The Psychology Behind Being Wrong

Admitting What You Don’t Know Can Make You Seem Smarter

A series of new studies from Pepperdine University shows that people who admit to not knowing the answer to a question tends to have more knowledge. This project measured something called intellectual humility, meaning someone having the insight or honesty to admit what you’re inexperienced with an issue.

Intellectual humility is different than general humility, which is defined as the virtue of acknowledging your limitations. Scientists have associated general humility with more academic learning and having better grades for a long time, which is probably because you realize you have things to learn in order to successfully learn new information.

Intellectual humility is more about general weaknesses and dealing more with intellectual fallibility, you’re intellectually humble when you realize your opinions and ideas might be wrong. This involves being open to new information and the authors of the new study indicate healthy independence from intellect and ego.

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The study engaged nearly 1,200 participants, using questionnaire testing for the participants’ cognitive abilities, the predictions of those abilities, and their levels of intellectual humility. For the last part, the researchers utilized a variety of psychological scales and models for more accurate results and found that across the board intellectual humility was associated with more general knowledge.

This means they don’t have a great cognitive ability meaning people who are intellectually humble aren’t smarter but they do tend to know more than those who aren’t. Researchers conclude that this advantage of knowledge is because humility leads directly to taking actions that can lead people to learn more through concepts like reflective thinking, intellectual curiosity, and openness.

Studies suggest as people gain knowledge, they see an increase in intellectual humility. This means humility and knowledge are linked though it’s hard to know which comes first or which inspires the other to occur.


The important lesson to take away from this new study is that curiosity seems to be a good thing and the world is big, making it nearly impossible to know everything. If you want people to think your smart the best thing to say when stumped with a question is to simply say, “I don’t know.”

For more on this study and more stories like this check out the video above.

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