything that comes from others is intellectually inferior to what we believe.

Of course, in this and other tips, we’re not referring only to academic knowledge. Intellectual humility isn’t restricted only to professionals in education, science, psychology, or communication. It’s something that everyone can practice. In almost all contexts, this recommendation can be applied, and when it’s done, it will be an exercise in intellectual humility.

2. Recognize when you’re wrong

There’s nothing wrong with admitting a mistake. On the contrary, doing so opens the door to new knowledge; which will further reinforce the ones you already have. Accepting that one has acted in the wrong way is one of the main qualities of an intellectually humble person, as it’s part of the very act of humiliating oneself (in the earthly vs. Edenic sense).

According to a person’s personality and ego, this will be more difficult or less so. Certainly, those who are in a position of prestige are less likely to accept a mistake, primarily because they fear being exposed to those who occupy an intellectually inferior position. Eliminating this prejudice is essential when recognizing one’s own mistakes.

3. Contrast your opinions and beliefs with the facts

It’s not uncommon for many people to dogmatically assimilate an idea without it being checked against the facts. It’s also possible that only part of them was checked and not all of them as a whole. One of the quickest ways to test an idea is to bring it into reality. Only then can it pass the test of its validity, and it’ll be considered profitable or unproductive.

The exercise of recurrently contrasting what has been learned with reality is useful to avoid dogmatism. It’s also good to discover that there are more functional ways to approach a problem. It’s possible that, in theory, an idea is perfect, but in practice, there are more efficient means of interpreting it.

4. Associate with people of different faiths

A common practice of many people is to reject relationships with people who don’t directly share their ideals. Those who sympathize with the left shy away from having friends on the right, those who are atheists avoid associating with believers, and so on.

These are just cliché examples, but you should review how tolerant you are when it comes to relating to someone who does not share your way of interpreting the world.

5. Don’t be arrogant when interacting with others

Intellectual humility contrasts sharply with arrogance.
Despite knowledge, positions, or academic degrees, it’s very important to always maintain kindness in dealing with other people.

There are many ways to express arrogance. Most of the time, it’s non-verbal communication that sets the pace for arrogance, not the words themselves. The arrogance of a person’s looks, gestures of contempt, and judicious silence are some examples of how someone can give off the idea that they know more than they do.

Arrogance is the antithesis of intellectual humility, and it’s also the antithesis of the acquisition of new knowledge and critical thinking. Those who believe that they already know everything won’t be willing to learn new things and will always believe that they know more than others. Therefore, evaluate both your speech and your gestural communication. Ask others to also make their assessment so that you receive a more objective dimension.

6. Contrast what you know with what you still have to learn

We started this article by quoting Socrates’ famous phrase, and we’ll remind you of it once again. Measuring what you know in contrast to what you don’t know is undoubtedly an exercise in prudence and intellectual humility.

It’s also a way to discover that it’s impossible to know everything in this world. There are people who’ll know more than you in some areas, and in some cases, you’ll know more than others. No one has absolute knowledge.

7. Keep an open mind

The last piece of advice that you can put into practice is to keep your mind open. Said in this way, it seems something very simple, but for those who have become accustomed to rejecting the point of view of others, it’s quite a challenge. Don’t close the door immediately to learning things that go against what you’ve assumed to be true. We assure you that on more than one occasion, you’ll be surprised.

The speed and ease with which knowledge can be accessed have facilitated the acquisition of arrogant, capricious, and superior attitudes. It’s something that we see on a daily basis, even in the virtual field. Intellectual humility is an escape valve from all this, one that brings people down to earth.

  • Krumrei-Mancuso, E. J., Haggard, M. C., LaBouff, J. P., & Rowatt, W. C. Links between intellectual humility and acquiring knowledge. The Journal of Positive Psychology. 2020; 15(2): 155-170.
  • Krumrei-Mancuso, E. J., & Rouse, S. V. The development and validation of the comprehensive intellectual humility scale. Journal of Personality Assessment. 2016; 98(2): 209-221.
  • Zmigrod, L., Zmigrod, S., Rentfrow, P. J., & Robbins, T. W. The psychological roots of intellectual humility: The role of intelligence and cognitive flexibility. Personality and Individual Differences. 2019; 141: 200-208.

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