Lesson 3.2

The Two Types Of Respect: Earned & Owed

Dive into this topic by watching the video, followed by key explanations below:


Key Concepts:


Element #1 of intellectual humility is Respect For Other Viewpoints

  • Respect is not the same as agreement.

  • Respect means suspending our judgment until after we are curious and fully explore someone’s viewpoint.

  • It’s the practice of hearing things out—starting from a place of listening rather than a place of teaching or defending.

As we’ve discussed in previous lessons, humans have psychological motivations when it comes to group interactions.

The first is our need to belong.

We survived as a species by banding together in tribes and groups. Getting kicked out of the group means you might not make it. So built into our mental wiring is a deep desire to do what we can to stay in the group.

The second is our need to be distinct.

We’re more valuable to the group if we bring something unique to it. The one person who knows how to build a fire is more useful than the tenth person who knows how to pick berries. So our brains are always trying to maintain a balance between belonging and being unique.

This psychology gets complicated by another thing built into our brains: our threat detection system. The crude history of evolutionary psychology is that at a certain point the biggest threats to our survival were no longer big animals or bad weather. We’d conquered those by banding together. So after we overcame nature, our biggest threat became groups of other humans.

So we developed something called in-group / out-group bias. (See also: Lesson 1.5)

Basically, every time we encounter a person, our brains decide very quickly whether that person is safe or not. Can we turn our back on this stranger? Or are they liable to club us for our woolly mammoth steak? Our brains decide this in less time than it takes us to think about it, and then we go on defense, ready for fight or flight.

The cues our brains use for this in-group/out-group categorization were useful thousands of years ago, but not so useful today. Those cues were:

  • Does this person look like me or my family?

  • Does this person talk like me or my family?

  • Does this person think and behave like me or my family?

If the answer is ever no, our brains go into threat prevention mode. We get ready to eliminate that person (fight) or avoid that person (flight) in order to survive.

Unfortunately, this is ancient brain wiring, so we all have this problem.

We categorize people like us into the safe group and treat them with respect—we listen to them and generally trust their intentions. And we categorize people not like us as unsafe. And we treat them and their ideas with less respect.

Research indicates we’re more willing to listen to advice from people from similar demographics to ourselves.

Fortunately, we’re also evolved enough to consciously override the fight or flight mechanism that happens subconsciously.

Our brains may flinch at foreign people and their different ideas, but after that we have the conscious capacity to decide what to do next.

Will we disrespect the out-group and take away their power?

Or will we pause, and consider them and their ideas?

The upshot is when we encounter a viewpoint that doesn’t line up with what we currently think, we have an opportunity to evaluate whether we can learn and grow from it. But if we don’t have respect for things that don’t line up with our own thinking, it’s a nonstarter. We’ll be biased against the new information from the get-go.

So what exactly does it mean to respect someone with a different viewpoint?

The concept of respect is generally framed in terms of what you don’t do, but it amounts to not taking away the person’s power to express themselves.

In other words, respect for other viewpoints includes:

  • Listening to viewpoints that are not your own without interrupting

  • Not disparaging or otherwise attacking the person behind any viewpoint, even if you don’t agree

  • Treating the person or viewpoint with the same kind regard that you’d treat your own ideas or self

Respect is treating humans as inherently worthy of being considered no matter how good or bad we initially think their viewpoint is.

This is particularly hard to do when an idea we’re dealing with is abhorrent to us. Or when we’re dealing with a person who doesn’t have that same respect for others. It would be hard to sit down with Hitler and actually listen to his ideas without calling him an asshole. But you don’t have to agree with Hitler to be respectful. And you can even conclude that Hitler’s viewpoints are wrong and he needs to be locked up for his crimes, while still employing human respect first.

Respect breaks down into two sub-categories:

  • Earned Respect is the kind of respect that we give people because they bring something valuable to the group. This is the kind of respect that people in our out-group can get from us—if they can prove they deserve it somehow.

  • Owed Respect is the default respect that we owe all human beings because they are humans. It’s being civil, listening, not being nasty to them. We tend to give more of this respect to our in-groups by default. Even if we’re generally disrespectful to everyone, we tend to give more respect to “our” people.

Neuroscience, psychology, and IH research show us a few hacks for getting Earned Respect for people we deal with in person. And they show us how we can be more humble with people or ideas we’re not dealing with face-to-face, by broadening our Owed Respect to generally include more kinds of people.

We’ll explore these in the next two lessons.