WISDOM PROFILES: Judith Glück

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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 eleventh interview in the series, Professor of Developmental Psychology at Alpen-Adria University Klagenfurt, Austria, Judith Glück talks to evidencebasedwisdom about her MORE life experience model of wisdom, as well the surprising relationship between wisdom, curiosity and gratitude.


WISDOM PROFILES SERIES - Judith Gluck (1)


On Wisdom, Curiosity and Gratitude


Judith Glück is a Professor of Developmental Psychology at Alpen-Adria University Klagenfurt, Austria. Her research interests include the development of wisdom, new approaches for measuring wisdom, situational aspects of wisdom, and lay theories of wisdom. Click here to read a key paper in which she assesses the validity of wisdom scales currently used by the research community. Click here to watch Glück’s talk at the University of Chicago’s Wisdom Research forum on the MORE life experience model of wisdom.

In this conversation with evidencebasedwisdom, she talked about the role of curiosity in developing wisdom as well as the unexpected relationship between wisdom and gratitude. She also outlined her MORE life experience model of wisdom, indicating the key resources necessary to meet and learn from life’s inevitable challenges.


How did you first become interested in the scientific study of wisdom?

Originally, I did not intend to become a wisdom researcher at all. At the University of Vienna, I mostly trained as a psychometrician, and my doctoral thesis was on the strategies men and women use to solve spatial problems.

In the summer of 1997, I attended a summer school at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development, and I was very impressed by the Institute. I got to know some people working there, and at some point one of them said that Paul Baltes only talked to people who had at least published in Psychological Review. Overambitious as I was at the time, I decided that one of my career goals would be for Paul Baltes to talk to me.


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One year later, Paul Baltes did talk to me at a conference and offered me a job! I hadn’t published anything in Psych Review, but one of his co-workers had heard me give a talk on the statistical models I was using, and he was interested in working with that approach. So obviously this was a job offer I couldn’t turn down! When I got there, the first thing Paul told me was that I was going to work on wisdom. Of all the research topics of his department, this was probably the one most distant from my previous expertise… so at first I was quite reluctant. But then I got more and more into it.

One important factor was that I met Susan Bluck and learned from her that it’s actually possible to study people’s life stories and the way they make sense of their life experiences. We started working together and that was what really got me into wisdom research: the question of how some people are able to learn from their experiences and get wiser over time.


We started working together and that was what really got me into wisdom research: the question of how some people are able to learn from their experiences and get wiser over time.


You have mentioned in your work that not everybody wants to acquire the kind of knowledge associated with wisdom. What do you think might distinguish people who are interested in such knowledge from people who actively avoid such wisdom-related knowledge?

In our interview studies, we have found that one aspect that distinguishes wise people is their basic curiosity about life, about what experiences “mean,” what they tell us about the human existence. Even when they experience something very difficult, some people have this little voice in the back of their head saying “Isn’t that interesting? I would have thought this would feel different,” and they learn something new about being human.


In our interview studies, we have found that one aspect that distinguishes wise people is their basic curiosity about life, about what experiences “mean,” what they tell us about the human existence.


They may even learn something negative or ambivalent about themselves, because they are more interested in understanding what caused a conflict, for example, than in winning the argument. I believe that this motivational factor is one of the basic things that distinguishes people who are developing wisdom. It helps them to learn continuously about life and about themselves.


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Ursula Staudinger and Ute Kunzmann have written about personality profiles oriented towards growth rather than adjustment, and Monika Ardelt has defined the cognitive dimension of wisdom as a deep desire to understand the truth (even though a wise person will probably be the first to admit that when it comes to the experience of being human, there is no such thing as objective truth). I think they are all getting at this same motivational factor. Many people do not care about the deeper meaning or the insights about life hidden in an experience – they have other goals in life. But those who do, have a higher likelihood of developing wisdom.


Many people do not care about the deeper meaning or the insights about life hidden in an experience – they have other goals in life. But those who do, have a higher likelihood of developing wisdom.


Of course, this might just be one of the typical projections of professional psychologists who think that everyone else should share their interest in human nature … but after all, wisdom is about human nature.

I understand from your research that life challenges act as essential catalysts for the development of wisdom. However, your ‘MORE Life Experience model’ suggests certain key resources are necessary to deal with and learn from these challenges and hence develop this wisdom. Can you tell us a little more about these resources?

The general assumption of the MORE Life Experience model is that certain psychological resources influence (a) what life challenges experiences people encounter, (b) how they appraise them and deal with them, and (c) how they reflect upon them later, make sense of them, and integrate them – that is, whether they grow wiser from the experience. We have recently renamed some of the resources to better reflect our understanding of them.


The general assumption of the MORE Life Experience model is that certain psychological resources influence (a) what life challenges experiences people encounter, (b) how they appraise them and deal with them, and (c) how they reflect upon them later, make sense of them, and integrate them.


The first one, originally labeled sense of mastery, should more accurately be called managing uncertainty and uncontrollability. As the new label says, it is about being able to accept the fact that we can only predict or control a small part of our lives – something that we tend to deny or ignore as we hold on to our control illusions. Wise people do not overestimate their amount of control over the things that happen to them, but this uncertainty does not scare them because they trust in their own ability to deal with whatever happens and in the support of others.


Wise people do not overestimate their amount of control over the things that happen to them, but this uncertainty does not scare them because they trust in their own ability to deal with whatever happens and in the support of others.


Openness means that wise individuals are interested in new ideas and perspectives and tolerant of people who do not share their views. They do not aim to surround themselves with like-minded others, as so many of us do in these polarizing times, but to listen respectfully to people with different views and to broaden their perspective.


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Reflectivity comes close to the truth-seeking attitude I have described above – it’s about wanting to understand complex issues in all their complexity, including wanting to understand and know oneself with all one’s ambiguities, weaknesses, and blind spots. Wise individuals are always willing to take a new perspective and gain a new insight, even if it complicates things.


Wise individuals are always willing to take a new perspective and gain a new insight, even if it complicates things.


Emotional sensitivity and regulation means the willingness to consider one’s own and others’ emotions as indicators of important aspects of a situation, not just as something that needs to be either suppressed or fully expressed. Wise people are attentive to emotions and take them seriously, but they are also well able to regulate them as a situation requires.


Wise people are attentive to emotions and take them seriously, but they are also well able to regulate them as a situation requires.


Your research suggests that wise people seem to exhibit considerable levels of gratitude, particularly for life experiences (even negative experiences) and close relationships. Can you tell us more about the role of gratitude in wisdom?

This was a completely unexpected finding from our first large-scale wisdom study. We had never thought about gratitude before, but soon after we started interviewing participants, my co-worker Susanne König noticed that wisdom nominees seemed to mention that they felt grateful far more often than other participants – even grateful for difficult experiences because they had grown from them.

She followed up on this by analyzing both how often participants mentioned gratitude spontaneously and by asking them to fill out gratitude questionnaires. It turned out that wisdom nominees indeed talked about gratitude more often, and they also were more grateful and grateful for different things than non-nominees.


It turned out that wisdom nominees indeed talked about gratitude more often, and they also were more grateful and grateful for different things than non-nominees.


So wisdom is empirically related to gratitude, which brings up the question whether gratitude is really a component of wisdom. I don’t really think so – I think of it more as a kind of by-product of wisdom. Wise people are more aware of the limits of their own control over things, which means that they appreciate the contributions of others – and those of good luck! – to the good things that happen to them.

They have close relationships to others and appreciate these relationships – in fact, we found that wisdom nominees reported being grateful for their partners far more often than other participants did.


In fact, we found that wisdom nominees reported being grateful for their partners far more often than other participants did.


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They have also experienced and reflected upon their share of bad things, and as they know how easily something negative can happen, they appreciate the good times in their life, even the small ones.

Thus, gratitude is part of the general attitude that wise individuals have about life: open to change, appreciative of the good things and fully aware of life’s ever-changing nature.

In your talk ‘Measuring Wisdom: Old & New Thoughts’, you highlighted a number of challenges associated with measuring wisdom. What do you think is the most important aspect of wisdom measurement to address and how might this be done?

I think the most important question is how we can contextualize our measures so that they tap people’s personal experience, but at the same time maintain standardization and comparability across people. In real life, wisdom manifests itself in difficult situations – situations where a lot is at stake and people are highly emotionally involved. How can we re-create such situations in the lab?


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As Igor Grossmann’s group has shown, self-report measures that ask for people’s own perceptions of their general tendencies do not really capture how people would think and act in such challenging situations. Asking people about a theoretical problem of a fictitious person may capture their knowledge about life, but not their ability to utilize this knowledge in difficult real-life situations. It is obviously impossible (or at least severely unethical) to re-create such challenging situations in the lab, but I believe there are still ways to get closer to real-life experience than most current measures do.


Asking people about a theoretical problem of a fictitious person may capture their knowledge about life, but not their ability to utilize this knowledge in difficult real-life situations.


My lab has used interviews about past difficult situations in people’s own lives, Igor Grossmann’s group has developed a self-report questionnaire that refers to how people dealt with such a past situation. In addition to looking at people’s own lives, advice-giving approaches – where people interact with others faced with different problems – capture a situation that is very typical for wisdom. For example, Ute Kunzmann’s group has used videos of real couples talking about real conflicts and asked participants to talk about what the partners in the video could consider and do. This approach could be extended in very interesting ways.

In your work you talk about context influencing our ability to behave wisely and you indicate some ways in which our wisdom can be blocked by our environment. With this in mind, what kind of contexts or situations are most suited for nurturing wise reasoning, and do you think we can build those into our environments, communities and institutions?

The idea that wisdom is influenced by the environment is closely related to Igor Grossmann’s work on wisdom as a state rather than a stable trait. Research from his lab as well as early work by Ursula Staudinger and Paul Baltes has shown that people reason more wisely if they are made to consider other perspectives than their own, i.e. to decenter from their personal viewpoint.


Research from his lab as well as early work by Ursula Staudinger and Paul Baltes has shown that people reason more wisely if they are made to consider other perspectives than their own, i.e. to decenter from their personal viewpoint.


Similarly, research on the “wisdom of crowds” (nicely summarized in James Surowiecki’s book) shows that groups can be wiser than individuals, as they bring together diverse perspectives and ways of thinking – but only if they have a group culture that values and encourages diversity of opinions. And Bob Sternberg’s work on foolishness suggests that environmental conditions that make people believe they are omniscient and omnipotent are likely to reduce wisdom.


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Taken together, these ideas imply that we need to create environments that encourage people – especially our leaders! – to take different perspectives into account, to listen to people from various backgrounds and to seek out divergent views on important issues.


Taken together, these ideas imply that we need to create environments that encourage people – especially our leaders! – to take different perspectives into account, to listen to people from various backgrounds and to seek out divergent views on important issues.


However, it seems that the opposite is happening: with increasing ideological polarization throughout the Western world and the availability of online media that will support just about any viewpoint, it has become a lot easier for people to avoid communicating with people who disagree with them.


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I think it would be extremely important to create cultures, online as well as offline, that encourage civilized discussion of difficult issues across ideological borders. I think we need to incorporate such approaches in our schools and universities and wherever else it is possible. Wisdom research may indeed have to become much more application-oriented.

Which single practical change do you think would lead to the greatest increase in the levels of wisdom or wise reasoning in society? 

This is a great question, and I do not have a good answer. I think it is one of the main questions that wisdom research should be thinking about.

After being neglected for so long by the scientific community, why do you think that wisdom has recently started to receive more attention?

There are various reasons, but I think the most important one is that many people perceive the world to be in need of wisdom. The big ideologies have failed, and free-market capitalism clearly does not solve the problems the world is faced with, ranging from global and national inequality to climate change.


There are various reasons, but I think the most important one is that many people perceive the world to be in need of wisdom. The big ideologies have failed, and free-market capitalism clearly does not solve the problems the world is faced with, ranging from global and national inequality to climate change.


As Bob Sternberg has been arguing for a long time, the world needs good thinkers who are motivated by ethical values, caring more about the common good than about their individual success. Many people seem to notice that, both inside and outside academia.

You have mentioned the importance of observing wise behaviours directly and also spoke about potential of ethnographic studies – living with and observing wise people in their daily lives. What do you think is the most pressing priority or most fruitful line of inquiry for the wisdom research community over the next few years? What are you currently working on?

As mentioned earlier, I believe that it is important to bring wisdom research closer to real life. In our new research project, we are trying to understand the conditions that foster or hinder wisdom in professional contexts. I am also still interested in how wisdom develops – how people learn from experience and grow wiser over time.

It would also be important to go beyond our Western, first-world conceptions of what wisdom is. For example, my colleague Innocent Atwijukire recently did a study of wisdom conceptions in Uganda. Wisdom takes on quite a different meaning when people are struggling to survive or to provide an education for their children.

I believe that core aspects of wisdom, such as its orientation towards a common good, are universal, but that they can take on a very different meaning under different living conditions. Most of our research has been focusing on highly privileged populations.


I believe that core aspects of wisdom, such as its orientation towards a common good, are universal, but that they can take on a very different meaning under different living conditions. Most of our research has been focusing on highly privileged populations.


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Why not have a look at the following videos, papers and articles to learn more about Glück’s work?

Why is Wisdom Such a Rarity? Video Presentation – In this talk at Karolinska institutet, Solna, Sweden, Glück answers the question ‘Why are more of us not becoming wise in the course of our lives?’

MORE Life Experience: Video Presentation – In this talk at the University of Chicago’s Wisdom Research Forum 2015, Glück outlines here MORE Life Experience model of wisdom, as well as sharing insights about the role of gratitude in wisdom.

How to measure wisdom: content, reliability, and validity of five measures (Glück, König, Naschenweng, Redzanowski, Dorner, Straßer & Wiedermann, 2013) – In this paper, Glück’s team compares the effectiveness of four leading wisdom scales. It also discusses a number of problems in the measurement of wisdom.

Making Things Better and Learning a Lesson: Experiencing Wisdom Across the Lifespan (Bluck & Glück, 2004) – In this paper with longtime collaborator Susan Bluck, the pair illustrate how people view wisdom as a resource for turning negative events into positive events.

Gratitude Is With Me All The Time: How Gratitude Relates to Wisdom (König & Glück, 2013) – Here, König & Glück investigate the relationship between gratitude, wisdom and negative events, as well as the differences in male and female pathways to wisdom.

Judith Glück’s site – Visit Glück‘s site where you can find further papers detailing her latest research, including details of the current project Professional wisdom and situational obstacles to wisdom.


If you have any thoughts about the interview, please get in touch.

You can contact me at charles@evidencebasedwisdom.com, via the about page or find me on twitter @EBasedwisdom.

Charles


 

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