From the beginning of recorded time, humanity has been fascinated by the figure of the wise person, wending their path through the tribulations of life, and informing those willing to learn. What sets them apart? Maybe that’s the wrong question. In a new review in European Psychologist, Igor Grossman of the University of Waterloo argues that understanding wisdom involves taking the wise off their pedestal, and seeing wisdom as a set of processes that we can all tap into, with the right attitude, and in the right context.
Wisdom might seem to be a difficult concept for psychologists to study, but Grossman says there is some agreement now that it comprises:
- Intellectual humility
- Appreciating broader perspectives
- Knowing that social relations can change
- A willingness to compromise or integrate different opinions together
Seen this way, wisdom is distinct from things like creativity and intelligence, while being associated with related phenomena like emotion regulation, cooperative intentions, and political even-handedness (e.g. not condemning an opponent’s change of view as flip-flopping).
Psychologists who research wisdom tend to use questionnaires administered at one point in time to measure it, treating it as a static property. But Grossman argues that this doesn’t fit with the variability with which wisdom manifests. Experiments in the lab that asked participants to work through hypothetical situations, have found that people’s wisdom on one topic (say, the “Meaning of Life”) only gave a limited indication of their wisdom in another, like adjudicating a family issue. And diary studies where participants reflect on the most difficult issue they faced each day show that wise thinking can fluctuate wildly.
In Grossman’s view, this suggests that although wisdom has some stability, the context is king. And changing the context of thinking can encourage more wise outcomes. For instance, researchers observe wiser thinking when participants are asked to consider a problem as if it occurred a year ago, rather than now, or if it’s occurring to a third party, rather than themselves. These distancing techniques help us take a less egocentric approach, trapped in the urgent “here, now, me” which pushes us to look for certainty and closure, often prematurely.
In addition, explaining an issue you care deeply about is done in a more wise, balanced manner when you imagine that the recipient is a 12-year old, casting you as a teacher. It seems that again, seeing yourself as a teacher of someone in need of insight (rather than facing a peer in need of convincing) leads us to be less egocentric and more focused on the other, allowing us to disinvest in static certainties.
If different contexts can encourage wisdom, does this mean that wisdom can be taught? There’s good reason to be skeptical: in a classic study, John Darley and Daniel Batson found that seminary students who had been preparing a talk about the Good Samaritan were no more likely to stop and help someone in need, suggesting that learning about a wise approach to living doesn’t mean that we will internalise it. And we know that moral philosophers are no more moral than the rest of us, suggesting that even deep training doesn’t add up to real world practical wisdom.
But Grossman is optimistic, citing the fact that even undergraduate study – including in psychology – can lead to better reasoning about statistics, methodology, and practical aspects of logic. While these don’t map directly onto wisdom, they share something in their recognition of uncertainty and error in the ways we know the world.
Proponents of teaching wisdom suggest that this teaching could be framed around exemplars – wise figures from the past. Grossman is in favour of this, but suggests that the road to wisdom comes not from treating these figures as peerless exemplars, but as successes within a social context, and by comparing and contrasting where their wisdom apparently reached its limits and why. This is captured by the Solomon Paradox, named after the great Jewish king who also boasted of his riches and ill-prepared his son to succeed him. Grossman argues that exploring these foibles and failings – and whether, in their historical context, they were as great a failing as we now assume – leads to intellectual humility and a sense of a bigger, more complicated picture.
Putting the social context into wisdom isn’t an entirely new idea. Taoism teaches us to go beyond an individual point of view, and the Socratic method involves gaining wisdom through discussion, rather than solitary rumination. So consider this new paper a reminder of what these traditions have said: that wisdom is a way, a path along which our thinking becomes proportionate, balanced and expansive, and that it’s a journey enriched by company.