Bryan Caplan  

Curiosity and Humility

Naming Names... What Leonhardt Leaves Out...
I had a conversation with a colleague today where he discussed research showing that successful people have (a) the confidence to aim for the top, and (b) the humility to harshly critique their own work.  He went on to argue that you need humility to remain curious about the world.

I disagreed.  In my experience, humble people are sheep.  They aren't curious about the world; instead, they look to other people for guidance.  It is hard for them to question conventional wisdom, because their inner voice taunts, "What makes you think you're so special?" 

True, if you're so arrogant that you think you've got the whole world figured out, you're not going to be very curious either.  But it takes a lot of confidence - even arrogance - to ask a question your peers aren't asking, and insist that it deserves an answer.  As Emerson wrote:
Familiar as the voice of the mind is to each, the highest merit we ascribe to Moses, Plato, and Milton is, that they set at naught books and traditions, and spoke not what men but what they thought. A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages.
P.S. Yes, I am aware of the irony of quoting this passage.

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COMMENTS (26 to date)
Lee Kelly writes:

This is a weird post.

I try and be humble because I am so often impressed by my own ignorance; but I am also impressed by everyone elses ignorance, too. Asking tough questions and pushing for answers is a way to help others develop humility.

I don't get it at all. Humble people are not as you describe.

Peter Tabakis writes:

Not a weird post, at all. Though it shows Bryan's Randian influence.

I think Bryan was describing "objectivity." The world is what it is, no matter what anyone says about it. An individual's discovery of some new fact (or question) about it often means he/she needs to fight to persuade others to, at least, consider it. And *that* takes self-confidence, and maybe a little arrogance.

Ben Kalafut writes:

A good scientist and a good citizen are both humble. The former is easier to explain and more on topic as scientists are curiosity incarnate. Humility in the sciences entails (1) thoroughly searching the literature (2) realizing that if the problem was truly simple chances are someone else would have solved it before and (3) not becoming too attached to one's current idea.

I'd say that good citizens are humble like scientists in that they realize that they can't get all of the answer just by thinking ab initio--and this humility leads to curiosity, e.g. reading economist weblogs before making up their minds about public policy. I'd also say with a little less confidence that libertarians over a certain age tend to be arrogant jerks lacking in humility thus incapable of curiosity--for example I'm just about 100% sure Mr Caplan has run into characters who think economics can be done a priori and that where they disagree with him it is because he is trivially and obviously wrong.

And I'd also offer that this humility is not natural. Hence in the mock-"debate" over global warming people offering that the center of the earth has heated or that one volcano will produce more CO2 than the industrial revolution or that CO2 can't possibly cause heating since it is a tiny fraction of the atmosphere. People don't understand that this stuff is measured and well known and think that people who work on it from 9-5 could've made profoundly sloppy errors. From where I'm sitting that's bad behavior, but I'm sitting in a biophysics lab...

This unnatural humility is not the meekness Caplan detests. On the contrary, no matter the subject, it is the difference between being a curious thinker and a fatuous jackass.

robert arbon writes:

I think it's more important to be humble about human nature in general than your own abilities.

Gamut writes:


Real humility in a biophysics, or climate physics, lab would be to pass all data off to a statistician for analysis -- something from my personal experience that is considered an affront to each researcher's perception of their own mathematical prowess. Research at an educational institution involves a spectacular amount of arrogance and pride, it drives the curiosity, but it also does lead to large, uncorrected bias:

The above paper addresses an error in statistical analysis that probably invalidates most of the last decade of neurophysical research. The cause? Misunderstanding of math, lazy analysis and selection bias of results. Arrogance, not humility.

botogol writes:

A great post.

Here's Emerson's essay, from which it comes 'Self Reliance'

The essay also contains the famous quote against consistency: that it is "the hobgoblin of little minds"

Russell writes:

This isn't so much weird as simply unfortunate, but based on Bryan's posts (tone and style) not a terribly surprising admission. Bryan thinks a lot of himself and happily admits to being arrogant, humorously claiming that his arrogance makes him superior - a narcissistic twist on the idea of introspection, no?

I see no link between confidence and curiosity as I've met both curious/humble and curious/arrogant people in roughly equal measure. For example (though I've never met any of them), I would place Caplan/Cowen in the arrogant/curious block, but Kling/Russ Roberts in the humble/curious block. Obviously, not knowing any of them personally I could be wrong (Look! I'm a sheep!).

I say this post is unfortunate because my general belief is that the greatest challenge facing the world is human arrogance. Recent research has shown where there is greater uncertainty, there is a greater premium paid to being overconfident. And so, in areas of greatest uncertainty (finance, politics, climate change(?), etc.) we are going to get overconfident/arrogant people rising to the top. How's that workin' out!?

The existence of arrogant people is unavoidable and they do often provide wonderful benefits (e.g., I-pods), but let's not kid ourselves about the tremendous downsides nor make ridiculously arrogant claims about how superior arrogant people are. Okay, maybe this post is both unfortunate and weird.

Fortunately, Bryan is tucked safely away in academia where his superior self cannot do the rest of us any real harm.


ajb writes:

Of course, the really relevant point is what is the expected value of being arrogant and self-confident if you have no clear measure of your objective abilities. Or worse, if you choose to ignore outside signals of your abilities. Even Bryan's best examples show the value of arrogance conditional on achieving success. But against that you have to weigh all the kooks with puffed up delusions of grandeur who were failures. The median little-known but professionally successful scientist would even prefer his lot to being a celebrated kook (people like Rothbard spring immediately to mind, but there are many more who are much less well known but just as self-important).

Mitch Oliver writes:

Bryan seems to be confusing humility with passivity. A humble man can still listen to the opinions of others, knowing that he is correct. Even if, in the end, he chooses his original way he has not become arrogant.

On the other hand, the passive man is simply unable to hold an opinion of his own. He might state something, even boldly, but will back down almost immediately when challenged.

While the arrogant frequently exalt themselves, the humble often need not.

Granite26 writes:

+ to Mitch...

Arrogance is not Self-Confidence and Humility is not Timidity.

You can decide someone else might be wrong and investigate without loudly castigating them first, and that investigation is not a break with Humility.

The confusion is what makes Arrogance a virtue and Humility a weakness

William Newman writes:

Ben Kalafut, the critics of strong AGW aren't monolithic, but even when a movement isn't monolithic, we can still make a good-faith effort to assess how central gross errors and dishonesty are to the movement.

The critics of the economic policies JK Galbraith favored weren't monolithic. Galbraith was thus presented with an opportunity to address weaker critics' arguments while ignore stronger critics, and was accused of doing so. I don't have the reference for any such accusation on hand, but I do have a quote from him: "The modern conservative is engaged in one of mankind's oldest pursuits; finding a moral justification for greed." In hindsight, most people agree that various politically incorrect folk at prominent-among-his-opponents places like U Chicago and U Virginia were pursuing truth at least as vigorously as Galbraith, so that Galbraith was not making a good-faith summary.

Critics of natural selection are not monolithic, but when I looked into it a few years ago, the Institute for Creation Research seemed like one of the most prominent groups, and ICR had webbed articles arguing that evolution by natural selection is inconsistent with the second law of thermodynamics. Given gross errors at that level of prominence in the movement, I could accept bad scientific behavior as a good-faith summary of the movement ('til I heard of major factions loudly renouncing those errors, anyway).

(The shift of ground to "intelligent design," to the extent that it drops all specific claims about how nature differs from from what'd occur without God, isn't really open to this criticism, and to their credit I have even seen ID folk openly reject the entropy canard. Though ID has its own deep problems, too; they're just different ones, and this post is long already without addressing any more complications.)

In the AGW controversy, the "one volcano" and "tiny fraction" arguments you describe do sound like gross errors. However, as you present them (with no evidence that they were presented seriously, prominently, or stubbornly) they also seem like motes in thy opponent's eye. Among humans, public discussion of science spontaneously generates gross errors at a pretty high rate even when no one involved has a political ax to grind. As far as I know, the volcano and fraction errors are not endorsed or even tolerated by anyone prominent who makes a sustained criticism of AGW. Given that everyone involved is human, I think that's about the best we can hope for.

For comparison, consider a beam in thy ally's eye: mainstream pro-AGW folk prominently (e.g., in official gov't reports) endorse bogus arguments that recent warming has been associated with enormous increases in severe weather (see, e.g., And, incidentally, I can report anecdotally that that endorsement coincides with well-meaning high-school science teachers repeating it as truth in conversation.

I think a scientist looking at the AGW controversy and seeing bad behavior only on the politically incorrect side should have his eyes examined.

Philo writes:


Do continue to relay to us "that gleam of light which flashes across [your] mind from within"!

Bob Murphy writes:

Now I understand why Bryan never corrects his frequent mistakes that I point out.

Political Observer writes:

I once worked for a very successful privately run business. The CEO (one of the 10 wealthiest people in the U.S. according to Forbes) described humility as - the ability to acknowledge what you know and what you don't know. I think that describes an inquisitive mind - not a sheep!

guthrie writes:

One can have humility and no COURAGE, or courage and no humility, or one can have both, or neither.

IMO, those who are most 'successful' have both. Humility is what allows the mind to be creative (countering that 'inner voice' because who knows where ideas come from?), and courage is what brings that creativity into being (because that inner voice is only the first challenge).

agnostic writes:

This is an example of the trade-off between Type I vs. Type II error.

None of us knows what our true level of awesomeness is, which could lie between 0 (speck of dust) and 1 (godlike). While we do get feedback from the outside world about where we lie, that's not perfect, so our self-evaluation guess is still uncertain.

Leaning toward the humble side pays off more when you truly aren't that great (lower rate of thinking you're great when you're not), while leaning toward the arrogant side pays off more when you truly are great (lower rate of thinking you're nothing when you're great).

And since most people aren't great, we expect to see lots more humble than arrogant people. Personality trait studies show that most people aren't highly narcissistic, so that checks out.

Bob Montgomery writes:

Cracks me up to read that Emerson quote includes...Moses! Of all people, I would never have thought to include him as one who "spoke not what men but what [he] thought."

Jayson Virissimo writes:

I think it is helpful to remember that virtue is a habit of choosing the mean between extremes. Overconfidence is just as much a vice as underconfidence.

Ben Kalafut writes:

"Real humility in a biophysics, or climate physics, lab would be to pass all data off to a statistician for analysis "

Or merely to understand that there are experts in this and to be sure to use rigorous methods and to understand when one is in over ones head and needs a statistican. Humility oughtn't entail superstition about one's own capabilities, the passing off of each and every data set to a statistician.

This from someone who makes a habit of consulting with a statistician.

Ben Kalafut writes:

"As far as I know, the volcano and fraction errors are not endorsed or even tolerated by anyone prominent who makes a sustained criticism of AGW."

Plimer put the volcano canard in his book, and the fraction thing is fairly routine from libertarian think-tanks. Perhaps (all two of) the bona fide contrarians don't tolerate those kinds of arguments, but they dominate the popular "debate".

Ryan writes:

I think Bryan's position is correct.

I mean, what Bryan is talking about is an irrational action to promote one's ideas over the ideas of other people. This idea goes back to the notion of rational and irrational disagreement, and if you deny rational ongoing disagreement, a valid position given Aumann's theory on the matter, then Bryan's point follows.

Using the term "confidence" to claim the same benefits really just seems to be questionable because "confident" is a term relative to an already overconfident population(as noted by a large amount of research). So, for a person to be confident compared to a lot of overconfident people, isn't that going to end up being an exaggerated view of one's worth? What is the difference between over-over-confidence and pride?

Not only that, but the original researcher's idea of "humility" being necessary to harshly critique one's own work also seems questionable. Why? I can't see why an arrogant person couldn't be so dead-set on not being wrong that they wouldn't also have a perfectionist streak. If an arrogant person is clearly wrong, then that is a strong reason to fix things. It looks bad. It undermines their pride.

Billy writes:

I don't know if I agree with your position. Although I have never met him, I tend to think of Russ Roberts as a scholar with some humility and he is always thought provoking.

dullgeek writes:
In my experience, humble people are sheep.
I don't agree with this. Mainly because there's a difference between saying, "I think X, but I admit I could be wrong." and saying "I think X. I'm probably be wrong". Both are humble, but the latter is a sheep.

I tend to trust the humble non-sheep more than someone who says, "I think X. And I'm right." I don't trust him because I think he's naive - he's either not been around long enough to experience failure, or he's incapable of seeing the failure that he has experienced. In either case, I don't trust the arrogant.

The Cupboard Is Bare writes:

My associations with arrogant people generally turn out to be rather unpleasant experiences. I find that there is a fine line between arrogance and abusiveness and/or narcissism; and I've personally been subjected to both when arrogant people have crossed either/both of those lines.

It's not unusual for them to jump to conclusions. They don't like to admit to their mistakes; and if you criticize them or catch them in a mistake...well, it doesn't matter if you're family, friend, co-worker or client...they can get very nasty. Think temper tantrum.

There was a time when I used to cut people like that some slack, because they demonstrated a particular talent, and I thought that that was simply the price one paid for having such a talent. But then I began to look around and discovered that there were humble people who didn't feel it was necessary to berate everyone with whom they came into contact. It's not that they weren't as successful as the arrogant individual...they simply didn't feel the need to make as much noise about it.

And if you don't believe that arrogant people can be sheep, then consider Michael Moore.

Steve Roth writes:

The underlying assumption of this post seems to be that humility and confidence are mutually exclusive.

But in fact, in many cases, they're mutually reinforcing. Think Ghandi.

phineas writes:

I disagree with Bryan Caplan's comment. Once you've got a mindset that questions authority and aims to think for yourself, then, no matter how you came to acquire it, you've simply got that attitude, and in principle it is independent of your confidence and humility, and curiosity. For some people it takes courage to acquire it in the first place, but for others it comes naturally. Another point is that when a person's views are in concordance with the views of 90% of the population, the person can draw confidence from that reality. As everybody knows very well, people with the more conventionalist mindsets are capable of being very confident and even arrogant about their beliefs.

A point from a commenter above worth repeating is that psychological research shows that nearly everybody tends to be overconfident. I'd also like to repeat the comment from 'guthrie' above that successful people have a blend of courage and humility, with humility defined entirely differently from how Bryan would define it.

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