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For All You Know

Are you comfortable with the idea that you may not have all the answers? A psychology professor tells you why you should be.

May 6, 2020  | 4 min read

You’re wrong. Let that sink in for a moment.

How does that statement make you feel? For many, it can trigger the deepest-seated insecurities and inadequacies that plague their psyche. Many even refuse to accept their own fallibility, a silent internal struggle so pervasive that it can create conflicts that can have devastating impacts on communities and, even more broadly, society.

“Admitting you are wrong is taboo,” says Elizabeth Krumrei Mancuso ('03, MA '04), associate professor of psychology at Seaver College. “But there should be no shame in saying, ‘I was wrong’ or ‘I don’t know.’"

Krumrei Mancuso is an expert in the study of intellectual humility, or, the awarenes  of one’s own intellectual imperfection. She explains that Western culture promotes the difficulty that most people face with the discomfort of not knowing and that the first step is, simply, admitting it.

Elizabeth Krumrei Mancuso ('03, MA '04) - Pepperdine Magazine“Part of the solution is a cultural shift to acknowledging that you don’t know or that you’ve changed your mind,” Krumrei Mancuso says. “Intellectual humility is being comfortable with the fact that your ideas and memory and cognition and mental capacities are fallible. Shifting your perspective to believe that all of those things are acceptable can actually be signs of strength rather than weakness.”

According to a 2019 article in the New York Times entitled “Be Humble, and Proudly, Psychologists Say” in which Krumrei Mancuso's work was featured, writer Benedict Carey reports that the study of humility is still finding its legs in the field of social psychology. The Seaver professor is one of few researchers who is delving into the idiosyncrasies of humility and the implications it can have on society.

While literature on the study of related psychological and social-scientific constructs, such as wisdom and open-mindedness, has existed for a long time, it wasn’t until the early 2010s that psychologists and philosophers became interested in defining and studying the effects of intellectual humility. Krumrei Mancuso posits that the political and social atmosphere of our times likely contributed to an increasing interest in the ways people express their views as well as a desire to encourage more constructive discourse.

“If you look at discussions related to politics on social media, there is such negativity and people shutting each other down,” she shares. “But there’s not a lot of listening. The inability to listen to one another with intention may be a sign of a lack of intellectual humility.”

Earlier this year Krumrei Mancuso collaborated with Brian Newman, professor of political science at Seaver College, on a study that examined the role of intellectual humility in the sociopolitical domain. Looking at a sample of 587 adults in the US, Krumrei Mancuso and Newman investigated the awareness of the fallibility of one’s views about sociopolitical topics in relation to attitudes toward specific political groups and issues, namely immigration. As previous research has demonstrated, intellectual humility plays a role in people’s general orientations toward the sociopolitical domain, and one of the findings of this particular study suggests that sociopolitical intellectual humility may be most impactful when individuals are provided an opportunity to reflect on the fallibility of their thinking on a particular topic.

In a study conducted with Steven Rouse, a fellow Seaver College psychology professor, the two scientists developed the 22-item Comprehensive Intellectual Humility Scale published in the Journal of Personality Assessment that evaluates subjects’ responses to statements such as, “When someone disagrees with ideas that are important to me, it feels as though I’m being attacked,” “I am willing to change my opinions on the basis of compelling reason,” and “I respect that there are ways of making important decisions that are different from the way I make decisions.” The scale measures four distinct but intercorrelated aspects of intellectual humility, including independence of intellect and ego, openness to revising one’s viewpoint, respect for others’ viewpoints, and lack of intellectual overconfidence—all hallmarks of intellectual humility.

Krumrei Mancuso explains that researchers in the field of social psychology are focused on the trait of intellectual humility as an individual differences factor— variations among individuals that constitute unique personal characteristics. As a clinical psychologist, Krumrei Mancuso is interested in some of the potential underpinnings of intellectual humility, such as a separation between intellect and ego—“people whose sense of self and self-worth is not dependent on always being correct in their thinking will likely be less defensive in their interactions with others, will be more open to learning new things, will collaborate well with others, and will be better able to discover false beliefs that they’ve had and overcome prejudices.”

In another study published in the Journal of Positive Psychology, Krumrei Mancuso and professors from various universities examined how intellectual humility relates to acquiring knowledge. People who are more intellectually humble, the study claimed, are actually better at finding answers to their questions.

“We found that, for the most part, intellectual humility was not related to raw intelligence—how smart people were or their cognitive ability—but it was associated with how much general knowledge someone possessed,” she says.

The study also found that intellectual humility, at least correlationally, was associated with individuals being more likely to engage in reflective thinking, having higher levels of need for cognition, being more intellectually engaged, being more curious, being more intellectually open, being more open minded, and having a larger intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation to learn. For example, students higher in intellectual humility wanted to learn for the sake of gaining knowledge rather than to earn a good grade.

While research is just beginning to explore interventions in the development of intellectual humility, Krumrei Mancuso thinks and hopes that individuals can learn how to become more intellectually humble. She positions intellectual humility as a social attitude that she believes will change slowly as people with influence—politicians, celebrities, and even college professors—demonstrate and model intellectually humble behaviors.

In the classroom and in various other learning environments across Pepperdine, Krumrei Mancuso herself demonstrates the importance of intellectual humility for individuals and for society, a concept that seems to resonate well with students.

“I love Pepperdine’s affirmation statement, that ‘truth, having nothing to fear from investigation should be pursued relentlessly in every discipline,’” she says. “I really think that’s true. When people aren’t afraid of what they’re going to discover, they’re more open to exploring. That’s what intellectual humility is all about.”