The Wisdom Profiles Series is a collection of original interviews conducted by evidencebasedwisdom with leading researchers in the field of Wisdom Research or related fields. All participants are working to increase our understanding of wisdom and its place in the modern world.
In the third interview of the series, Adult Cognition researcher Eeva K. Kallio talks about integrative thinking, ill-defined problems, the limits of logic and the launch of the new European Wisdom Research Network Sophia & Phronesis.
Adjunct Professor of Adult Development Dr Eeva K. Kallio
On Wisdom and Integrative Thinking
EEVA K. KALLIO PhD is an adjunct professor in the University of Jyväskylä and University of Tampere, Finland. She is a founding member and the first president of ESRAD (European Society for Research on Adult Development) . She is also team leader of the ADULTE-WISE research team in University of Jyväskylä. Her main research interests relate to the development of adult integrative (i.e. relativistic-dialectical) thinking. In 2016, she became a founding member of the new European Wisdom Research, Learning and Development Network Sophia and Phronesis.
How did you become interested in wisdom research?
I’m an adjunct professor at the University of Jyväskylä and University of Tampere in the fields of adult development and adult cognitive development. My main field of study has been Adult Cognitive Development. During the whole time I have been a scholar in our University I have been researching adult cognition, especially in the first phase of my career. I did studies of the development of thinking in university students and I did an intervention study regarding the university students’ scientific thinking. After that, I changed my department and I became more interested in adult cognitive development, more generally. During that phase I first became interested in wisdom. I noticed that in many books on adult development, one part of the book was very often about the question of wisdom. This was about twenty years ago or something like that. So that was my first contact with wisdom research. I became immediately very intrigued by that because I also have the highest degree in Philosophy in my MA degree. It came so very close to that, to my area. I noticed that ‘Yes – Wisdom is very interesting’, but I didn’t consider it in a very serious way during those days. It was during the last decade that I became more interested in wisdom, because I have seen that the amount of research has very rapidly risen in that whole field. So it cannot be excluded anymore from this field, so it must be included somewhere as a part of adult development.
So, you’ve come to wisdom research through your background in Adult Cognition. Do you have a working definition for wisdom that you use in your research?
It’s a huge area and a huge field. It includes so many traditions and so many paradigms nowadays, because every scholar seems to have a very ambitious idea to have their own model. So there are very different models around here in this field. For me, I define it from scratch as a way or ability to take many perspectives at the same time, to handle them together to give the best positive solution for some given problem. It’s not only cognitive. It’s some kind of cognitive plus X-factor. There must be some kind of cognition part of it but there is something more. It’s not just intelligence and good reasoning or thinking in a logical way.
I define it from scratch as a way or ability to take many perspectives at the same time, to handle them together to give the best positive solution for some given problem. It’s not only cognitive. It’s some kind of cognitive plus X-factor.
Is this ‘X-factor’ you refer to an emotional component, or is it the idea that intelligence must be employed in the service of ‘doing good’?
I think it must be something like that. There must be some kind of emotional involvement and also some kind of ethical action or ethical reasoning or ethical volition. And something like self-transcendence, of course, because you are working for the good of the whole group of humanity. So it goes beyond. It can’t be just cognition. It’s similar to my research interests before wisdom, which was ‘relativistic dialectical thinking’, or as it’s also often called, ‘postformal thinking’. It has been claimed to be a part of wisdom constructs, for example by Paul Baltes et al from the Berlin Paradigm. They are claiming quite openly that postformal thinking is a component of wisdom. So actually I have been doing wisdom research for decades without knowing I have been doing wisdom research!
In your research you refer to ‘postformal thinking’. I think people generally assume that formal, logical reasoning is the peak of adult cognition, but your work involves the study of ‘postformal thinking’, which is perhaps a mode of thinking that developmentally is reached after formal thinking. Is that something you could tell us a little bit more about?
So, Jean Piaget was a Swiss-born biologist who first claimed that, by observing his own kids, he found there is some kind of logical continuation of reasoning abilities and there are certain developmental stages, one after another, from childhood birth to youth. He claimed that it stopped here, and the highest form of that logical reasoning is what nowadays we call scientific, hypothetic, deductive reasoning and reaches its highest peak in adolescence. He didn’t assume any kind of postformal thinking beyond that. But there were great difficulties because, many years ago, formal thinking was studied in bigger groups all over the world, and it was found that not even half of the population were able to think in that way. So it was found that it was very rare. This scientific thinking was not the universal way of thinking. Because of that, very many researchers, especially in the United States, were interested to study questions such as ‘Can there be any other forms of thinking beyond formal thinking?’ and ‘Is there any kind of further development during our adult lifespan?’ So, Piaget’s theory gave rise to a very high amount of criticism and, because of that, many adult cognition models were proposed in the 1970s and 1980s.
So it was found that it was very rare. This scientific thinking was not the universal way of thinking. Because of that, very many researchers, especially in the United States, were interested to study questions such as ‘Can there be any other forms of thinking beyond formal thinking?’ and ‘Is there any kind of further development during our adult lifespan?’
So he suggested that this scientific reasoning was the peak of adult thinking but when they looked out into the real world, not many people thought in that way?
Right. Even in universities. I replicated it in my dissertation, here in the University of Jyväskylä. Not even here! It was two-thirds of the 100 students who were able to, to some degree, think in that way. i.e. about 2/3 were able in mixed concrete and formal thinking or showed some basic principles of formal thinking. The highest, matured forms of formal thinking in university students are very rare. It’s very surprising.
From what I have read in your work on postformal thinking, the idea is that in some situations it is appropriate to use logical thinking and in other situations it might make sense to use a different approach. If you had developed to that postformal stage, you could pick the right model for the right situation. Is that part of it?
Yes, in a way. In ‘postformal’ thinking, or integrative thinking, which is the term I prefer to use, one has overcome the limitations of formal thinking. In formal thinking, you always have the right answer to the question, because it’s some kind of two-value logic. These are so-called ‘well-defined’ problems. All the premises are given and the subject knows what has to be done. In well-defined problems, there’s only one right answer.
In ‘postformal’ thinking, or integrative thinking, which I prefer to use, one has overcome the limitations of formal thinking. In formal thinking, you always have the right answer to the question, because it’s some kind of two-value logic. These are so-called ‘well-defined’ problems.
Which is not like real life!
Right! That’s the point. In adult integrative thinking, you can understand the right, logical conclusion, but in the midst of many perspectives, many world views, many value systems, many kinds of emotions and emotional processes. You can’t say that there’s just one conclusion because there is always the variation of these perspectives to consider (click here to read more about Kallio’s work on ‘integrative thinking’, or as ‘the ability to integrate complex components together’).
You can’t say that there’s just one conclusion because there is always the variation of these perspectives to consider.
Is there possibly some kind of post postformal or integrative thinking stage? You could argue from perspective A this would be the answer, and from perspective B this would be the answer, but not stop there. Rather you could then synthesise these perspectives to find the optimal answer, or is that missing the point?
You’re right. In the highest form of integrative thinking or dialectical thinking or evaluative thinking or postformal thinking or whatever term you use, it is claimed that you can see those different viewpoints and you try to combine or integrate them for some kind of solution. Although you understand that it’s a temporary solution because all the time there are new perspectives and new problems arising.
In the highest form of integrative thinking or dialectical thinking or evaluative thinking or postformal thinking or whatever term you use, it is claimed that you can see those different viewpoints and you try to combine or integrate them for some kind of solution. Although you understand that it’s a temporary solution because all the time there are new perspectives and new problems arising.
So it could the right solution for this moment, having considered all the models. However it will only ever be a temporary solution?
You talk in your work about the need for the term ‘integrative thinking’. Can you tell us why there is a need for this label in the field of adult cognitive development?
I think, for simplicity. I have been reading so many of these papers on postformal thinking and formal thinking and there is a kind of confusion in the field nowadays. There are tens of postformal thinking models and they all use their own terms. I don’t even remember how many terms there are. Very loosely they are called ‘postformal thinking’ with their own terms, like inter-systematic thinking or evaluative thinking or dialectical thinking or autonomous thinking. That is the first reason for me using the term integrative thinking (click here to read more about Kallio’s work on integrative thinking). The second reason is a logical paradox suggesting ‘postformal’ is not the best description of this kind of thinking. We don’t even know how universal ‘formal’ thinking actually is because it hasn’t been measured so well so far, meaning the ‘formal’ stage hasn’t even been properly established. So there can’t be claims of any higher developmental stage. So there’s a paradox. There’s a contradiction here.
We can’t really talk about postformal thinking until we’ve become clear on formal thinking…
Right. That’s the point exactly!
So that’s why you prefer to not use the phrase postformal because it suggests it’s ‘above’, whereas integrative thinking doesn’t suggest it’s above?
Integrative is a natural term and it doesn’t have any kind of philosophical assumptions behind it. The labels ‘relativistic’ or ‘dialectical’ are mainly used in Philosophy. As far as I have been in contact with philosophers here in Finland, they criticise these terms very harshly because they carry a slightly different meaning for them.
Are you using the term ‘integrative’ in the sense that this kind of thinking involves integrating logic with emotion, internal with external, and so on?
Integration is necessary in any practical situation where you are faced with very fuzzy or ‘ill-defined’ problems, as these kinds of problem are called nowadays. There are no clear premises for how to reach the best conclusion, so you must integrate many features and many things in that practical situation. For example, cognition, the hidden motives and values in the group, emotional links between people, different worldviews and things like that. So integration ability in its highest form is needed.
Integration is necessary in any practical situation where you are faced with very fuzzy or ‘ill-defined’ problems, as these kinds of problem are called nowadays. There are no clear premises for how to reach the best conclusion, so you must integrate many features and many things in that practical situation.
If we can’t even master formal thinking as a species, how likely is it that we’ll be able to master multiple-model thinking, integrating these models and then picking the best solutions? Is this something that normal people can really do?
This is a big question actually. I think here, integrative or postformal thinking has much in common with wisdom. It is said that wisdom is a very rare phenomenon. Only very exceptional people can handle it. I think this is the same thing. I think it’s almost impossible for one person to handle so many variables in a situation. So, it’s more that we must be in the process of working towards it.
Are there ways people can develop their facility for thinking integratively or postformally in a practical sense?
In my dissertation I studied formal thinking, in the Piagetian sense, and the ablity to integrate different formal systems together. I gave a group of students two logical systems to compare with each other; they had to handle each logical system themselves and after that, they had to evaluate them and create some kind of meta sentence out of these different systems. So they had to consider many perspectives, but the domain was wholly logical in that case. I had two experimental groups. The original training session lasted one spring. I had a pretesting session of course and then a post-testing immediately after the teaching session and then a second post-testing after half a year. To one group I only taught formal thinking. I taught the other group to compare different logical systems with each other. The second group developed some sort of metacognition of different systems, understanding the differences and similarities between them, and it also had a lasting effect. In the post-testing it was found that only the group that was received that kind of evaluation and comparison way of teaching still exhibited that kind of integrative way of thinking.
By identifying post-formal thinking as the highest form of thinking, is there a danger that logic will be downgraded or abandoned?
This is a very interesting question. I think logic cannot disappear in this process. 1 + 1 is still 2. So it can’t change how true mathematical logic and its truth is. One must also understand however that there may be limitations, so we can go beyond rational logic in some instances.
I think logic cannot disappear in this process. 1 + 1 is still 2. So it can’t change how true mathematical logic and its truth is. One must also understand however that there may be limitations, so we can go beyond rational logic in some instances.
So if it’s a well-defined problem we use logic, but if it’s an ill-defined problem, logic’s not up to the task, as such?
So I suppose some element of wisdom must involve determining what kind of problem you have in front of you – a well-defined problem or an ill-defined problem?
Right. Right. So it’s some kind of evaluation – you must reflect which kind of problem this is.
Again, it’s a lot to ask of a human being on a busy day, stuck in traffic!
Yes. It’s a very complex way of thinking.
Since the world is so much more connected nowadays, we are all faced with many different perspectives and worldviews in the press every day. Is the emerging interest in evaluative thinking in academic circles a response to the greater diversity of our modern times? Is there now a greater need for frameworks that allow us to entertain multiple perspectives and truths than in the past?
In a way, yes. It is right to say that we are living in such a global universe nowadays. Everything is connected. We are connected through the Internet, travelling, political change that affects all of us around the globe. We must make an effort to understand other cultures. Nowadays it’s a must in our world, but I don’t think it’s only a sign of our times. As far as I know there have been times in history where globalisation and some kind of global communications have been available. So I don’t think it’s only a feature of our time.
So why do you think that wisdom has recently started to receive so much more attention from the scientific community?
I think it’s because our times are quite chaotic. There are so many risks and it seems to me that we can’t solve them only by reasoning. The things that are problematic now are so complex, so universal and so global. For example, climate change, what we are doing to our earth, all these material things we are buying and not using anymore, the gap between rich countries and poor countries, this current exodus in Europe, and all this political imbalance which is going on. These are such big and interconnected problems that I think everybody feels in their gut that there is something risky going on, which can’t be solved with the same means we have used before. This can sound very pessimistic, but I really think there is some kind of need for something else and new now.
These are such big and interconnected problems that I think everybody feels in their gut that there is something risky going on, which can’t be solved with the same means we have used before.
I have heard it said that we are acquiring knowledge faster than we are acquiring the wisdom to know how to use that knowledge.
Right. It’s a question of ethics and morals. We have plenty of knowledge based on scientific research, but we can use it for bad or for good.
This brings up the thorny topic of values. Especially in these culturally diverse times, people often feel uncomfortable talking about values.
Right – especially in universities! We are focused on just producing articles, and we don’t think about the consequences or conclusions of them. So we are just putting the knowledge into the hands of others and we don’t take any kind of responsibility for the results. It’s a very big problem, because we are then not involved in how those results are used in practice.
Science strives to be objective but values seem inherently subjective. Is there a way of analysing the values of different communities and teasing out the ‘metavalues’ that everyone can adhere to? Perhaps this is what initiatives like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights aim to do…
Right. I have seen papers where some of the core maxims of the different world religions have been collated together and there are quite a number of similar principles across religions. For example, ‘The Golden Rule’ – Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. It is found in many world religions. So there is some kind of meta-analysis to be done across the different value systems – ‘What are the common principles?’ The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the same thing. There is something common in all these different worldviews and perspectives and religions and spiritual practices or historic movements. They all have the same ideal goal. The problem is when someone thinks that they are the only one who has got the true opinion. This is a problem – the absolutist way of thinking – the ‘well-defined’ way of thinking. Do you see my point?
The problem is when someone thinks that they are the only one who has got the true opinion. This is a problem – the absolutist way of thinking – the ‘well-defined’ way of thinking.
Absolutely, but it’s very difficult to hold an opinion and at the same time be accept that it might not be the right opinion. It requires two kinds of thinking at the same time.
Yes. There must be some kind of humility, to accept always that there exist other viewpoints that can be appropriate for that situation.
There must be some kind of humility, to accept always that there exist other viewpoints that can be appropriate for that situation.
It may be that young people growing up today, who see so many different opinions in the papers and on the internet everyday are more comfortable with that kind of ‘multiple-perspective’ thinking?
Yes, I think so. I have seen that with young people here in Finland. They have different values and they find it very easy to get on with foreign cultures. For them, it’s easy to understand that there are many worldviews and that they are all equally valid at some time or on some level.
Based on your work, what do you think individuals can do to develop wisdom?
This is a very difficult question. It depends on so many different factors. The first thing that comes to my mind is to have lots of different experiences, but it’s not the sufficient condition for wisdom, I think. For example if you look at old people who claim to be wise, they have different amounts of experience, so experience can’t be the only thing that determines wisdom. The second thing I think is reflection.
I suspect that sometimes people’s range of experiences shrinks as they age and their lives can contract, meaning they are exposed to less diverse opinions…
Also there is the always the danger of becoming a cynic. The more you know about something, you may become more cynical. This tells us something about the nature of wisdom. The third component, besides the experience and reflection, must be some kind of ethical principles. If you have some kind of ethical ideal, I think it’s easier.
This helps clarify what exactly you’re optimising your decisions for, what you’re working towards. If you’re trying to make the wisest or best decision, you have to know ‘best’ in what sense, to what end…
Also, if you are a cynic you don’t have very high ethical standards because you don’t care about anything anymore.
Which single practical change do you think would lead to the greatest increase in the levels of wisdom in society?
I think I’m quite blind here. I’m living in Scandinavia and all Scandinavian countries have quite similar value systems: to have some kind of equal rights for everybody, equal education for example, to give everybody some kind of start point for their lives from childhood. I think this is quite important to make a stable country. Still there are many difficulties in Scandinavian countries but still we have been able to make an environment that has democratic principles. I think equal education is one of the really important things, and to educate people that all human beings are equal in a way.
I think equal education is one of the really important things, and to educate people that all human beings are equal in a way.
What are you working on at the moment?
I am just about to publish the first book on adult cognitive development. It’s in Finnish and there is some negotiation going on for a translation into English to make it available internationally. It’s called ‘Development of Adult thinking – Towards Multiple Perspectives’. In Finnish, it’s coming out this June. Besides that, I have a handbook idea with three other scholars who have been very prominent in the field of adult development.
You and your colleagues have recently launched a European Wisdom Research Network called ‘Sophia and Phronesis’. What are you hopes and plans for this new network?
I hope the initiative creates group of scholars, who study wisdom from different perspectives. I also hope there will be some practical developments, not just theoretical studies of the field. (Click here to learn more about the Sophia and Phronesis).
I also hope there will be some practical developments, not just theoretical studies of the field.
Why not have a look at the following papers and articles to read more about Eeva Kallio’s research?
To contact Dr Eeva Kallio directly, you can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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