Intellectual Humility: Theoretical Construct and Function

What about it?

There is no single definition of intellectual humility, but researchers commonly think of this as a multidimensional construct that involves both dispositional (“fixed” personality) traits and cognitive (thinking) and affective (feeling) states. Some social scientists explain it as a way of being that is mediated by a combination of personality and state-based mental processes, and it manifests in the way that one engages with the pursuit of knowledge . When one thinks and acts with intellectual humility, the ability to evaluate the utility and validity of information is not compromised by personal assumptions or beliefs regarding one’s intellectual superiority/inferiority compared to others. Additionally, one practices a reflective awareness of the extent to which one’s personal theories, beliefs, or values, has an effect on their evaluation of epistemic material. It is associated with constructs such as openness, curiosity, cognitive flexibility, and loving non-attachment (to both people and ideas). An intellectually humble orientation isn’t tainted by self-serving or self-defeating beliefs. The commitment to producing inferences, deductions, and creative propositions in the service of “what could be”, with equal consideration for all intellectual inputs, independent of assumptions (good or bad) about the people who espouse said inputs, is a hallmark of intellectual humility .

As a person who conducts him/herself with intellectual humility, you generally think that socially implied epistemic value differentials — teacher-student, doctor-patient, expert-layperson knowledge dichotomies — are, at best, helpful for the facilitation of learning, but at worst, can be barriers to dialogical immersion and value co-creation . In general, as one who thinks and acts with intellectual humility, you are open to the possibility of any person, dyad, group, or community — any entity — making constructive contributions to the generation of knowledge .

Intellectual humility lends itself to a way of thinking and communicating — uncompromised by a desire to placate oneself or others  — where one is drawn to engaging with “that which is unknown” in order to figure out where to go next. An awareness of the concepts of “certainty” or “closure” as largely illusory, leads to a way of understanding, that does not attempt to define something for “what it is”, but rather recognizes it via that which it is not, or, via negativa.

In discourse, you do not justify your own epistemic “credibility” by virtue of your occupation. Let’s say you’re a philosophy of science researcher. You may acknowledge that you can analyze and integrate philosophical concepts with more agility in comparison to your vocationally non-academic counterpart. You acknowledge that your partner in conversation, let’s say your mechanic, has not been in the practice of thinking and speaking on the subject to the extent that you have. However, you don’t assume that this means that you have the capacity to create more value, absolutely, in this domain. What’s more, you are reflectively aware of the paradox of “expertise”,–how faulty heuristics, developed as a result of increasing specialization and self-importance, can lead to tunnel vision–and you think that all perspectives that differ from your own, are opportunities for growth. You are aware that being in the role of one who does theoretical work for pay, does not preclude you from falling prey to inaccurate assumptive beliefs. You are also aware that when you and your mechanic are brainstorming about the hard problem of consciousness, your stance (as the individual with implicitly more “credibility” based on your social vocational role) of curiosity, ‘unknowing’, and epistemic humility allows for you both to think and act in an integral system. In this space, you and your mechanic realize ideas that may not have been possible without mutually creating and entering such an open space wherein to explore “that which could be”. Maybe your mechanic never realized what she thought about the subject because she had always needed to focus on making ends meet. Maybe nobody had ever been curious enough to ask about her thoughts. Maybe she and you surprised one another and yourselves.

How Does it Work?

Whether we are situated in contexts where we implicitly have more, less, or equal social power, interacting with intellectual humility–especially when one is positioned in an explicit leadership role–means setting a constructive tone of epistemic fairness that invites everyone to participate. More dialogical depth and breadth may lend itself to the generation of more solutions to more problems–and over time, it lends itself to the co-creation of value and the emergence of knowledge.

When you facilitate this type of relational practice, you implicitly tell people that you do not use social power structures as proxies for value (specifically as a proxy for one’s potential to contribute intellectual value). “The proof is in the pudding” when it comes to ideas, and the possibilities seem infinite.

When you reinforce that you unconditionally accept our shared potential as human beings: the potential to deliver good ideas, bad ideas, and everything in between, you co-recover integral connections that make our ‘being’ relevant. And that is a type of sense making that is priceless.


Krumrei-Mancuso, Elizabeth J., Megan C. Haggard, Jordan P. LaBouff, and Wade C. Rowatt. 2020. “Links between Intellectual Humility and Acquiring Knowledge.” The Journal of Positive Psychology 15 (2): 155–70.
Porter, Tenelle, and Karina Schumann. 2018. “Intellectual Humility and Openness to the Opposing View.” Self and Identity 17 (2): 139–62.
Banker, Chloe C., and Mark R. Leary. 2019. “Hypo-Egoic Nonentitlement as a Feature of Humility.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, September, 0146167219875144.
Horien, Corey, and Tanner Bommersbach. 2020. “Complexity, Intellectual Humility, and the Psychiatric Trainee.” Academic Psychiatry, March, s40596-020-01217-w.
Leary, Mark R., Kate J. Diebels, Erin K. Davisson, Katrina P. Jongman-Sereno, Jennifer C. Isherwood, Kaitlin T. Raimi, Samantha A. Deffler, and Rick H. Hoyle. 2017. “Cognitive and Interpersonal Features of Intellectual Humility.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 43 (6): 793–813.

See Also

The University of Edinburgh’s Free Online Course on Intellectual Humility: Theory, Science, and Practice

The OpenMind Platform

Research from the Danielson Institute at Boston University

‘The Humility and Conviction in Public Life’ Project at UConn

The National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation (NCDD)

Epistemic Thinking and Ethics

Other Relevant References

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