How Curiosity Can Help Us Overcome Our Biases

Curiosity is a powerful tool in our leadership toolbox. In the broadest sense, curiosity is about having a strong desire to know or learn something. And its impact is significant; it can improve our relationships, help us build our expertise and be more innovative.

Many of my clients want to explore how to improve curiosity for themselves or for their team. And I tell them to start by asking themselves the following question: Are you willing to admit you might be wrong?

We like to think that we make decisions based solely on objective information and events that happen to us. But the truth is more complicated: While we think we are objectively taking in information, the truth is that there are a number of cognitive biases that can alter how we make decisions.

Cognitive Biases

Cognitive biases exist to help our brains quickly make sense of what we’re seeing and move on to make a decision. In this way, these biases are our brain’s attempt to be more efficient.  Unfortunately, these mental shortcuts can create errors in our way of thinking. This is because they rely on our perceptions, observations and experiences — not necessarily on actual facts. In many instances, these biases can lead us to avoid information that we don’t like or don’t want to see, and they can also cause us to see patterns that don’t exist.

In many ways, the world looks to us as our brains want to perceive it.

One of the most well-known biases is the confirmation bias. This bias refers to our tendency to look for information that confirms what we already believe and ignore information that would disprove our beliefs. When we surround ourselves with people who agree with us or only tune into news sources that confirm our political views, we are likely experiencing confirmation bias. 

Unfortunately, the confirmation bias can cause us to ignore inconsistent information and misinterpret events in to order to confirm our already-held beliefs.

So how can we avoid the confirmation bias? Let’s turn to the concept of intellectual humility.

Intellectual Humility

Intellectual humility is a specific facet of curiosity with powerful implications. It is a recognition that the things we believe might, in fact, be wrong. It’s about being open to learning from the experience of others and being actively curious about our blind spots.

At its simplest, it’s about asking: What am I missing here? Am I willing to admit I might be wrong?

Intellectual humility isn’t about giving up on the ideas in which we believe. It just means we can be thoughtful about our convictions, remain open to adjusting them, seek out their flaws and never stop being curious about why we believe we believe.  In this way, it’s a balance between convictions and humility.

Mark Leary and his colleagues have carried out a number of studies on the concept of intellectual humility. They have found that intellectual humility is associated with personality factors such as openness, curiosity, tolerance of ambiguity and low dogmatism. People with high intellectual humility recognize that their ideas are fallible and tune into persuasive arguments.

In these ways, people who demonstrate intellectual humility remain curious, open to listening and willing to be proven wrong. They are less likely to fall victim to the confirmation bias because they are interested in hearing an opposing point of view.

Three ways to encourage intellectual humility

In order to help support curiosity, we need to establish environments where intellectual humility can thrive.

  1. Get past our fears. The first thing we can do is to get past a fear of being seen as less competent if we admit that we’re wrong. Research by Adam Fetterman at the University of Houston indicates that when someone admits they are wrong, they are seen as more communal, more friendly and rarely as less competent.
  1. Be a role model. The next step is for leaders to be role models of intellectual humility: remaining open to the idea that they might be wrong and looking to learn from others. When leaders do this first, they let their teams know that it is acceptable to admit you’re wrong and learn from others.
  1. Encourage others. Leaders can also encourage their teams to be curious and learn, even if it means making mistakes.  When leaders punish people for their mistakes, their teams are less willing to take risks in the future. When leaders see mistakes as an opportunity to learn, they help their teams do the same.

Leaders need to be able to make decisions and lead their teams to take action and get results. But they also need to maintain their curiosity so they maximize their ability to build relationships, learn and be innovative.

The more successful leaders utilize intellectual humility to balance their curiosity with their ability to be decisive. They pause long enough to ask questions; they wonder “What am I missing here?” or “What do others know that could benefit me?”

And then they use this information to make decisions and take definitive action.

References

Grant. A. (2021). Think Again: The power of knowing what you don’t know. Viking Books.

Leary, M., Diebels, K., Davisson, E., Jongman-Sereno K., Isherwood, J., Raimi, K., Deffler, S. & Hoyle, R. (2017). Cognitive and Interpersonal Features of Intellectual Humility. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 43 (6), 793-813.

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Disclaimer

Here at Lead Read Today, we endeavor to take an objective (rational, scientific) approach to analyzing leaders and leadership. All opinion pieces will be reviewed for appropriateness, and the opinions shared are solely of the author and not representative of The Ohio State University or any of its affiliates.