Emory psychologist examines whether 'intellectual humility' can temper political, religious polarization

By April Hunt | Emory Report | Oct. 17, 2019

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With support from a Templeton Foundation grant, Emory psychologist Scott O. Lilienfeld will study whether the ability to recognize that you might be wrong can be a buffer against political and religious extremism.

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Could recognizing that you might be wrong be the key to tempering the partisan polarization that has begun to extend beyond politics? 

The John Templeton Foundation has awarded Emory University psychologist Scott O. Lilienfeld a $233,319 grant to find out. Lilienfeld will begin research in Atlanta this year to clarify the concept of intellectual humility – the ability to admit that one might be wrong or at least lack full knowledge – and test its ability to buffer against political and religious extremism, just in time for the 2020 election.

“It’s good to disagree if we hold respect for the other side,” says Lilienfeld, Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Psychology. “When we disagree to the point of not liking each other or hating each other, there is an increased risk for discord, extremism and violence.” 

The Templeton Foundation selected the projected based on its research area in the science and practice of character, with a focus on moral, performance, civic and intellectual virtues such as humility.

Researchers from psychology and philosophy have studied intellectual humility for more than a decade, applying analytical and empirical tools in a bid to capture how and why some people reconsider their views – and others don’t.

Still, the concept itself remains murky and poorly understood. To understand the long-term implications of intellectual humility, Lilienfeld must first get a handle on why some people are more aware of their cognitive weaknesses than others are. 

To assess that, he and his team will begin to administer a battery of measures by year’s end, asking people to self-report on their intellectual humility and allied traits. The questionnaires will ask participants to gauge their own biases and thinking limitations, to say how they react when they learn they are wrong, to report how much merit they perceive in others’ arguments, and so on. 

Researchers will then pose similar questions to informants, such as co-workers and friends, who know the participants well. That offers the ability to see how well people can judge their own intellectual humility and how well their own assessments converge with how others see them. 

Lilienfeld plans to involve students in the research, both as undergraduate and graduate researchers as well as subjects. 

Another experiment will bring together people with extremely liberal and conservative views to collaborate on a negotiation task, while researchers study behavior during the project and whether that predicts success in the work at hand. 

The goal is to reveal what, if anything, is distinctive about intellectual humility – and whether it can be taught and learned. Lilienfeld expects to have preliminary results by late spring or early summer. 

“We suspect it involves not just personality but a cognitive skill that can be acquired,” Lilienfeld says. “There is a growing but provisional body of literature that indicates we can begin to rid ourselves of biases by becoming aware of them. Our hope would be we could cultivate intellectual humility in the same way.”