After seven months, my colleagues and I have completed and submitted our proposal for a two-year grant to study intellectual humility. We were named among the finalists last fall by Fuller Seminary, which will fund sixteen projects to investigate the science of intellectual humility. Our proposal claims that intellectual humility is the “elusive virtue,” and so more difficult to examine than other virtues. The reason is simple: prima facie anyone who claims to be humble probably isn’t. So it seems unlikely that self-reporting would be a reliable method for measuring the trait of intellectual humility. Therefore a new method of measuring this trait is needed, and we’ve got an idea on how to do exactly that.
Update (3/1/13): We have been awarded the grant! Work starts next month…
Before going into more detail about our proposal, let me introduce you to our inter-disciplinary research team. There are two philosophers, Mark Alfano (University of Oregon) and me (Grand Valley State University). Then we have partnered with three psychologists, Daniel Lapsley (Notre Dame), Paul Stey (Notre Dame), and Markus Christen (University of Zurich). We built our proposal around taking advantage of having philosophers and psychologists working together on issues that touch both fields.
Now for our project.
Many traits, such as aggression and extraversion, are obtrusive. An aggressive person tends to engage in characteristic activities, and is willing to admit to his own aggressiveness if it is framed in a neutral or positive way; likewise for a non-aggressive person. An outgoing person tends to engage in characteristic activities, and is willing to admit to her own extraversion if it is framed in a neutral or positive way; likewise for a shy person. Intellectual humility in general (IH) is more elusive, however. If he thinks someone is watching and evaluating, an intellectually vain person will tend to engage in activities that make him seem intellectually humble, and will not be willing to admit to his vanity. If she thinks someone is watching and evaluating, an IH person will tend to engage in quite similar activities, and may even hesitate to attribute IH to herself. This leads to a kind of paradox: the more intellectually humble you are, the less you will be inclined to mention or insist on your own intellectual humility.
Empirically examining this paradox is, as you can imagine, a complicated endeavor. Before we begin our first study, Alfano and I will write a paper or two working out some of the philosophical issues underlying the project. First, we’ll develop in more detail the argument for why IH is elusive. Then we will sort out at least some of the following questions. Is IH a kind of humility or is humility necessarily intellectual in nature? Must one have something about which to be proud in order to be humble? Does IH require that one have false beliefs about oneself, underestimating one’s own abilities? Since this is just a preview, I’ll leave you with the questions for now; once the paper(s) are written, I’ll post more on what we specifically argue.
With the conceptual analysis (more or less) complete, we’ll begin our psychological studies. The overarching idea of the studies is to develop two different scales for IH – one explicit and one implicit – and then look for correspondence with a behavioral measure of IH. We predict – given our hypothesis about the elusive nature of IH – that the implicit scale will be a significantly better predictor of the behavioral manifestation of IH than the explicit scale will be.
The explicit scale will essentially be self-reporting in nature, similar to how the OCEAN traits (openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism) are standardly measured. For example, our explicit studies will ask participants to agree or disagree (on a seven-point Likert scale) with statements like, “I try to learn as much as I can,” “I would rather be convincing and wrong than unconvincing and right,” and “I like to be the smartest person in the room.”
The implicit scale will be based on the Implicit Association Test (IAT), that are standardly used to measure things like stereotypes and attitudes that people hold but are unwilling to report. Our IH implicit association test (IH-IAT) will contrast intellectual humility with intellectual arrogance (IA) and intellectual diffidence (ID). Someone with IA will be overly sure of herself and her beliefs (and so strongly resistant to revising her beliefs), while someone with ID will overly questioning of himself and his beliefs (and so far too willing to revise his beliefs without enough reason).
The IH-IAT is a set of computer-based sorting tasks. Since we have three traits, we need three IH-IATs: (1) contrasting IH and ID, (2) contrasting IH and IA, and (3) contrasting IA and ID. Let’s take the first (IH versus IA) as our example. It will contain several blocks of sorting tasks built around the same theme. In the first block, a word appears on the screen, such as “tolerant” or “pretentious.” Participants are told to hit the E key on the keyboard for words associated with IH and the I key for words they associate with IA. In the second task, participants will see words that correspond to one of two categories of associated attributes: Me (e.g., “I,” “myself”) and Other (e.g., “they,” “them”). Then participants will have several blocks combining two of these four. For instance, one block will be the combination of Me and IH. So if a word is associated with either Me or IH, then they hit the E button; otherwise they hit the I button. Having participants do all the different combinations for each of the each of the three IH-IATs will indicate how they implicitly regard themselves with regard to IH.
We predict that the implicit scale will be a better predictor of actual IH behavior than the explicit scale. To test that prediction, we will conclude our study with a behavior measure of IH. We will ask participants questions that have correct answers, but not obviously correct answers, like fallacy-provoking multiple-choice questions. A participant will answer the questions and then make a wager (with tokens given her at the start of the experiment) indicating how certain she are in their answers. She will then be shown what is described as the responses of other participants, after which she will be allowed to revise both her answer and her bet. Response times will be recorded throughout. As in the Asch paradigm, the pattern of their responses will be programmed in advance to be unanimously in favor of one answer – sometimes the right answer, sometimes a wrong answer. After she has answered all questions, the participant will be compensated according to the number of tokens she won. She will then be ushered into another room, where a confederate will ask her how much she earned; the confederate will report this amount to the experimenters after the participant has exited the building.
That’s the overview of our project. It’s submitted and we’ll hear by March 1. If we get it, we’ll have a very busy, but exciting couple of years as this project unfolds. I’ll keep you posted.