Study reveals how intellectual humility influences existentially-relevant moral decisions

Intellectual humility affects how people make moral decisions related to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the results of a cross-cultural experiment published in The Journal of Positive Psychology.

“Research on humility has been on the rise. However, I wanted to focus on topics where people tend to get rather entrenched and situations where people may have strong attitudes. In short, I wanted to conduct a ‘strong test’ for humility,” said study author Daryl R. Van Tongeren, an associate professor of psychology at Hope College and author of “Humble: Free Yourself from the Traps of a Narcissistic World.”

Tongeren and his colleagues were particularly interested in the veil of ignorance, a philosophical idea to achieve fairness “wherein individuals are prompted to make objective decisions by not having access to potentially biasing personal information about parties involved in such scenarios.”

For their study, the researchers conducted an experiment with 346 residents of the United States, 340 residents of the Netherlands, and 346 residents of Hong Kong between June 18 and July 10, 2020.

The participants were randomly assigned to one of two conditions. In the control condition, the participants were asked to evaluate the acceptability of a (hypothetical) scientific study in which healthy volunteers were intentionally infected with COVID-19 in an attempt to test the effectiveness a vaccine. In the veil of ignorance condition, the participants were asked to imagine being part of such of study in which they had a 50% chance of receiving a vaccine or placebo.

Tongeren and his colleagues found that participants assigned to the veil of ignorance condition tended to report less support for the hypothetical study compared to those in the control condition. But the researchers observed a notable exception: the veil of ignorance condition did not reduce support among the most intellectually arrogant participants.

Intellectually arrogant participants strongly disagreed with statements such as “I reconsider my opinions when presented with new evidence” and “I accept that my beliefs and attitude may be wrong.”

“Many of the moral decisions we make in real life are based on partial information; we don’t always have the full range of options nor completely understand the long-term ramifications of our decisions,” Tongeren told PsyPost. “So, in some way, we’re largely trying to make the best decisions with the information we have.”

“When people consider that they, too, are affected by these decisions, they’re more likely to think of the well-being of everyone involved — and this is especially true of intellectually humble people. People who are high in intellectual humility tend to be more open to new information, are willing to revise their beliefs, and can interact with others who are different from them in ways that are peaceful and productive.”

As for the study’s limitations, Tongeren said that “this is just one study (though we sampled from three different countries), so it needs to be replicated.”

“We’re quite interested in ways in which people can hold their beliefs, especially about weighty existential issues, with humility as a way to remain open to change and responsive to growth,” he added. “We have some other work underway seeking to determine if there is a way to hold one’s beliefs with commitment and humility.”

The study, “Intellectual humility and existentially relevant moral decisions“, was authored by Daryl R. Van Tongeren, C. Nathan DeWall, Don E. Davis, and Joshua N. Hook.

Source: Eric W. Dolan, PsyPost