The mind may lose a certain nimbleness over time, but even the ancientsrecognized it gets something in return: wisdom, judgment, and expertise.
Surprisingly, few researchers have attempted to look systematically at the psychology of wisdom before Paul B. Baltes, Ph. D., rose to the task. The director of Berlin's Max Planck Institute for Human Development and Education, he has been comparing the performance of younger and older adults on tasks involving wisdom.
The "fluid mechanics" of the brain, dominated by biological conditions, probably does decline with age. But wisdom is an area where the power of human agency and culture comes into play—and it can improve with time.
On tests that measure a person's ability to manage "the peaks and valleys of life" and insights into "the quintessential aspects of the human condition," older adults often outperform young-uns. They rank right up there with public figures deemed wise, clinical psychologists, and experts trained to advise others about life's meaning and conduct.
Older adults also reflect well on difficult dilemmas of life, such as how to respond to a suicidal phone call from a friend. And they came up with good advice for a 15-year-old girl who wanted to get married immediately. They demonstrated factual knowledge (by generating options), strategic knowledge (how to obtain more info, cost-benefit analysis), knowledge about the contexts of life and societal change (issues of the individual's stage of life, relations between life domains), relative values and goals, and considered the uncertainties of life.
"Over the years, one develops organizing principles that enable a senior person to solve problems in work and in life and do it efficiently," says Penn State's Warner Schaie "So I can proceed more efficiently, though I may take more time to devise a particular solution to a specific problem."
Age-related judgment needs time for deliberation and possibly support from younger minds—something the Supreme Court understands. The mature jurists are assisted by a cadre of hardworking young law clerks and allowed all the time they need to arrive at their judgments.