In the personal context, making good decisions is the difference between having the life you want and forever wondering what could have been. In the political one, it's the difference between war and peace, prosperity and want. In the business world, it's what separates seven-figure paydays from bankruptcy filings.
In short, making good choices is pretty close to the most important life skill you'll ever master. How do you get better at it?
There are dozens of different frameworks and tools to sharpen up your analytic skills and focus your thinking on the right variables. Many of them are extremely useful. But according to interesting new research out of Duke University, all these tricks probably won't do you much good if you don't have one other essential ingredient of sensible decision making -- intellectual humility.
What's intellectual humility?
When it comes to good decision making, qualities like intelligence, patience, curiosity, and self-control get talked about all the time, but intellectual humility is less often mentioned. What is is exactly? In everyday language, it means the willingness to accept that you might be wrong and to not get defensive when arguments or information that's unfavorable to your position comes to light.
And according to this new study, those who lack this quality make markedly worse choices that those who have it in abundance. To figure that out, the research team asked volunteers to read arguments for and against religious belief. They then conducted a series of experiments that measured how open to being wrong the volunteers were and how it affected their estimation of people with opposing views, as well as how accurately they'd understood the arguments they'd been presented with.
Those who displayed less intellectual humility were worse at judging the reliability of sources. For instance, they attributed personal and logical failings to those who disagreed with them that weren't actual present (i.e., they said "this guy is an arrogant, uninformed jerk" when, in fact, the author showed no signs of being arrogant or ill informed). They also did a worse job of distinguishing between mere speculation and fact-based arguments, even on subjects as mundane as the benefits of flossing.
As an interesting side note given our highly partisan political climate, those with a healthy understanding of their own possible failings were also much more understanding of politicians who change their minds. It was those who were lowest in intellectual humility who were most outraged by "flip flopping" leaders. (But, sorry, atheists, there was no evidence that believers were any less intellectually humble than non-believers.)
None of this is entirely surprising -- logic suggests that to think clearly you need to be open to admitting when you are wrong -- yet this quality often gets overlooked in discussions of decision-making.
"Strong opinions weakly held"
This is not to say that no one has trumpeted the importance of intellectual humility. On the HBR blogs, career coach Mark Bonche recently wrote about how fast learning requires a willingness to admit error, and various business gurus and VCs have long argued that the best kind of thinker is one with "strong opinions weakly held." Here's Stanford business school professor Bob Sutton writing on the origins and importance of the idea way back in 2006:
Perhaps the best description I've ever seen of how wise people act comes from the amazing folks at Palo Alto's Institute for the Future... they advise people to have "strong opinions, which are weakly held." They've been giving this advice for years, and I understand that it was first developed by Institute Director Paul Saffo.
Bob explained that weak opinions are problematic because people aren't inspired to develop the best arguments possible for them, or to put forth the energy required to test them. Bob explained that it was just as important, however, to not be too attached to what you believe because, otherwise, it undermines your ability to "see" and "hear" evidence that clashes with your opinions.
Some leaders have long understood the importance of "intellectual humility" then, but it's clear from both the current political climate and plenty of business missteps that not everyone has internalized the value of incorporating a whole lot of humility into your decision making. For those folks, this study might serve as a healthy reminder that you can't learn if you can't admit that you might be wrong.