Political polarization and animosity towards political rivals are on the rise in the United States. Trust in the press and other institutions is declining, and social media appears to exacerbate these problems. The possibility of a second Civil War has been raised in more than a few places. Needless to say, finding ways to reduce the simmering tensions is tantamount. New research by Porter and Schulmann (2017), summarized below, points to one possibility: facilitating intellectual humility via a growth mindset.
Abstract (Emphasis added):
Strong disagreements have stymied today’s political discourse. We investigate intellectual humility – recognizing the limits of one’s knowledge and appreciating others’ intellectual strengths – as one factor that can make disagreements more constructive. In Studies 1 and 2, participants with higher intellectual humility were more open to learning about the opposition’s views during imagined disagreements. In Study 3, those with higher intellectual humility exposed themselves to a greater proportion of opposing political perspectives. In Study 4, making salient a growth mindset of intelligence boosted intellectual humility, and, in turn, openness to opposing views. Results suggest that intellectual humility is associated with openness during disagreement, and that a growth mindset of intelligence may increase intellectual humility. Implications for current political polarization are discussed.
Porter and Schumann (2017) begin with a Benjamin Franklin quote:
I confess that there are several parts of this Constitution which I do not at present approve, but … I cannot help expressing a wish that every member of the Convention who may still have objections to it, would with me, on this occasion doubt a little of his own infallibility – and to make manifest our unanimity, put his name to this instrument.
They then briefly review evidence for what most attentive individuals are well aware of: The rapidly declining quality of political discourse, among both politicians and the general electorate, and the need to avoid ideological orthodoxy in decision making. Their key research question is: “What determines whether people will be open to learning about the opposing view?” (p. 140).
A key role for intellectual humility was proposed, which Porter and Schumann (2017, p. 140) defined as “a willingness to recognize the limits of one’s knowledge and appreciate others’ intellectual strengths.” This definition of intellectual humility expands upon those currently in the literature, which have focused on the willingness to recognize limits on one’s own knowledge, but have not included appreciating others’ intellectual strengths (see Gregg & Mahadevan, 2014; Krumrei-Mancuso & Rouse, 2016; Leary et al., 2017; McElroy et al., 2014; Samuelson et al., 2014).
Three of the four studies investigated the following hypothesis in various ways (summarized in more detail below):
We propose that people who are high in intellectual humility might be less closed off to opposing perspectives because they are more willing to admit their intellectual fallibility and see intellectual merit in others’ ideas. Compared to those who are low in intellectual humility, we anticipate that those higher in intellectual humility will make more respectful attributions for why someone holds opposing views (e.g., because the issues being discussed are complex), and will be more open to learning about the perspectives of others, even if those perspectives are in direct opposition to their own.
The fourth study investigated if there are ways to temporarily increase intellectual humility. Porter and Schumann (2017) reasoned that reducing people’s motivation to defend their intellectual correctness and superiority would increase intellectual humility.
Studies 1, 2, and 3 were correlational. Intellectual humility was assessed and used to predict openness to disagreement.
In Study 1, 181 college students were recruited. After completing Porter and Schumann’s (2017) measure of intellectual humility, participants completed a series of personality measures that are empirically related to intellectual humility. Following completion of the personality measures, participants read three scenarios that depicted hypothetical classroom disagreements. For each scenario, participants rated possible reasons why a classmate would disagree with them. Two of these attributions were respectful (e.g., “because the topic is complex and warrants different opinions about it”) and three were disrespectful (e.g., “because they are not as intelligent as I am”). Finally, participants were then asked to imagine that the classroom dissenter attempted to engage them in discussion outside of class, and rate how likely they would be to respond with openness towards the dissenter. A demographics questionnaire was then administered.
In Study 2, 188 American adults were recruited from Mechanical Turk. Participants first completed measures of intellectual humility, personality, self-esteem, and confidence in intelligence. Next, each participant read brief passages about five contentious sociopolitical issues (e.g., gun control, same-sex marriage). They were asked to indicate a pro- or anti- position for each issue and then rated four attributions for why someone might hold the opposing view. Participants also rated how important each issue was to them. Finally, participants were asked to choose the issue most important to them, imagine discussing the issue with someone who disagreed, and to complete a series of questions that assessed their openness towards the other person. A demographics questionnaire was then administered.
In Study 3, 169 American adults were recruited from Mechanical Turk. Participants first completed measures of intellectual humility, growth mindset, and learning goals. Next, participants read about either gun control or capital punishment, indicated a pro- or anti- stance, rated how knowledgeable they were about the issue, and indicated how much they favored the policy. The latter was utilized as a measure of attitude strength in the analyses. Participants were then given the opportunity to read reasons, purportedly written by other US citizens, that supported their view and the opposing view. A total of 14 reasons were provided (7 pro and 7 anti). Participants could read as many reasons as they wanted (or none at all) before advancing, the number of reasons read was recorded for subsequent analysis. Finally, participants rated their interest in learning more about the issue, their attitude strength, their issue knowledge, and provided demographic information.
In Study 4, 104 college participants were randomly assigned to read an article supporting either a growth or fixed view of intelligence. The growth article argued that intelligence can be developed. The fixed article argued that intelligence is a static trait. Participants were asked to report the main idea of the article they read as an attention check. Later, participants completed measures of intellectual humility, self-esteem, confidence in intelligence, and the classroom disagreement measure from Study 1. To experimentally test this idea, they randomly assigned participants to read either an article about a growth mindset of intelligence or a fixed mindset of intelligence (see Dweck, 2000). Participants who read the article about a growth mindset were expected to demonstrate increased intellectual humility.
The analyses for Study 1 assessed whether intellectual humility predicted openness over and above the similar personality constructs that were also assessed. “When faced with disagreement scenarios, participants who were higher in intellectual humility were more respectful of and more interested in trying to learn about opposing perspectives” (p.145-147). These associations remained statistically significant when controlling for related personality constructs and general humility. Finally, having a growth mindset of intelligence was positively correlated with intellectual humility.
In Study 2, those higher in intellectual humility again reacted with openness when faced with disagreement, this time on a sociopolitical issue they considered important. “Far from being defensive, dismissive, or derogatory, those higher in intellectual humility reported being more interested in learning about the other side’s perspective” (p. 148). As in Study 1, these associations remained statistically significant when controlling for related personality constructs, and having a growth mindset of intelligence was positively correlated with intellectual humility.
In Study 3, those higher in intellectual humility read a greater proportion of opposing vs. matching reasons for holding a political position compared to those lower in intellectual humility. They also read a higher number of opposing vs. matching reasons overall. Yet, the effect only emerged when participants’ willingness to spend time reading was controlled for. Porter and Schumann (2017) suggested that the association between intellectual humility and openness to opposing perspectives may be moderated by attentional factors.
Finally, in Study 4, participants who read the growth mindset article reported significantly higher intellectual humility than those who read the fixed mindset article. Participants who read the growth mindset article also made more respectful attributions for disagreement and were more open to learning from the opposing view. Intellectual humility mediated the effect of mindset of intelligence, discussed in the article, on both respectful and disrespectful attributions.
Across four studies, three correlational and one experimental, Porter and Schumann (2017) found support for their hypothesis:
People who are high in intellectual humility might be less closed off to opposing perspectives because they are more willing to admit their intellectual fallibility and see intellectual merit in others’ ideas. Compared to those who are low in intellectual humility, we anticipate that those higher in intellectual humility will make more respectful attributions for why someone holds opposing views (e.g., because the issues being discussed are complex), and will be more open to learning about the perspectives of others, even if those perspectives are in direct opposition to their own.
They also found some preliminary evidence (in Study 4) suggesting that fostering a growth mindset of intelligence can temporarily boost intellectual humility, and thus openness to different perspectives.
Two alternative explanations for the results are considered, but rejected. First, it is possible that the connection between intellectual humility and openness was a result of participants’ reluctance to hold strong opinions. This explanation is not supported by the data Porter and Schumann (2017) collected, as those higher in intellectual humility did not differ from the other participants in how strongly they held their political views. Second, low self-esteem or low confidence in one’s intelligence could also explain the results. Again, those higher in intellectual humility did not differ in confidence or self-esteem from the other participants.
Although they did not measure affective or social polarization, Porter and Schumann (2017) conclude with a discussion of the implications of their results for reducing political polarization in the United States. Disagreements can be constructive (see e.g., Janis, 1982; McCullough et al., 1998; Overall, Sibley, & Travaglia, 2010), particularly when each individual involved tries to understand the other positions (de Wied, Branje, & Meeus, 2007; Kahn & Lawhorne, 2003). In contrast, close-mindedness can occur when individuals feel defensive about their competence (Tjosvold, Johnson, & Fabrey, 1980) or they are motivated to perceive themselves as “right” or superior in their knowledge (Vaknin, 2001).
Thus, “promoting intellectual humility may thus offer one path to making disagreements more constructive, and our research suggests that teaching people a malleable view of intelligence may be one promising way to foster intellectual humility and its associated benefits” (p. 159), perhaps even within a political domain that is highly charged.
Why These Findings are Important
The results of Porter and Schumann (2017) have direct relevance for Heterodox Academy and the OpenMind Platform (see also here). One of our hypotheses regarding the OpenMind Platform is that it can increase intellectual humility and openness, and that these increases will then have downstream effects on communication between individuals who have opposing views on an issue. By demonstrating one way to, at least temporarily, increase intellectual humility, Porter and Schumann (2017) have provided a valuable first test of one of OpenMind’s main hypotheses.
Sean Stevens is Heterodox Academy’s Research Director. He has a PhD in social psychology from Rutgers University.
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