Could a lack of humility be at the root of what ails America?

There are a lot of reasons behind the political polarization of the country and the deterioration of civic discourse.

I wonder if a lack of humility is one of them.

In his recent book, “The Death of Expertise,” national security expert Tom Nichols described a type of person each of us probably knows:

“They are young and old, rich and poor, some with education, others armed only with a laptop or a library card. But they all have one thing in common: They are ordinary people who believe they are actually troves of knowledge. [They are] convinced they are more informed than the experts, more broadly knowledgeable than the professors, and more insightful than the gullible masses…”

Interestingly, intellectual humility has become a hot topic in the field of personality psychology. In recent years, a spate of studies have emerged that highlight the important role it plays in our knowledge, relationships and worldview.

So what happens when everyone thinks they’re smarter than everyone else?

Your traits determine who you are

Seeing someone’s personality as a constellation of traits goes all the way back to ancient Greece and Rome. Today, it’s widely accepted that personality traits have a strong biological and genetic basis that can be amplified or muted somewhat by experience.

Dozens of different traits have been studied by psychologists over the past 70 years. The relationships among these many traits are often distilled into five dimensions that have come to be known as the “big five” – “extraversion,” “agreeableness,” “openness to experience,” “conscientiousness” and “neuroticism.”

Where an individual falls along each of these dimensions provides the skeleton for a personality, which can then be fleshed out with a plethora of other, more nuanced traits, like self-monitoring and locus of control.

Over the past few years, one of these peripheral traits, “intellectual humility,” has gotten a lot of attention, largely due to some pioneering research by psychologists Cameron Hopkin and Stacey McElroy-Heltzel.

A willingness to be wrong

In a nutshell, intellectual humility reflects the extent to which someone is willing to at least entertain the possibility that he or she might be wrong about something. People who score high in intellectual humility tend to be more open to experience and more agreeable.

Hopkin and McElroy-Heltzel saw intellectual humility as a way to explore individual religious beliefs and how people manage religious differences in everyday life.

However, Duke University psychologist Mark Leary quickly recognized the potential relevance of this trait to a wide range of political and social issues and ended up conducting a series of influential studies to explore how the trait predicts our reactions to people and ideas that we disagree with.

Leary found that individuals who score on the high end of intellectual humility process information differently from those who score on the low end. For example, they’re more tolerant of ambiguity and they realize that not every problem has a single, definitive answer or outcome. When they hear a claim, they are more likely to seek out evidence and prefer two-sided, balanced arguments.

Unfortunately, most people do not score high on intellectual humility.

Leary discovered that when he asked the following question – “Think about all of the disagreements you have had in the last six months. What percentage of the time do you think that you were right?” – the average response was about 66%. It was rare for someone to report being correct less than 50% of the time.