Cognitive humility

I have been pondering a recent post on Annie Murphy Paul’s blog, The Brilliant Blog. It begins with a comment on roadside signs in Britain:

“Quite possibly the best fish and chips in central London.” “Probably the oldest pub in Oxford.” “Might well be the finest Indian curry in Euston.”

These are signs I saw on my travels through Britain this past week—advertisements promoted by the restaurants themselves, mind you, not lukewarm reviews on They struck me in part because they’re so different from the blatantly boastful ads common in the U.S., and also because they seemed like minor examples of a weighty virtue: cognitive humility.

She goes on to discuss what cognitive humility might involve: “avoiding overconfidence” and “overcoming the ‘curse of expertise.'” She observes that one can learn such humility by spending time in another country or picking up a new skill.

While these are important observations, there are complications to them. Humility can often mask as arrogance and vice versa. Moreover, outward manifestations (of humility, arrogance, and anything in between) can be a reflection of cultural norms, not of internal attitudes. Beyond that, humility depends on a kind of arrogance or boldness.

Let’s begin with the road signs. Does “Quite possibly” really attenuate the claim “the best fish and chips in central London”? It seems instead to harden it. First, it projects politeness (a cultural norm); “we’re most kindly suggesting that these may be the best fish and chips you have ever had.” Second, it is immune to contradiction; if someone names a better fish and chips place, one could reply, “We only said ‘quite possibly.'”

There’s a paradox here: by wrapping one’s assertions in expressions of doubt, one may actually be shielding them from challenge. That could turn into a kind of arrogance in itself. (“My preferred pedagogical method may have significant advantages over the others.”) Conversely, by putting forth a point boldly, one may be exposing it to judgment, and thus exercising humility.

Even when learning a language, one needs a combination of assertiveness and doubt. When I was fourteen, we spent a year in the Soviet Union. I wanted to be in the ninth grade (the equivalent of our tenth and eleventh) because of the literature curriculum, so I insisted on it. This made me a year younger than my classmates, just as in the U.S. Once at school, I realized that the teachers had not added me to the class lists; they didn’t mind if I just sat there. I wanted to be treated as a regular student, so I asked them to add me. Then I asked them to call on me. Precisely because of my assertiveness, I had the opportunity to stand at the front of the room and get things wrong–an experience of humility. (And I got to read Russian literature in the original.)

Even when absorbed in one’s own thoughts, one can benefit from a mixture of humility and boldness. I have seen students get stuck in a text because they doubted their early hunches about it. Their immediate reaction was, “I might be wrong.” As soon as they actually followed the hunch (which takes some boldness), they were able to determine whether or not it was correct. It is good to be aware that one might be wrong–but it is just as important to go ahead and risk being so.

To make this even more complicated, some of the most outwardly arrogant writers, scholars, and others are secretly humble–that is, they have spent their lives refining their work, which requires recognition of its weaknesses. Their seeming arrogance is directed in those who have not undertaken the process. Nabokov is an example: he frequently called out the mediocrity of other writers (as he saw it) but could not have achieved his own work without a great deal of humility.

Cognitive humility is immensely important; it’s just trickier than it appears.



  1. Michael E. Lopez says:

    It’s interesting that you note that there can be different motivations for the same sort of behavior. Let me use my own two disciplines as examples:

    In Law, it never “is”. It always “seems” or “appears”. You’re never sure. And the reason that you’re never sure is that if you ever make a concrete statement, you might be wrong. And that means you might be sued. It’s Institutionalized CYA; outside of the hurly burly of the local criminal courtroom, where cases are going by at a mile a minute, it’s SOP for the profession. That’s not to say that it’s bad — clients shouldn’t be given false confidence in a position. But it’s self-serving, and sometimes even a little dishonest. Because sometimes you really do think you *know* the answer to a particular legal problem.

    But in Philosophy (a subject with which I take it you are well-acquainted) your concern (assuming that you’re not some jargon-ladened careerist) is in saying the true things, and not saying the false things. As a result, most of your conclusions are going to be tentative, or contingent on other assumptions. You will rarely say “X”, but you will often say, “Given these facts, it seems likely that X” because as a matter of logic, that’s as far as you can get.

    Are there humble lawyers? Sure. (Though have of them have deceptively cultivated an “Aw gee shucks” sort of humility as a jury ploy.) But they’re not even close to a majority of the profession.

    Most real philosophers that I’ve met, though, have a great deal of what you’re calling “cognitive humility”. It comes from trying to be right about things, and *failing*. Over and over and over and over again.

    There’s a story I like to tell. A bunch of us philosophy grad students were sitting around musing about what we would want to be if we could be absolutely the best in the world at something. There were a lot of answers: the best teacher, the best fencer, the best soccer player, the best cook, the best financier, the best moral agent. But at some point, I observed that not one of us had said “the best philosopher” as even a possible answer. My friend, Adam, looked at me and said, “But isn’t the point of being the best in the world at something that you’re actually *good* at it?”

    Frankly, I think most students could use a lot more exposure to the fact that not only *could* they be wrong, but that they in fact likely to be deeply, deeply mistaken — about most of pretty much everything outside of mathematical calculation. But that sort of realization requires first that you go through the process of doing some real thinking. (Which will result in a great deal of failure to be right.)

    It has been my experience that most students older than 11 or so don’t really “think” most of their thoughts, at least about academic issues. They just sort of “have” them. It’s a lot like reciting slogans — slogans about everything: politics, religion, history, literature, psychology… you name it. And slogans tend to be the least humble sort of “thinking” there is.

    (This may well be a result of the way in which academics are taught; students who are not in full rebellion are, contrary to popular belief, generally *masters* of doing what they are really expected to do.)

    Looking back, I can easily see at least three things I’ve said that are probably wrong. But at some point, you have to let your work go.

    • Michael, this is great. Thank you.

      I would pick up on your point that philosophy involves trying to be right about things and failing–over and over.

      In order to try to be right about something, one must test it out as a truth–and that means, before qualifying it, actually treating it as true and seeing how it works. One might still say “seems” out of caution, but one does not yet know to what extent the caution is warranted.

      One could just as easily begin with a provisional “is”–with full understanding that it will turn into “seems” later. This can have the advantage of clarity. In some ways, it’s a question of convention; if your audience understands what you’re doing and why, then you can use either “seems” or “is” at this stage.

      In other words, there’s a difference between an informed “seems”–that comes from testing out a proposition and seeing its limitations–and a provisional “seems” that one adopts before testing it.

      In saying all of this, I recognize that there may be established conventions of which I am unaware. I am working from my own limited observations.

      (It seems that one convention on this thread might be a gesture of cognitive humility at the end of each comment. However, it’s too early to make any definitive statements about such a pattern.)

    • Mark Roulo says:

      “It has been my experience that most students older than 11 or so don’t really “think” most of their thoughts, at least about academic issues. They just sort of ‘have’ them.”
      Don’t stop at students. *People* older than 11 …
      The way I think of this is that most people don’t have their own opinions about (most) things. They have someone else’s opinion.
      And this includes me! Because forming your own opinion takes a lot of time and a lot of hard work and we only have so much time. So often we farm out our opinion to someone else. I think, for example, that the Kardashians are vapid. But I don’t really *know* because I’m not going to spend the effort to watch their show and read up on them.
      It doesn’t really bother me when people don’t have their own opinions … but I really wish more people would be *aware* about which opinions were their own and which they delegated to someone else…

  2. I followed the link to the Brilliant Blog and found another interesting article; Technology is Making the Achievement Gap Bigger. Sorry for the off-topic, but thought readers here might find it interesting.

    • I agree. Due to the district failing to offer courses such as IB or AP or dual enrolled science, tech has made distance learning available and affordable. My kid doesnt have to have five study halls next year, because I can buy distance learning courses with competent teachers.

    • Thanks–yes, I’ll try to post something about that.

  3. Ah, the least loved virtue.

    I don’t see much written about humility. I’d like to think because most people reflexively shy away from from even a discussion of a character trait that allows for entertaining the possibility that you might be wrong. About anything. Or it may be that too few people see the need for such a course assuming that they’re at least, if not more, modest then most people and thus not in need of instruction.

    It certainly doesn’t help that we’re born arrogant and many of us, especially us Americans heir as we are to a level of wealth unprecedented in human history, never relinquish that arrogance. The world does exist to satisfy our very important demands of it dammit. That’s why the fact that David Brooks teaches a class in humility brought a smile to my face.

    It’d be the height of arrogance to assume you’re the most modest person in the room simply because you’re teaching the course and yet if you aren’t what justification is there for you to be teaching the course? If you’re qualified to teach the course due to the possession of a credential then your hiring out your humility, or arrogance it’s not clear which, to the credentialing agency.

    If you are arrogant those considerations don’t matter. As long as the check clears that’s all the evidence you’d need to determine whether you’re fit to teach the course.

    But the problem of teaching such a course doesn’t stop with the instructor. How are students qualified for the course?

    Since the precursor to humility is the ability to admit error a prerequisite for a course in humility would be either a course in the ability to admit error or perhaps an acceptable grade on a test of the ability to admit error. If Mr. Brooks doesn’t insist on that prerequisite for his course then he’s proven himself unfit to teach the course. It would certainly be arrogant to assume you can teach the ability to admit when you’re wrong contemporaneously with teaching humility and without even announcing that as a course goal. You’d have to think yourself a frikkin’ pedagogical god.

    But there I go jumping to a conclusion.

    Does arrogance preclude that ability to teach a course in humility? Ignoring the old saw about those who can’t do perhaps an instructor who’s contemptuous of his student’s lack of humility illustrates the value of the trait in a way a modest instructor never could. Rather then leading by exampe such an instructor would repel by example. An unorthodox approach but who’s to say ineffective?

    I suppose we could put such questions to Mr. Brooks but I understand he’s a very busy man.

    • Allen, that was hilarious.

      I, too, was amused to learn that Brooks was teaching a course on humility. (That said, I do not know him personally and am not in a position to judge his character. His writing has struck me as less than humble.)

      In all fairness, though–or perhaps in “some” fairness–this may not be a course on how to attain humility. It may be a course on the history of the concept of humility, or something like that, in which case the possession of humility would not be a prerequisite for the instructor, nor would the ability to admit error be a prerequisite for students (except insofar as it’s good to be able to recognize one’s errors in study).

      • Thanks and I suppose the course could be about the history of humility although the temptation to riff on that possibility’s almost irresistible. Rather more likely, from my jaded point of view, is that it’s a vanity course – taught by someone whose primary qualification for doing so is high name recognition and if they can fill the seats well, good.

        I hope it’s about the history of humility because my experience is that as difficult as humility is to learn it’s taught not by covering the coursework but by unexpected encounters with life’s sharp edges that forcefully remind those capable of accepting the lesson that the world doesn’t exist to serve our needs.

        Since no one likes to be reminded that they’re not the center of the universe the lesson comes hard even to those capable of appreciating it. For those less so inclined life is in part an effort to avoid learning the lesson of humility which is why I referred to it as the least loved virtue.

  4. I am extremally proud of my humility.

  5. Richard Aubrey says:

    Mark Roulo.
    There being a finite number of opinions–differing in details–it would stand to reason that we may have others’ opinions.
    OTOH, it could be the Kardashians are pretty cagey and it’s their “fans” who are vapid chumps. Well, they are, so I guess the only question is about the K corporation.