Imagine you’re anticipating a conversation with someone you like and respect, but often disagree with. Perhaps you’re talking with a family member or a coworker known for being opinionated. What is the best way to make your voice heard while still finding some common ground?
According to past research, intellectual humility—willingness to accept that our beliefs may be incorrect—is one factor that may help us have more productive debates. People who are more intellectually humble tend to be more empathic, and they tend to view people they disagree with in a more positive light. Intellectual humility can also inoculate us against misinformation, because people higher in intellectual humility are more likely to investigate factually incorrect headlines instead of taking them at face value. In other words, intellectually humble people try to understand other people and the world around them, even if this means admitting they may be wrong.
While the benefits of intellectual humility are well-documented, less research has studied the factors that might increase humility. However, according to a new paper published earlier this year by Royal Society Open Science, one way to increase humility may be relatively straightforward: by asking people to reflect on their values.
What’s important to you?
In the study, researchers asked 303 students and community members to participate in a debate about university tuition fees. Some participants were first asked to engage in a self-affirmation—that is, they were given a list of 19 values and asked to write about the value that was most important to them, such as achievement, concern for others, or protecting the natural world. (Other participants were instead asked to write about a neutral topic.)
Next, participants viewed a PowerPoint presentation presenting arguments about tuition fees. Afterward, they met in small groups of two to four to decide which of the arguments were most and least persuasive. Each group also consisted of one person who, unbeknownst to the participants, was a member of the research team—and was tasked with voicing disagreement with the other group members.
During the debate, the participants were videotaped, and the researchers analyzed these recordings to measure each participant’s level of intellectual humility. How? Researchers looked at how often participants engaged in something called qualified engagement. That involves actively listening and being involved in the conversation, although—crucially—it didn’t mean the participant always agreed with what the other person said. A participant showing high levels of qualified engagement might agree and build off what the other person said (“Yes, that’s true…”) or disagree while still acknowledging some common ground (e.g. “That’s true, but…”). Critically, intellectually humble people did make their opinions known, rather than simply nodding along or saying “OK” without engaging with the substance of what the other person said.
The researchers also considered a participant more intellectually humble if they engaged in less of what the researchers called boosted convictionwhich indicates a more arrogant communication style. Boosted conviction involves using words like “obviously” or “always” (which indicate that the participant is making sweeping statements and generalizations) or making statements suggesting that the other person is being unreasonable (e.g. “How can you say that?”).
Can values tame arrogance?
The researchers found that participants who wrote about their values showed more intellectually humble behavior during the debates, based on the types of words they used.
Additionally, the participants who wrote about their values reported higher levels of what researchers consider prosocial emotions, such as empathy and gratitude. However, they also felt somewhat higher levels of some negative emotions, such as feeling sad and vulnerable, than participants who wrote about neutral topics—although, that said, their overall levels of negative emotions were still relatively low.
Why did writing about values increase intellectual humility? This might help support something called self-affirmation theory: When people think about a value that is important to them, they feel a more stable and coherent sense of self. As a result, a situation that might normally be threatening—such as a political disagreement—is one that people are able to approach more calmly and less defensively.
Despite its benefits, intellectual humility is something most of us need more of. In one study, professor Mark Leary of Duke University asked participants to think back on disagreements and indicate whether they were usually in the right. Although, statistically, the average person would only be right about half the time, 82% of research participants indicated that they were the one in the right.
What can you do to make potentially challenging conversations more productive? Paul Hanel, one of the study’s lead authors, has a few suggestions.
As his research suggests, taking some time before the conversation to reflect on your most important values may be able to help you debate in a more constructive and open-minded way. Then, perhaps you and the other person can start by finding some common ground—something you both can both agree on. If the other person becomes heated and emotional, it could help you to take things less personally if you consider how their behavior might be shaped by contextual factors, like whether they’ve had enough sleep the night before.
Just try to remember that what’s most important to you might not necessarily be what’s important to them. Understanding that difference won’t just help you to have a productive disagreement—it’ll help you to feel stronger within yourself.