By Drew Rick-Miller
Forgive me (I know that was last week), if I begin this week’s entry regarding the science of humility with a really bad (but also sincere) pun. Preparing to write on the science of humility is humbling, really humbling. And that is because any discussion of humility has to include honest (yes that was our first week) reflection on cognitive bias – the ways our cognitive biases counteract humility. Tired of the know-it-all, snobby, smarty pants acquaintance – simply show them this antidote to arrogance graphic. I’m not going to try to count the number of biases it includes, but it pulls from this list on Wikipedia where you can read more about all the biases that fellow homo sapiens have, but which fortunately, I have managed to avoid or overcome. Actually, that may be the most humbling bias of all – the self-enhancing optimism bias so well described by Talia Sharot in this TED Talk (you will remember that we shared this in week one re: honesty). Obviously, these biases apply not just to honesty or hope, but also to humility – we can’t all be in the top quartile of everything. Who will admit to being in the bottom 10%? I will readily admit so when it comes to dancing, but when it comes to writing on the science of humility, I’m certainly near the top, right?
Seriously, the other big bias that impacts humility is the well-known confirmation bias. After our first impression, it biases our interaction with others. It impacts our ability to engage ideas and change our beliefs. Even the holy grail of evidence – facts – can’t change our minds. As we transition from the humbling research on bias and move to humility itself, you may want to check out this 6-minute segment from an online course at Edinburgh University that looks at bias, the dual process theory of thinking, and humility.
Humility has not always been included with the virtues, different people place a different value on it (we want religious seekers to be humble but not always for leaders), and it is a virtue that has only recently been a subject of scientific study. One of the reasons is the difficulty in defining it and the other is the measurement problem (think about, self-reporting on your own humility is not likely to work out so well). Nonetheless, like much of the study of virtues, it appears to have multiple benefits. (break to link here)Humble persons are perceived to be more likeable and kinder. They handle stress more effectively and report better health and fewer negative psychological symptoms. Humility seems to be good for relationships and associates with success in certain areas of life, especially business management. And there are a couple lines of research that show positive links between humility and learning.
The other interesting finding is the strong links between humility and virtues such as gratitude and forgiveness. Everett Worthington who is the forgiveness guy has also looked at humility and the studies showing the positive health benefits from it may actually be confusing the humility benefits with those of the more widely studied virtues of gratitude and forgiveness. Again, this is because those virtues are often found in humble persons.
The final finding worth noting is that contrary to the common stereotype, people who report being more religious and spiritual also report being more humble. That may just be confirmation bias revealed in flawed self-report studies, but it could be that we do practice what we preach. The virtues that many religions teach, including our Christian faith, include gratitude, forgiveness and humility. As humbling as all the work on confirmation bias may be, perhaps these are virtues we have (or cultivate) making us really above average. But a more honest and humble stance is take note of our flaws and continue to work on them. In any case, I always knew how hard it was to do justice but I’m now more keenly aware of the challenges “to walk humbly with [our] God.” At the same time, I feel more keenly the need for humility today, not to manage stress (although that might be a perk), but to overcome our biases and build bridges across the cultural, political, and religious divides that tear us apart.