In the current political climate in America, there is a profound lack of respect and open-mindedness in political discussions, due largely to an increase in political polarization—the widening gap between Democrats and Republicans. Political polarization arises not only because the two parties have different views on policies and issues (which is called ideological polarization) but also because people tend to perceive members of other political groups who hold opposing political views as immoral or unintelligent (affective polarization). Ideological and affective polarization, although separable, are closely related and, together, they feed political polarization.

Research suggests that affective polarization in American politics has increased more than ideological polarization in recent years. For example, political psychologists Nathan Kalmoe and Lilliana Mason found that nearly half of the Americans they surveyed perceive the opposing political party as evil, and nearly a quarter of their 2018 sample indicated that opposing party members should be treated like non-human animals. These findings demonstrate that Americans not only ideologically disagree with those in the opposing political party but also dislike them for their views.

Clearly, affective polarization can significantly influence people’s attitudes about other individuals. This brings us to a timely and important question: are there certain traits that make some people more susceptible to affective polarization than others?

We examined this question by focusing on a characteristic called intellectual humility. Intellectual humility reflects the degree to which people evaluate the accuracy of their beliefs and are willing to change their beliefs when presented with compelling evidence that they are wrong. These metacognitive processes—processes that involve “thinking about how I think”—may give rise to greater respectfulness, tolerance, and open-mindedness when people are faced with disagreement. Nevertheless, people who score high on intellectual humility may still hold specific beliefs that they are unlikely or unwilling to question or revise.

Before conducting our study, only one published study had examined how intellectual humility is related to affective polarization. Elizabeth Krumrei-Mancuso and Brian Newman examined how intellectual humility regarding one’s political views is related to feelings of warmth vs. coldness toward political outgroup members. They found that people who are high in intellectual humility show less affective polarization, even when they have strong political convictions.

We expanded on this research by using multiple measures of both intellectual humility and polarization and testing their relationship in two community samples (that is, participants were recruited from the community and were not college students or clinical patients) to see whether the results replicated across different groups of people.

Across measures and samples, intellectual humility was significantly associated with lower affective polarization. Compared to participants low in intellectual humility, participants high in intellectual humility indicated that they felt less negatively toward members of political outgroups, would be less distressed by a family member marrying a political outgroup member, and viewed political outgroup members less negatively on characteristics such as arrogant and unintelligent.

Moreover, intellectual humility tended to be associated with lower ideological polarization. Compared to participants who scored low in intellectual humility, those who scored high rated themselves as less ideologically different from people in the opposing party. Our results remained significant even when taking other variables into account, including demographic characteristics, political ideology, and humility.

In sum, our results demonstrated that intellectual humility is associated with fewer negative reactions to people who disagree with us on political matters. Even when people hold their political beliefs with conviction or certainty, intellectual humility is still related to less ideological and affective polarization. Given the rise of polarization in American society, intellectual humility may be one promising avenue to explore, as it may help us engage more respectfully and more open-mindedly even when it is tough to do so.

Our findings raise perhaps an even more important question than the one we focused on in our research: what can we do about affective polarization? To investigate this question, future research should investigate whether intellectual humility causes reduced affective polarization. If so, studying ways to increase intellectual humility may help bridge some of the partisan divisions in our society.

For Further Reading

Bowes, S. M., Blanchard, M. C., Costello, T. H., Abramowitz, A. I., & Lilienfeld, S. O. (2020). Intellectual humility and between-party animus: Implications for affective polarization in two community samples. Journal of Research in Personality, 88. Advanced online publication.

Hodge, A. S., Hook, J. N., Van Tongeren, D. R., Davis, D. E., & McElroy-Heltzel, S. E. (2020). Political humility: Engaging others with different political perspectives. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 1-10.

Krumrei-Mancuso, E. J., & Newman, B. (2020). Intellectual humility in the sociopolitical domain. Self and Identity, 1-28.


Shauna M. Bowes, MA, is a fourth-year graduate student in the clinical psychology doctoral program at Emory University and author of the “Don’t Believe Everything You Think” blog series on Psychology Today. Her research interests include abnormal and normal personality traits, intellectual humility, beliefs (such as political, religious, and conspiracy beliefs), and decision-making.