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Jay Van Bavel: Humble
Jay Van Bavel
The Thinkers Series

Jay Van Bavel: Humble

We asked five of the world’s leading thinkers what one quality they thought was key to a kinder, more equitable, and greener world.

“By instilling people with intellectual humility, individuals lives are more likely to thrive, they’re going to have less conflict, and it also means that democracy is going to be healthier.”

Jay Van Bavel is an Associate Professor of Psychology & Neural Science at NYU and Director of the Social Identity & Morality Lab. He’s published over 100 academic papers and won several awards for his research on how collective identities shape the brain and behaviour, which he’s written about for publications including New York Times, BBC & the Washing Post. In his latest book, ‘The Power of Us: Harnessing Our Shared Identities for Personal and Collective Success’ (co-authored with Dominic J. Packer), Jay blends cutting-edge research in psychology and neuroscience to illuminate the immense power of social identity, which can inspire both personal change and social movements.

We asked Jay what one word he thought was key to a kinder, more equitable, and greener world.

Read the full interview here:

When I was a college student, I tended to be more deterministic in my thinking. I would learn things in textbooks and treat them as rigid facts.

It wasn’t until I started doing my PhD that I started to understand that things are fluid. When I run a study, it’s always exciting if it confirms your hypothesis. But what I’ve learned over time, is what’s even more exciting is when it goes in the exact opposite direction. You have this ‘aha moment’, because it means that you need to build your thinking.

After I graduated from college, I started working at an anti-racism organisation. I had to go into schools and try and get kids to be open-minded about their own stereotypes and prejudices. But what I found over and over, is that they would be resistant. Even if you challenged or debunked the stereotype, it still wouldn’t change their minds.

The moment that someone’s identity is bound up in a belief, they’re not easily convinced by arguments or facts. It goes against everything they’ve learnt being part of that group. This really drove home to me how powerful identities are.

Intellectual humility means that you’re open minded to changing your perspective–that you’re non defensive when people give you new information that disagrees with what you already believe. If you don’t do that, in science, you become outdated incredibly quickly.

Unfortunately, we have a society that rewards people for having really strong opinions. Saying something with complete certainty and moralising it is what goes viral. That’s the incentive structure of social media.

But in reality: the more certain and rigid people are in their beliefs, the less likely they are to be true. Having seen how many people have died because of the spread of misinformation during the pandemic, we need to think very carefully about what we’re going to do to change this going forward. If we’re ever going to tackle something like climate change, we need people to update their beliefs on the basis of good quality information.

I think that by instilling people with intellectual humility, individuals’ lives are more likely to thrive. They’re going to be more grounded in reality, and have less social conflict. Democracy will be healthier, as people will be gravitating towards higher quality sources, and voting with their eyes open.

These are fundamental ingredients–not only for an individual to live a healthy, successful life–but also for society to be healthy.

“Everybody in society has a vested interest in working out how to ground people’s beliefs in reality.”