On perception, cognitive bias and cultivating humility ahead of next week’s vote

Many Amer­i­cans wor­ry about the polit­i­cal divide tear­ing our coun­try apart. A large per­cent­age are unwill­ing to engage with peo­ple who have oppos­ing polit­i­cal views, and that’s cre­at­ing more animosity.

This is espe­cial­ly wor­ry­ing con­sid­er­ing how many crises we’re fac­ing that require coop­er­a­tion, trust, and solu­tions a diverse cit­i­zen­ry can get behind. How can we find a way across our divide and come togeth­er for com­mon cause?

At Greater Good, we’ve been study­ing and writ­ing about var­i­ous ways to bridge divides, putting togeth­er tools to help peo­ple con­nect. But there may be one key char­ac­ter trait that’s nec­es­sary for apply­ing those tools in a con­struc­tive way: humility.

Humil­i­ty is a kind of a mas­ter virtue that can pull along oth­er virtues if peo­ple devel­op it,” says humil­i­ty researcher Everett Worthington.

Humil­i­ty, as Wor­thing­ton defines it, is mul­ti­fac­eted, involv­ing an aware­ness of our per­son­al strengths and weak­ness­es, as well as a will­ing­ness to acknowl­edge those weak­ness­es while work­ing to improve upon them. It requires pre­sent­ing our­selves in mod­est ways, while car­ing about the well-being of those around us.

A grow­ing body of research shows that being hum­ble may be use­ful in bridg­ing polit­i­cal dif­fer­ences. That’s because humil­i­ty helps peo­ple let go of defen­sive­ness, take in infor­ma­tion that chal­lenges their polit­i­cal views, and see the human­i­ty in peo­ple on the oth­er side of the polit­i­cal spec­trum. Though it’s not always easy to embrace—especially for those who wrong­ful­ly equate it with weak­ness or a lack of conviction—humility may be what we des­per­ate­ly need right now in the Unit­ed States.

Cognitive biases and seeing our limitations

Con­sid­er­ing the research on per­cep­tion, it’s pret­ty clear that, when it comes to under­stand­ing oth­ers, we all have weak­ness­es that could use improving.

Research sug­gests we are not always very good at under­stand­ing what anoth­er per­son is think­ing or feel­ing, even when try­ing to “put our­selves in their shoes.” Often, we are bet­ter off sim­ply ask­ing peo­ple about their expe­ri­ence and being open to lis­ten­ing than try­ing to sec­ond-guess anyone.

Cog­ni­tive bias­es may be part­ly to blame. For exam­ple, the fun­da­men­tal attri­bu­tion error—attributing oth­ers’ actions to their fixed char­ac­ter traits rather than con­sid­er­ing what out­side forces con­tributed to their behavior—can make us mis­judge oth­ers or believe they “get what they deserve.” This can explain why we label a col­league who falls behind at work “lazy” or “incom­pe­tent,” instead of real­iz­ing they may be man­ag­ing dif­fi­cult issues at home or have too many assignments—or why, when we see peo­ple fail to evac­u­ate dur­ing a dis­as­ter, we call them “stub­born,” even though they didn’t have the means to escape to safer ground.

Our brains often trick us into see­ing only what we already believe, too. For exam­ple, one study showed that peo­ple assigned to watch a demon­stra­tion report­ed dif­fer­ent lev­els of pro­test­er vio­lence depend­ing on whether they agreed with the cause being protest­ed. They lit­er­al­ly could not see the same events in the same way.

Research has found that peo­ple often mis­take how large dif­fer­ences are between peo­ple with­out notic­ing their com­mon­al­i­ties. For exam­ple, peo­ple in dif­fer­ent polit­i­cal par­ties tend to mis­judge how far apart they are in terms of their beliefs and hopes for the coun­try. This can cre­ate a lot of antipa­thy, which makes it hard to come together.

As a new book, Per­cep­tion, explains, many uncon­scious fac­tors affect how we feel, think, and make deci­sions, includ­ing our per­son­al ener­gy lev­els, phys­i­cal abil­i­ties, moods, the com­pa­ny we keep, and more. That means we can’t always trust our­selves to see oth­ers (or even the world around us) clear­ly. See­ing our lim­i­ta­tions is a good first step in rec­og­niz­ing the need for humility.

How to bridge differences

It makes sense that know­ing we don’t own the cor­ner on truth could help us bridge our dif­fer­ences, less­en­ing our intol­er­ance for diverse opin­ions and antipa­thy toward peo­ple on the “oth­er side.” And sci­en­tif­ic evi­dence bears this out.

In a study con­duct­ed by Eliz­a­beth Krum­rei-Man­cu­so and Bri­an New­man, par­tic­i­pants not­ed their polit­i­cal affil­i­a­tion and filled out a ques­tion­naire mea­sur­ing their intel­lec­tu­al humil­i­ty around sociopo­lit­i­cal sit­u­a­tions (rec­og­niz­ing their lim­it­ed knowl­edge around issues like immi­gra­tion and gun con­trol). Then, they report­ed how warm­ly they felt toward Repub­li­cans, Democ­rats, Chris­tians, and Mus­lims. Those who had high­er lev­els of humil­i­ty report­ed feel­ing warmer toward those who were polit­i­cal­ly or reli­gious­ly dif­fer­ent from them­selves, regard­less of polit­i­cal affil­i­a­tion or religion.

Peo­ple that have more humil­i­ty treat peo­ple that dis­agree with them in bet­ter ways and have less ani­mos­i­ty toward them,” says Newman.

Why would that be? New­man believes hum­ble peo­ple are more like­ly to think an oppo­nent could know some­thing they don’t know or have expe­ri­enced some­thing they haven’t expe­ri­enced. Peo­ple with less humil­i­ty, he adds, would con­sid­er peo­ple who dis­agree with them to be sus­pect, unin­tel­li­gent, or moral­ly deficient—not endear­ing qualities.

How I see the infal­li­bil­i­ty of my own posi­tion (and, by impli­ca­tion, an oppos­ing posi­tion) deter­mines how will­ing I am to demo­nize peo­ple that are on the oth­er side,” says Newman.

In a sec­ond part of their study, New­man and Krum­rei-Man­cu­so had half of the par­tic­i­pants fill out a ques­tion­naire that mea­sured their intel­lec­tu­al humil­i­ty around the top­ic of immi­gra­tion and crime (prim­ing them to con­sid­er the lim­its of their knowl­edge). Then, all par­tic­i­pants were asked how much they agreed with the state­ment, “In gen­er­al, immi­grants are more like­ly to com­mit crimes than those born in the U.S.”

Then, after get­ting fac­tu­al infor­ma­tion about the top­ic, half of the peo­ple in both the primed and unprimed groups were told they’d be writ­ing an argu­ment for or against the state­ment about immi­grants and crime. The researchers told the oth­er halves of both groups to defend their cur­rent posi­tion, so they could focus more on evi­dence that sup­port­ed it.

Once par­tic­i­pants read the infor­ma­tion (which explained that, while there is some dis­agree­ment among experts, most evi­dence shows immi­grants do not com­mit more crimes), par­tic­i­pants again report­ed on how much they agreed with the state­ment. Those who were high in humil­i­ty and primed to think about it were will­ing to recon­sid­er the strength of their posi­tion when pre­sent­ed with the facts.

Peo­ple high in intel­lec­tu­al humil­i­ty are going to pay more atten­tion to the rea­sons for their views,” says New­man. “That means they are going to notice the lim­its of their knowl­edge and the lim­its of the evi­dence in favor of their posi­tion, and be more recep­tive to new information.”

These find­ings mir­ror those of Tenelle Porter and her col­leagues, who also found a con­nec­tion between hav­ing more intel­lec­tu­al humil­i­ty and being open to oppos­ing views. In that study, believ­ing in a “growth mind­set” around intelligence—that peo­ple aren’t nat­u­ral­ly intel­li­gent, but can grow in learn­ing through tri­al and error—was what led to increased intel­lec­tu­al humil­i­ty, sug­gest­ing that adapt­ing a growth mind­set could indi­rect­ly affect how accept­ing we are of oth­er views.

Accord­ing to psy­chol­o­gist Joshua Hook, humil­i­ty can help bridge dif­fer­ences even when peo­ple have strong con­vic­tions around their beliefs. In one study, he and his col­leagues mea­sured intel­lec­tu­al humil­i­ty in reli­gious lead­ers and found that those with high­er lev­els of humil­i­ty had much more tol­er­ance for reli­gious dif­fer­ences in oth­ers than those with­out humility—regardless of how reli­gious they were or whether they report­ed being polit­i­cal­ly con­ser­v­a­tive or liberal.

If you have an aware­ness of the lim­i­ta­tions of your own beliefs and how they came to you, maybe you are more in tune with the idea that you don’t have the cor­ner on the truth,” says Hook.

Even though you might expect that reli­gious lead­ers sur­round­ed by fam­i­ly and friends of vary­ing faiths would be more tol­er­ant of diverse reli­gions, Hook’s find­ings didn’t sup­port that. Instead, hav­ing more reli­gious diver­si­ty in one’s social group only led to more tol­er­ance if some­one was also high in intel­lec­tu­al humility.

It depends on whether or not some­one is open for their inter­ac­tions with peo­ple who are dif­fer­ent from them that leads to reli­gious tol­er­ance or not,” he says.

Cultivating humility

If that’s true, maybe we need to find ways to increase humil­i­ty in our­selves and in oth­ers. Though the research on how to induce hum­ble states in our­selves is young, there is some evi­dence that it can be done.

Wor­thing­ton and his team have devel­oped a do-it-your­self work­book to teach humil­i­ty that has shown promise. Through var­i­ous exer­cis­es offered in the work­book, peo­ple can learn more about what humil­i­ty is and isn’t, use self-reflec­tions and inspi­ra­tional sto­ries to exam­ine humil­i­ty in them­selves, and engage in prac­tic­ing humil­i­ty in their own lives, among oth­er lessons.

The work­book has been test­ed in ran­dom­ized con­trolled tri­als, along with oth­er work­books designed to teach for­give­ness, patience, or self-con­trol, or to improve mood. In one study, peo­ple who com­plet­ed the humil­i­ty work­book were found not only to be hum­bler accord­ing to their own report, but also scored high­er in for­give­ness and patience—and they had few­er neg­a­tive moods.

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, Wor­thing­ton had to sus­pend a large-scale study of humil­i­ty and civil­i­ty when COVID hit. How­ev­er, he’s hope­ful that teach­ing humil­i­ty could improve polit­i­cal dia­logue, as oth­er research has shown that it improves inter­per­son­al inter­ac­tions in oth­er situations.

Of course, polit­i­cal con­ver­sa­tions may be hard­er to keep civ­il than oth­er con­ver­sa­tions, where there may be more good­will present. Still, at least one recent study showed that when peo­ple are seen as hav­ing more intel­lec­tu­al humil­i­ty, they may help fos­ter bet­ter con­ver­sa­tions with peo­ple who dis­agree with them on polit­i­cal­ly charged sub­jects like the death penal­ty, affir­ma­tive action, physi­cian-assist­ed sui­cide, and genet­i­cal­ly mod­i­fied food.

Wor­thing­ton says there are good rea­sons to expect more polit­i­cal­ly hum­ble peo­ple to have civ­il con­ver­sa­tions and so bridge divides—even if they are the only ones being hum­ble in a con­ver­sa­tion or even if they have very firm con­vic­tions. That’s because hum­bler peo­ple don’t need to den­i­grate oth­ers’ argu­ments or den­i­grate them as peo­ple, which helps reduce defen­sive­ness and opens up the pos­si­bil­i­ty of bet­ter engage­ment with one another.

Any­body who’s doing their best to be respect­ful is going to end up hav­ing a more pos­i­tive inter­ac­tion than some­one call­ing each oth­er names or being ver­bal­ly aggres­sive,” he says. “The more polit­i­cal­ly hum­ble peo­ple are, the more able they are to have civ­il con­ver­sa­tions about polit­i­cal dif­fer­ences, even if they disagree.”

— Jill Sut­tie, Psy.D., is Greater Good‘s book review edi­tor and a fre­quent con­trib­u­tor to the mag­a­zine. Based at UC-Berke­ley, Greater Good high­lights ground break­ing sci­en­tif­ic research into the roots of com­pas­sion and altru­ism. Copy­right Greater Good.

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