The Power of Humility: Breaking Confirmation Bias for Deeper Connection, Compassion, and Learning

Research shows that intellectual humility can offer far-reaching benefits for both individuals and our society as a whole. Leaders in mindfulness and research break down the science of overcoming confirmation bias and the self-work that can open us up to new perspectives, productive collaboration, and compassion.

Adobe Stock/ ArtisanSamurai

There’s an old story about a sage who lived in a lofty mountain hermitage. It was attached to a cave where he often meditated, but his followers and benefactors had also built him a lovely little building that housed all his books and provided him with a very comfortable place to sleep and a dining area with a sweeping view of many valleys below and peaks in the distance. Also attached to the building was a closet-like dwelling for his faithful attendant.

One morning the sage declared that he would like to go down to the village to exchange some of his tattered books for new ones and see what newly minted works of philosophy he could get his hands on. Reaching the village required crossing a rope bridge strung high above a gorge. As they approached the entry to the bridge, the attendant hesitated. He rarely interrupted his master, who loathed having his contemplative silence broken, but this time he felt he must speak up, knowing that his master’s eyesight had been weakened by so much reading. “Master,” he broke in, “I fear the bridge needs to be repaired. The rope looks very frayed to me.” Perturbed, and eager to get to the village, the sage responded brusquely, “How would you know? It seems perfectly fine to me.”

The attendant offered to go first to test it. Perturbed even further by this implicit questioning of his authority, the sage simply harrumphed and set foot on the bridge. No sooner had his trailing foot landed firmly on the bridge than the rope snapped. The attendant, his arms full of dozens of books, lunged for the rope, sending the books flying in the direction of his master, but he could not reach the rope in time. The sage went flying down with the loosened bridge. Too weak to hold on, he had soon let go, and the books released from the outstretched arms of the attendant rained down on the sage’s head as he plunged into the rushing waters below and drowned.1

The Science of Confirmation Bias

This is the ultimate parable of the know-it-all, and while we’re reading it, we likely identify more with the skeptical servant than the foolish sage. Yet, how many of us have become that know-it-all in much less mythic circumstances? One of the most common mental habits we all succumb to is confirmation bias, picking out the convenient bits of information that let us know that what we already believe is true. If we have already made up our minds that the future belongs to self-driving electric vehicles, for example, we may not find our way to stories that point out pesky complexities that call that future into question. Or if we do, we may rapidly dismiss the points with hasty counter-arguments.

In our media-saturated age, as we have all heard, we are prone to dwell in our own bubbles, our own self-confirming echo chambers, and when we share our thoughts, we may well be less likely to ask, “Could I be wrong about this?”

Asking that very question is at the heart of the growing research into the phenomenon of “intellectual humility” and the promotion of it as a tonic to heal some of the ills of a highly contentious society. In several studies, for example, people higher in intellectual humility were more likely to investigate suspect information and also more willing to engage with viewpoints that ran counter to their own. In other research, intellectual humility was found to be associated with more tolerance toward, and favorable impressions of, one’s ideological opponents, as well as a greater willingness to affiliate with them. And in terms of education and learning, another study showed that intellectually humble people are more likely to view failures as opportunities to learn rather than shortcomings. Not surprisingly, then, psychologists and thinkers of many different stripes have been starting to ask how we can foster the habit of intellectual humility in ourselves and also help to grow it in key segments of our society, such as media, politics, and academia, so that our discussions and debates move more in the direction of finding the truth than who can win the argument.

Fostering intellectual humility is a huge aim, to be sure, but one element that can contribute to it is mindfulness, with all the aspects that come with it. If we are that sage on the hill, how can we be truly and fully mindful and avoid the self-satisfied assuredness that proved his undoing?

Can Mindfulness Make Us More Humble?

Before exploring the relationship between mindfulness and intellectual humility, let’s first take a stab at defining mindfulness. If you search around, you will find a variety of definitions, which is not really a problem since many mindfulness teachers prefer not to stick to a canonical definition, believing that what is pointed to by the word “mindfulness” is an intangible feature of mind and brain, so allowing more variability in defining it makes for greater authenticity. Those who practice it and those who teach it can describe and define it based not on dogma or doctrine but rather on authentic experience. 

Nevertheless, the definitions offered for “mindfulness” do tend to include certain key features. Mindfulness is first off a basic human capability to be aware of what is going on in the moment, within ourselves, around ourselves, and with others. This capability can be cultivated through practices, the most common of which is mindfulness meditation, which uses an anchor for our attention such as the breath. As our minds stray elsewhere, the anchor provides a place to return our attention and awareness to—putting us in touch with the immediacy of our body, our breath, our surroundings. We are not trying to create a state; relaxation emerges simply as a byproduct of letting our attention rest for a while without need of further elaboration.

Mindfulness in its larger dimensions goes far beyond simply focussing one’s attention and decreasing distraction. It can inspire humbleness in a very powerful way.

In order to appreciate how mindfulness practice could relate to intellectual humility and perhaps enhance it, it will be worthwhile to look at a few features of mindfulness practice that are emphasized by mindfulness teachers:

  • Non-judgment
  • Curiosity
  • Interdependence
  • Compassion
  • Meta-Awareness

Hopefully, exploring these will indicate how mindfulness in its larger dimensions goes far beyond simply focussing one’s attention and decreasing distraction. It can inspire humbleness in a very powerful way.

Practicing Non-judgment

A common meditation instruction suggests that when thoughts arise that take you away from your attention on the breath and the body, notice the thoughts with non-judgmental attention and rest your attention back on the breath. This is often mistaken as an instruction to never apply any judgments of good or ill, right or wrong, helpful or un