Earlier this month I came across a social media post shared by one of my favourite musicians, Kristin Hersh. It was a photo of a sign on a tree that read: “Think that you might be wrong”.
I was reminded of the Dunning–Kruger effect and it made me think about intellectual humility as a way to try and inoculate against it.
The Dunning–Kruger effect is, essentially, a cognitive bias that causes people to overestimate their knowledge or ability, especially in areas they have little to no experience in.
Reminding ourselves, from time to time, that we don’t hold the key to all the truths and knowledge in the universe is not a bad shout, particularly in an age where it’s very easy to end up in an echo chamber swirling in opinions that are similar to ours. The more our positions about things are endorsed by others, the less likely we are to doubt their veracity.
On the flipside, many suffer from the stultifying impact of limiting beliefs and constantly question themselves about whether they have the right instincts, whether they’re smart enough or whether they can put the things they set out to do into action.
I’m interested in the middle ground, where confidence about your ability to get things right and trust that you often do get things right is tempered with leaving the door open for a regular audit of your abilities, beliefs and choices by your mind’s Oversight Committee.
The past few years have felt particularly divisive in terms of political and moral attitudes and, as we’ve seen time and again, the resulting polarisation has often led to catastrophic outcomes.
It is also notable that we live in an age where politicians no longer resign for grave failures or outright misconduct while in public office and the message that this sends out is that there are few (if any) consequences for getting things wrong, whether you do it negligently or wilfully. My concern is that, in turn, this makes us less likely to review and keep challenging our opinions and choices, because we’ll always be able to find someone who endorses our position and, even if that position is - empirically speaking - wrong, there’s no real price to pay.
Does it all come down to the individual’s own desire to keep growing and developing? Perhaps. Even then, the algorithms controlling so many aspects of the information we consume nowadays actively seek to suppress divergence from our commitment to one set of perceived truths.
I can understand how one may take comfort in being “unanimous” with oneself. That said, without admitting that you may be wrong about certain things and without allowing for the possibility that those you disagree with the most might still offer an important perspective that sits outside your field of vision, how can you learn and grow?
And, so, whilst I’ve avoided making any new year’s resolutions for 2021, I am taking Kristin Hersh’s post as a push to keep focusing on intellectual humility, the mindset that steers our intellectual conduct and acknowledges our limitations for the sake of pursuing deeper truth and more expansive insight.
A reframe of open-mindedness, if you like.
This isn't about overall humility or having no self-confidence - rather, it's about trusting in your own ability to test the tether of your opinions from time to time. You might be an expert in your field and still be able to learn quite a bit from others.
Keep challenging yourself and your beliefs - where have they come from and how can you be so sure that you don't have a blind spot where they're concerned?
Think that you might be wrong.
For further reference:
➡ Podcast: You’re Wrong About...
➡ A good Kristin Hersh album if you're a Kristin Hersh novice