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Does Older Mean Wiser Everywhere?

In Japan, older age is not associated with more wisdom.

While it’s true that many older people have lost a step when it comes to certain cognitive functions, they can take solace in the fact that they’re wiser now—wiser than they used to be, and wiser than the typical young person. Right?

Well, maybe. It apparently depends a great deal on where you live. University of Waterloo researcher Igor Grossman and his colleagues recently reported the results of a study in which they interviewed random samples of Americans and Japanese about their reactions to conflicts between individuals. They discovered that, as expected, older Americans were wiser than young and middle-aged Americans.

The surprise came when the researchers analyzed the responses of the Japanese participants. They discovered that “older age was not associated with wiser responses among Japanese.” Basically, Japanese of all ages were as wise as the older Americans—and significantly wiser than young and middle-aged Americans.

Grossman and his colleagues recruited 186 Japanese and 225 Americans to participate in their study. The participants ranged in age from 25 to 75 and, because they were selected randomly, they fairly represented Japanese and American adults living in Japan and Michigan respectively.

The participants read letters to an advice columnist about interpersonal conflicts among siblings, friends and spouses. They then answered a series of questions such as “What do you think will happen after that?” and “Why do you think it will happen that way?”

Trained assistants listened to the recorded responses of the participants and scored each response on specific aspects of wise reasoning. Earlier studies had found that wise reasoning includes (1) taking into account the perspectives of others, (2) recognizing that events can unfold in different ways, (3) recognizing the limits of one’s own knowledge, and (4) searching for compromise.

In Grossman’s study, Japanese of all ages scored higher than their American counterparts, although the effect was weakest among the oldest participants. Men and women scored about the same in both countries, and wise reasoning was associated with higher education and occupational prestige.

Most notably, wisdom increased with age among Americans but not among Japanese. The Japanese participants scored at a relatively high level, regardless of their age. Even the youngest Japanese scored higher, on average, than the oldest Americans.

Grossman and his colleagues argue that Japanese typically gain wisdom about how to resolve interpersonal conflicts at an earlier age than Americans. Japanese culture emphasizes harmonious relationships and “fitting in” to a degree rarely seen in American households. As a result, Japanese are usually more sensitive to social cues and motivated to affirm their relatedness to other people. In the United Sates, “the squeaky wheel gets the grease.” In Japan, however, a well-known proverb warns “the nail that sticks up gets hammered down.”

For all these reasons, Japanese apparently develop wise reasoning at an early age, much earlier than most Americans. As a result, older is wiser in the United Sates but not in Japan.


Grossman, I., Karasawa, M., Izumi, S., Na, J., Varnum, M., Kitayama, S., & Nisbett, R. (2012). Aging and wisdom: Culture matters. Psychological Science, 23(10), 1059-1066.