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What Does It Mean to Be Wise?

There is more to wisdom than knowledge and experience.

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“What does it mean to be wise?” I recently asked an 8-year-old and an 88-year-old from different parts of the world. Their answers were remarkably similar: to know a lot.

For many of us, an image of a wise person is a white-haired, advice-dispensing sage with a serene smile and an unhurried gait. But there is more to wisdom than theoretical knowledge and decades of life experience. And there is more than one way of being wise. Winston Churchill, for instance, was known for his practical wisdom, Mother Teresa had benevolent wisdom, and Socrates was famed for being philosophically wise. Where do our beliefs on wisdom originate and what insights does psychology offer into what it means to be wise?

For centuries, civilizations have passed down their ideas of wisdom through stories of a moral and virtuous life. These stories came from all over the world — the Sumerians, ancient Egypt, the ancient Hindu scriptures of Vedas, the Taoist and Confucian writings from China, and the philosophers from ancient Greece (Grossmann & Kung, 2018). According to these traditions, wisdom stands on many pillars – benevolence and listening to others (Confucianism); self-reflection (Taoism); letting life unfold naturally (Lao-Tzu); and questioning (Socrates) and intellectual humility (i.e., recognizing the constraints of one’s thought) (Grossmann & Kung, 2018).

In psychological research, wisdom is viewed as a multifaceted concept with cognitive (knowledge and experience), reflective (the ability to examine issues and oneself) and prosocial (benevolence and compassion) components. When it comes to using wise thinking to make better decisions, studies point to the importance of perspective. In particular, viewing situations from a third-person (fly-on-the-wall) rather than an ego-centric point of view. This is because examining events from a first-person vantage point can limit our attention to the focal features of situations, making us more close-minded and defensive. On the other hand, self-distancing through a third-person perspective helps us relate events to a broader context. Perhaps this is why we are more likely to demonstrate greater wisdom when reflecting on others’ lives rather than our own. And perhaps this is why we use our wisdom least when we need it most. For Igor Grossmann, principal investigator at University of Waterloo’s Wisdom And Culture Lab, this finding, along with how variable and context-dependent wisdom can be, is among the most fascinating recent insights about wisdom.

Here are five questions on wisdom for Dr. Grossmann:

How is wisdom acquired?

If you consider wisdom to be a skill, then typically there are two paths. One is through relevant experiences — for example, exposure to stressors or conflicts in your life. The other path is through education. Virtues and critical thinking, for instance, can be taught to some extent. And then you need to enact them. That’s how you generally acquire skills and for wisdom it wouldn't be any different.

What characteristics are most often associated with wisdom?

What we have found is that there are certain cognitive strategies associated with wisdom. One of them is open-mindedness. Another is a form of intellectual and epistemic humility, which means you recognize the limits of your knowledge. Then there is consideration of diverse viewpoints and the integrative ability to take different perspectives into account. These are the key cognitive features of wisdom.

How can we use “wise thinking” to make better decisions?

Research is really at the outset, but we have some evidence that features like open-mindedness, perspective taking, and intellectual humility afford a bigger picture. They help you to see the contextual features, which can, in turn, help you to identify a fit between the demands of the specific situation and the knowledge you may have about how to handle different situations. In other words, wisdom-related strategies can afford you a greater sensitivity for the context. They may also orient you towards a greater balance between your personal interests and the interests of others, and thus promote cooperation under some circumstances.

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In what ways does culture influence wisdom?

There are three different ways you can think about this. One is the meaning of what is considered virtuous, which can vary dramatically across cultures. There are also different educational paths. For example, in North America there is an emphasis on achievement—it is even taught to elementary school children. In Japan, where the emphasis is more on perspective taking, this is not the case—at least not in the same way. And thirdly, there are different types of experiences people have in different cultures. Not only the experiences may be different, but the strategies for handling these experiences may be different as well. As an example, consider the ways people handle adversity and social conflicts. In Japan and Hong Kong, for instance, people don't really discuss conflicts directly at work. Instead, there is often a supervisor or a third party in charge of conflict resolution, which is not necessarily the case in the U.S.

Why is wisdom considered a universally cherished human virtue?

This is just a speculation, but if you take the evolutionary perspective, you see that the survival of the human species requires certain cognitive abilities, including planning, perspective taking, and some forms of coordination of efforts among members of one’s group. Certain features of wisdom—consideration, integration of diverse viewpoints, open-mindedness—are thus, in some ways, essential for survival. In that sense, those who developed these skills in early hunter-gatherer societies were probably more successful and lived longer. Because under many circumstances, when you are dealing with adversities and uncertainties, these skills can help you to see the bigger picture and to coordinate with others effectively. Hence, wisdom probably had a role in the successful evolution of humankind.

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Clayton, V. P., & Birren, J. E. (1980). The development of wisdom across the life span: A reexamination of an ancient topic. Life-span Development and Behavior, 3, 103-135.

Glück, J., & Bluck, S. (2011). Laypeople's conceptions of wisdom and its development: Cognitive and integrative views. Journals of Gerontology Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences, 66(3), 321-324.

Grossmann, I., & Kung, F. Y. H. (in press). Wisdom and culture. In S. Kitayama & D. Cohen (Eds.), Handbook of cultural psychology (2nd Edition). New York: Guilford Press.

Grossmann, I. (2017). Wisdom in context. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 12(2), 233-257.

Kross, E., & Ayduk, O. (2011). Making meaning out of negative experiences by self-distancing. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 20(3), 187-191.

Weststrate, N. M., Ferrari, M., & Ardelt, M. (2016). The many faces of wisdom: An investigation of cultural-historical wisdom exemplars reveals practical, philosophical, and benevolent prototypes. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 42(5), 662-676.

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