Why Wisdom Doesn't Work as Well as We Think It Does
Older people make fewer bad choices. But not simply because they're wiser.
Posted February 25, 2019 | Reviewed by Lybi Ma
We associate wisdom with advanced age. When we think of someone who is wise, an image of white hair and wrinkles likely comes to mind. Most of us assume that gaining wisdom is like picking up stones on a path: the longer you’re on the path, the more stones you’ll collect. But, as the Roman philosopher Seneca once wrote, “So you must not think a person has lived long because she has white hair and wrinkles: she has not lived long, just existed long.”
There are two things that motivate our assumptions about wisdom and age: (1) Older people tend to make fewer stupid mistakes, and (2) Older people often know the best course of action in a given situation. It’s a reasonable inference, then, that wisdom accumulates as we get older. But I think there’s an alternative explanation at play here, which we might consider in the light of what we know about human decision-making.
There’s a longstanding vein of research in psychology that studies two contrasting strategies for decision-making: plans and habits. Navigation provides a classic example of how these strategies differ. If you’re driving somewhere for the first time—to a new restaurant, say—then you’ll need a plan to get there. You will need to know whether to turn left or right at a given intersection, because you don’t already have that information stored away in your head. You just haven’t encountered it. On the other hand, you don’t need a plan when you’re going somewhere familiar—for instance, the supermarket—because the sequence of steps that will take you there are stored as a habit. You don’t have to think about them.
There’s a tradeoff between these two strategies. Habits are easy to implement, but they’re not very flexible. You can listen to a podcast while walking to the store, but if you find that the street is blocked by a new construction site, you’ll have to take out your headphones and think about an alternate route. Such a plan allows you to flexibly handle new situations, but they take a lot more focus and attention to engage with. Habits are useful when you’re in a familiar situation, but new territory requires a plan.
Neuroscientists Hillary Raab and Catherine Hartley recently surveyed how our use of plans and habits changes over the course of our lives. What the research suggests is that we tend to rely more on plans when we’re younger, and habits when we’re older. This makes sense. An infant can’t use habits to make decisions, because any situation she’s in will be a new one. As we build up a store of familiar situations, the more we can rely on habits. The older you are, the more likely your behavior is based on tried-and-true habits than fresh planning. This observation, I think, is neither positive or negative on the face of it—just an empirical trend in the research.
But what does this tell us about wisdom? Well, for one thing, it suggests that wisdom is interactive, not static: it is a relationship between a person and their surroundings. The reason that wisdom seems to flow so effortlessly from well-seasoned minds is that they have a store of habitual information about how to act in a given situation. And the thing about habits is that you don’t know why they work, just that they do. This is, in part, what separates wisdom from knowledge. Wisdom seems mysterious because it’s inexplicable, predicated upon life experience instead of logical premises. This gives us something of an explanation for why seemingly wiser people can intuit the best course of action.
But it also makes an unsettling prediction: if they were put in a new situation, with which they had no familiarity, they wouldn’t make any better decisions than would someone who is still enthralled in the naive fits of youth. Likewise with mistakes. Mature people make fewer dumb mistakes because they’ve grown adept at not making silly decisions in the situations they frequently encounter. But put them in a new situation and they’re just as likely to screw up as anyone else. The problem here is that there’s a confound with our notion wisdom: a person’s likelihood of encountering a new situation. Twenty-year-olds encounter way more new situations than do seventy-year-olds. If you controlled for the familiarity of the situation—giving the different age groups the same number of unfamiliar encounters—then they’d probably make the same number of mistakes. Younger people might even make fewer mistakes, because they’ve got a higher propensity for thinking on their feet, for coming up with fresh plans. This bears out in reality too—older, seemingly wiser people also make stupid decisions when given the opportunity to do so.
I think this should give us a bit of pause about our conventional notion of wisdom. It is more much situation-dependent we might otherwise think. While this doesn’t nullify the validity of insights from wise elders, it does imply some constraints on how we should expect such knowledge will apply. While wisdom gives you expertise within a particular environment, it doesn’t mean that you’ll be able to generalize that to new experiences. It's not that we necessarily get wiser as we get older, but we put ourselves in fewer situations where we are likely to make mistakes.
Raab HA & Hartley CA. (2018). The development of goal-directed decision making. Morris RM, Bornstein AM, Shenhav A (eds.) Goal-directed Decision Making: Computations and Neural Circuits. Amsterdam: Elsevier.