THE MYTH OF THE AGED SAGE: Does older really mean wiser?

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The concept of the white-haired, bearded ‘wise aged sage’, is very much part of our popular culture. Even if we put this image to one side, our common sense also seems to lead us to the same conclusion; more years lived means more life experience acquired, means more wisdom, surely? But what does the science of Wisdom research tell us? Does older really mean wiser?


With both common culture and common sense in such agreement, it’s understandable why the perception persists. Research done back in the late 1980s by Marion Perlmutter, a professor of developmental psychology at the University of Michigan, showed that people consider wisdom more strongly related to age than either education or gender. We really feel that ‘older is wiser’.

It’s not only the uninformed public that hold this view. Wisdom researchers also share the same expectations about age and wisdom. In a Delphi Method study canvassing the views of 27 International wisdom experts in 2009, significant agreement was reached on 9 characteristics of wisdom. This short-list included the characteristic that wisdom ‘increases with age’.

Furthermore, the ageing of the population has prompted a renewed interest in finding ‘upsides’ to getting older. Wisdom has become a prime candidate in this search. Many people are enthusiastic about this possible benefit to ageing. The next step, of course, it to find the evidence to back up the belief.

Unfortunately, in terms of a quest for empirical evidence, ‘the harvest is relatively small’, to quote Paul Baltes and Jacqui Smith, two pioneering wisdom researchers from the Max Plank Institute in Berlin reporting on their findings in 1989. At the start of the 21st century, Monika Ardelt, a professor of Sociology from the University of Florida checked in with an update: ‘We found no indication that wisdom automatically increases with age.’ The evidence unfortunately does not support our cherished notion of the aged sage.

John Meacham, now a professor at The University of Buffalo, has quite a different take on wisdom and the ageing process altogether. He says that the association of wisdom with ageing, rather than telling us about old people, reflects the needs of young people to attribute wisdom to older persons. They need to believe that those older people in power have learnt from life experience. They need to believe that their institutions are under the watch of those wiser than themselves. Meacham argues that the myth of the aged sage is a much-needed construction of the young.

In fact, he goes further than that. If Wisdom is about, among other things, openness and tolerance, we may in fact get more foolish as we age rather than more wise. He controversially claims that ‘Our experience represents the greatest threat to our wisdom’. As we get older, we confirm our prejudices, become more bigoted, have fewer new experiences and remove ourselves from opportunities to learn about other world-views. ‘Older’ may in fact mean the opposite of ‘wiser’.

Rather than a straightforward linear relationship, some research suggests that wisdom does vary with age, but has a different profile than expected. Gisela Labouvie-vief, a psychologist at the University of Geneva, found that wisdom increases from adolescence to adulthood, peaking in the 30s or 40s, and then tails off in later adulthood.

The relationship seems to be subtler than we first imagined. Stephen Hall, a science writer for the New York Times, writes about the need to distinguish between different elements of wisdom. Cognitive function may decline as a result of brain degeneration, limiting the cognitive aspects of wisdom. However, comfort with uncertainty may well increase, allowing old people to navigate uncertainty more effectively.

This approach chimes nicely with a paper by Judith Gluck, Susan Bluck, Jacqueline Brown and Dan McAdams called ‘The Wisdom of Experience: Autobiographical narratives across adulthood’. The paper argues that the forms of wisdom we employ change across the arcs of our lives. Younger people characterise wisdom primarily as ‘empathetic’ yet middle-aged people see it more as ‘self-determination’. Older people tend to characterise it more in terms of ‘flexibility of knowledge’. So, when we talk about wisdom and ageing, it seems we need to be more specific. Which component of the wisdom construct are we talking about?

The question of wisdom and its relationship with age is more complex than it first seems. Getting older certainly allows for more life experiences hence opportunities for acquiring wisdom, but ageing itself by no means guarantees wisdom. Some elements of wisdom increase with age and some decrease. To turn once again to Baltes and Smith ‘We expect ‘world records’ in wisdom to be held by older adults, although on average older adults may not be wiser than younger adults.’

It seems we have to let go of the comforting image of the aged sage. So, if age doesn’t lead to wisdom, what does? This is the big question facing researchers, and some intriguing answers are emerging….

Why not have a look at the following papers to read a bit more about wisdom and ageing?

Expert Consensus on Characteristics of Wisdom – This paper identifies 9 wisdom characteristics that experts agree on

The Wisdom of Experience: Autobiographical narratives across adulthood – This paper discusses the different forms of wisdom that resonate with different age groups

Antecedents and Effects of Wisdom in Old Age – This paper outlines the factors that influence the development of wisdom

If you have any thoughts about wisdom and ageing, please get in touch. You can contact me via the about page or find me on twitter @EBasedwisdom.


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