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What Psychological and Social Factors Contribute to the Development of Wisdom?

When thinking about how wisdom develops, some people believe that wisdom comes with age. This idea may be due to examples that come readily to mind either from personal experience or from popular culture. But before considering how wisdom develops, it is probably helpful to spell out what we mean by the term wisdom. The press sometimes confuses wisdom with intelligence, as if they are synonyms.  But not all smart decisions are necessarily wise ones.  Of course, many decisions that are smart are neither wise nor unwise.  Such smart decisions are well informed, made in the context of deliberate and thoughtful consideration but they are typically the result of an intelligent process rather than wisdom. We might define wisdom most simply as prudent judgment, or as is often attributed to Aristotle, wisdom can be defined as practical decisions that lead to human flourishing. One way of understanding wisdom is to look to specific examples of wisdom, and perhaps this is one reason that people think that aging leads to wisdom.

We have few celebrated examples of young wise folks, whereas the image of the aged sage seems to be almost universal across cultures.  The belief is that to be thought wise, one needs to reach a certain advanced age.  Of course this does not mean that everyone who is older is wise, but rather to be wise, one needs to be older.  This reflected in popular icons such as Yoda from Star Wars or Biblical figures like King Solomon or historical figures such as Confucius, but they are just well-known examples of the pervasiveness of this belief.  A recent article in the New York Times on aging and wisdom demonstrates that this entrenched belief is very much alive.  In fact this view about wisdom and aging served as the impetus for some of the foundational scientific research on wisdom by Vivian Clayton and Paul Baltes.  The idea that wisdom comes with age is a model for a kind of successful aging, especially considering that much scientific research on the psychological effects of aging delivers bad news about declining abilities in systems such as working memory.  The idea of becoming wiser holds out a certain kind of hope for our personal futures.  For example, Laura Carstensen’s research on aging supports some aspects of the relationship between aging and wisdom.  Her work shows that older people make practical choices about how they spend their time that increase positive mood and sense of well-being.  This seems like Aristotle’s notion that practical wisdom should increase human flourishing.

But human flourishing is not simply an increase in our personal well-being, happiness, or welfare.  Aristotle connected human flourishing to a more prosocial notion of human well-being in terms of seeking the highest human good.  Wisdom reflected in decisions should not just increase personal happiness but should also increase societal good.  It is interesting that research has documented that older people do tend to be more prosocial in decision making as well.  Richard Nisbett and colleagues reported some evidence that social conflict resolution improves with age.  Robert Levenson and colleagues have argued that there is increased empathy and prosociality in later life, and Angela Gutchess and colleagues report increased monetary giving with age.  These findings accord with the notion that age is related to some elements of wisdom.  But if it is true that wisdom comes with age, this does not identify the specific factors that lead to the development of wisdom with age.

Furthermore, even if cultural beliefs associate wisdom and aging, science should go beyond this to ask some basic questions about wisdom that could lead to a deeper scientific understanding of this human capacity.  By what mechanisms does aging cause wisdom, if it does?  Why should aging increase wisdom?  Not everyone who is older is wiser so perhaps it is not aging, defined as time passing or as biological change, that causes wisdom. It is possible that we have confused aging and experience.  If certain experiences lead to being wiser, some older people should be wiser because older people have more experiences than younger people.  But this also suggests that young people who have similar experiences might also become wiser without waiting for time to pass. If wisdom is a consequence of experience, it makes sense to talk about becoming a little wiser after certain experiences. Each experience might lead to a small movement along the path to wisdom.

At the University of Chicago, in the Chicago Wisdom Research Project we are working to investigate how certain experiences can increase wisdom, even for younger adults. Previous research by other investigators has addressed the idea of understanding what wisdom is.  We have been addressing a slightly different question of understanding the kinds of experiences that lead to wisdom.  There are several kinds of experiences that have been examined so far in this research. Work by Patrick Williams and Berthold Hoeckner and collaborators is investigating whether the practice of meditation is related to wisdom as measured using Monika Ardelt’s measures of cognitive, reflective, and affective wisdom.  Does increasing experience in meditation relate to increased wisdom?  Given that meditation is a mental activity one could imagine that the practice of meditation relates to wisdom.  One might also think that experience in practicing ballet should not relate to wisdom.  After all, dance experience can be understood increase physical prowess but there is no reason to expect it to affect judgment or decision making.  It is interesting that the preliminary results in this study suggest that age is not related to wisdom, but increased experience in meditation is related to increased cognitive, affective, and reflective wisdom.  Moreover, although it seems surprising, it also appears that increased ballet experience is related to increased cognitive, affective, and reflective wisdom.  One conclusion that could be drawn from this work is that self regulation and self control, which are important in maintaining such practices over long periods of time may be important for the development of wisdom.  This suggests that the idea of grit, as studied by Angela Duckworth, which is related to academic achievement, may also be important for developing wisdom

Another study at the University of Chicago has examined how experience in trading goods on eBay and financial trading affects economic decisions. Daniel Kahneman and his colleagues have demonstrated that there are a number of decision biases that distort some aspects of rational economic decision-making.  For example, in one such bias called the endowment effect, simply owning an object raises its subjective value beyond the object’s worth in the marketplace.  Ali Hortacsu and John List and their collaborators have shown that experience in trading reduces this kind of bias and appears to do so by reducing neural activity in one part of the brain associated with loss aversion.  One conclusion that could be inferred is that more experience in market transactions increases the ability to make more rational decisions resulting in fairer, more reasonable transactions.

In fact, becoming more rational in decisions does not take years of trading experience to accomplish. Sayuri Hayakawa and Boaz Keysar have shown that thinking in a second language reduces economic biases in decision-making, and it also appears to increase creativity and insight in problem solving.   One interpretation is that thinking in a foreign language may provide a little bit of emotional distance from a situation and thus could make self regulation easier leading to more rational decisions, and more divergent and creative thinking.

Although previous wisdom research has focused on describing and defining wisdom, the field of wisdom research may now be sufficiently advanced to consider the antecedents of wisdom.  What needs to be true about a person in order to develop wisdom or to take advantage of experiences that can lead to the development of wisdom?  What must develop in a person in order for wisdom to follow? Wisdom seems to depend on epistemic humility.  Sir John Templeton discussed the importance of humility in terms of recognizing how much there is to know and to learn about people.  And wisdom depends in part on understanding that the values and perspectives of other people are important in solving human problems — we all must be open to learning more.

Wisdom also seems to be grounded in a kind of virtue motivation, such that other virtues may serve as guidance in the use and development of wisdom.  In addition, wisdom appears to depend on a willingness to engage in intellectual struggle, so as not to be deterred from working on tough problems that may require reflection, and even self reflection. Wisdom may also depend on a propensity to engage in divergent thinking, creativity, and the insight that comes from a diversity of experiences, and from forming new concepts and associations among concepts.

The scientific study of wisdom is still a very young field but using modern research methods of psychology, economics, and neuroscience together with scholarship and analytical thinking from other fields such as philosophy and classics, researchers can move beyond the folk psychology of cultural belief to study the mechanisms underlying wise thought and decision.  One goal of this work is to elucidate the way in which wisdom can increase with experiences and to understand the kinds of experiences that can lead to wisdom.  If we understand how experience increases wisdom, perhaps we do not have to wait to become older in order to become wiser.

Discussion Questions:

1.  Is wisdom something that anyone can acquire or is it something that is only possible for a select few individuals to develop?

2.  Can anyone become just a little wiser with certain experiences or is there an absolute distinction between people who are wise and people who are not?

3.  Does making wiser decisions in one area (such as financial decisions) imply wisdom in other areas (such as human relationships) as well?

4.  Does becoming wiser depend on having survived a tragedy or terrible experience?

5.  How do humility and self-control contribute to the development of wisdom?

Discussion Summary


Does a person become wise through a mysterious force of nature—just something that happens to a rare few individuals, and is therefore beyond the intervention of human intention and control?  This is the impression one gets in thinking about various examples of wisdom from stories and the media.  The wise person is an aged person who, as some consequence of life experiences, has achieved wisdom which is rare and valuable.  Clearly not everyone who becomes older is wiser, nor does everyone who experiences and survives serious life challenges become wise.  People can benefit from life challenges and learn from them in a positive way or become disaffected or bitter.    In writing my essay on the psychological and social factors that contribute to the development of wisdom, my goal was to look beyond the typical way in which society stereotypes the development of wisdom.  As a scientist, there is a natural question that arises in thinking about wisdom and its development, and that is to ask by what mechanisms wisdom arises?  Even if the answer were that wisdom comes with age, we would have counterexamples (not all older folks are wise) and that would lead us back to ask about mechanisms that operate as a function of time.

The discussion of this essay in the comments however raised several questions about the meaning of the term wisdom. The focus of the comments was less on the antecedent causes of wisdom or on mechanism than on the nature of wisdom.  As was pointed out in the comments, in order to measure wisdom, which is a prerequisite to investigating its causes, it is necessary to have a definition of wisdom.  Defining wisdom is not simple and as can be seen in the comments, there are different aspects to wisdom that one can focus on as part of a definition.  When people use the word wisdom in common speech (albeit somewhat infrequently), I think it is generally with a kind of tacit definition in mind that is probably derived from the exemplars of wisdom in literature and culture.  Such definitions are too vague to lead to the identification of measurable properties.  In focusing on the examples of wise decisions or wise advice or wise people that come to mind, whether from a friend or family member or King Solomon, people use the examples that easily come to mind.  This means that discussions of wisdom often focus on different aspects of wisdom and these aspects may sometimes seem a bit disjoint and perhaps even idiosyncratic.

One comment asked about the role of emotional detachment in wisdom, correctly pointing out this as a common element among several points in the essay.  The conjecture was that as people get older they have more emotional distance from events and consequences.  This ties in with the idea from work by Keysar, Hayakawa, and Costa that thinking in a second language may increase emotional detachment leading to more rational decisions or the work of Hortacsu and List on people with market experience trading goods who appear to be more detached from goods and thus less biased in economic decisions.  But is the wiser person simply more detached as this suggests?  An alternative interpretation is that wise decisions are not overly biased by emotional implications but the emotional information is still available.  The latter interpretation is more consistent with Robert Sternberg’s notion of wisdom as a balance of influences, whereas many daily decisions we make that are not particularly wise show the influence of biases that overshadow more rational evaluations of evidence.

However this seems disjoint from comments that were raised about the importance of wisdom having positive social consequences or being grounded in knowledge of human nature.  From the perspective of the concerns I raised in the essay, this suggests the importance of experiences that are grounded in the virtues to the development of wisdom, as well as the importance of experiences in social interaction.  But the comments also point to the fact that judgments of wisdom—is this person wise or is this advice wise etc.—are social judgments set in a particular culture and social context.  While one comment suggested that wisdom is deeply rooted in aspects of human nature, suggesting a kind of universal quality to it, it seems almost certain that the manifestations of wisdom through choice, decision, action or advice must be grounded in a particular culture.

This raises the question of whether there are different kinds of wisdom.  Are the different perspectives on wisdom simply different faces of the same thing or are these entirely different kinds of wisdom.  Walter Canon, a famous physiologist, coined the term “homeostasis” in his 1932 book The Wisdom of the Body.  In essence this term meant that bodies regulate their physiology to maintain successful functioning.  This mechanism of self-regulation does not arise by chance but is a consequence of a well-organized system.  In talking about the wisdom of the body, Canon was arguing that the body acts to maintain a balance of internal physiological states. Is this idea of wisdom different from the notion of the wisdom of King Solomon and Confucius?  Perhaps as a metaphor it is not a bad place to start, because the wisdom probably cannot be manifest in a disordered mind, and is similar to Sternberg’s balance theory of wisdom.  Moreover, wisdom ought not wait for order to fall naturally on the mind but it seems plausible that the wise mind must have a kind of homeostasis or self-regulation just as the body does so that impulsiveness, immediacy, and salience do not overpower the importance of other factors in making a decision.   If there are different kinds of wisdom, in different domains of experience and expertise, perhaps there are common mechanisms underlying them that allow us to call all of them wisdom.  This poses a basic challenge to the science of understanding wisdom and to the development of wisdom research.

New Big Questions

1.  What is the role of emotion in wisdom?  Is wisdom just “colder” cognition or does wisdom depend on self-regulation so as to use emotional information and emotional responses as an aid when appropriate without being overwhelmed by emotion?

2.  Are there different kinds of wisdom such as bodily wisdom or mental wisdom, or depending on different cultures or professions or eras?  If so, are the commonalities among the different kinds of wisdom based on common psychological and neural mechanisms?