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WISDOM PROFILES: Ursula M. Staudinger

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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 tenth interview in the series, we meet Founding Director of The Columbia Aging Centre and lifespan psychologist, Ursula M. Staudinger. Staudinger is highly regarded for her work in the development of both the Berlin Wisdom Paradigm and the Bremen Measure of Personal Wisdom. She spoke with evidencebasedwisdom about the critical relationship between wisdom, personality adjustment and growth.


WISDOM PROFILES SERIES - Ursula Staudinger


On Wisdom, Personality Adjustment and Growth


Ursula M. Staudinger is Founding Director of The Columbia Aging Centre and a lifespan psychologist. As well as having developed the much-celebrated Berlin Wisdom Paradigm with Paul Baltes in the 1980s, she has more recently developed the Bremen Measure of Personal Wisdom.

Following her presentation at the Center for Practical Wisdom Research Forum 2017 in Chicago, she spoke with evidencebasedwisdom about her most recent work on the critical relationship between wisdom, personality adjustment and growth. She also discussed her distinction between general wisdom and personal wisdom, her research regarding the wisdom of interactive minds, and why stable societies reserve wisdom for the few.

Audio excerpts from this conversation can be heard in the EBW Podcast: Wisdom Reloaded.


Do you have a definition of wisdom that you find the most helpful in your work?

Yes indeed. We have defined wisdom as deep insight and sound judgement in the fundamental issues of life, which are characterised by high uncertainty, usually.

Beyond this definition of wisdom, we have devised five quality criteria, if you wish, to determine whether a certain judgement is wiser or less wise, because as you know with wisdom, there is no right or wrong, and so you have to have criteria along which judgement is wiser.


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The Berlin Wisdom Paradigm

So to just give you three of the five, one is called ‘lifespan contextualism’, which means that wise judgement embeds this fundamental life problem in a timescale so it understands that it has a history, how it developed, and that it has short-term/long-term consequences, and it is also embedding the problem across different life domains. A difficult problem may arise, for instance, in the work domain. However, someone who has wise judgement realises that this has interconnections with your private life, your family life, with other areas in your life.


We have defined wisdom as deep insight and sound judgement in the fundamental issues of life, which are characterised by high uncertainty, usually.


Then there’s the dimension of ‘value relativism’, which is actually very crucial. It means that wise judgement has an understanding that people come to a problem with different value priorities, and that those value priorities come out of their history and their biography, and you bring your own values to a given problem situation. The wiser the judgement is, the better the person is able to balance these different values and priorities settings.

Finally the most difficult one of all is the realisation, and then the management of the uncertainties in life, which we don’t like as human beings at all, because we like to have control. We like to be able to plan, but life is the opposite. Life is full of surprises. It always goes other ways, and a wise judgement makes it possible to incorporate this uncertainty that is inherent in human life, and actually make the most out of it, by always being open to revising what you thought before, if new evidence, and maybe even contradictory evidence, comes up.


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You spoke today in your talk about the difference between personal wisdom and general wisdom. That’s probably a distinction that members of the public might be unfamiliar with. Can you tell us a little bit about that distinction?

You can think and judge and reason about fundamental problems of life in general, as you observe them in other people or you read about them or you hear about them, or you can have this kind of deep judgement about your own life and the problems that are occurring in your own life.

You have through your work identified a number of procedures or interventions that actually increase wisdom-related performance. Would you be able to tell us a little about some of those?

One intervention study that we did, and that turned out to be highly successful, was to say ‘Wisdom is a handful. It’s really hard for one person to have it in one head. How about testing the idea that if we brought two heads together, they could come up with wiser judgement?’ That’s what we did in one study, which we called ‘Interactive minds.’

The design was that we invited people to our lab, and they were to bring a person with whom they confide about difficult life issues. Then, we brought these people to our procedure, to think aloud about difficult life problems. In one group, they did that together. They discussed the problem for half an hour. Then they were taken to separate rooms to actually give their final response.

The other group was separated when they came to the lab. They just thought individually about the difficult problem, and then gave their responses.


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What we found was that the group that had a chance basically to brainstorm, if you wish, with this confidant about the difficult life problem before then going to a room and having some time to reflect about the brainstorm and then gave their answer – they had a highly improved performance over the people that thought about it alone, but also, over the people who after the brainstorm immediately had to give their answers.


So we took from this that, one setting which facilitates wisdom-related judgement is to expose yourself to a multitude of perspectives and different angles and then have some reflection time to weigh and cross-out and maybe revise your own thoughts, and then give your advice or your judgement on a difficult life situation.


So we took from this that, one setting which facilitates wisdom-related judgement is to expose yourself to a multitude of perspectives and different angles and then have some reflection time to weigh and cross-out and maybe revise your own thoughts, and then give your advice or your judgement on a difficult life situation. So that was highly efficient. Also, what we found is that, because we compared people across the adult age range, as we get older, we are better able to make use of this collective brainstorming if you wish.

It was interesting what you were saying today in your talk about the expectation that as we get older, you would expect that wisdom would come with age, but in fact sometimes there’s a narrowing of perspectives with increasing age. With self-knowledge we can become more certain about what we like or don’t like, and so we can tend towards being less open. Is there anything that can be done on a societal level to counteract this effect?

Actually, because this is such a crucial link to wisdom, I got really interested in ‘openness to new experience’ which is a personality characteristic which declines starting in midlife in our current times and societies. So we did an intervention study, which was actually a real-life programme that we were able to evaluate. The idea was to look at people who were volunteering who were all 55-plus.

Sometimes, they start volunteering and they encounter the volunteering setting, and they find that it doesn’t square with their expectations, they get frustrated, and they drop out rather quickly. It was actually a government programme that devised the curriculum. The intention was to empower volunteers to become more skilled at being a volunteer, rather than just assuming ‘because I have time and I’m older, I’m a good volunteer.’

It was a very short programme – nine days in total – and we were following the people who participated in the programme. We had a baseline assessment of ‘openness’, another assessment after the programme (which was three months later after the baseline assessment) and then another one twelve months later, so a total of fifteen months. We were able to compare it with the group on the waiting list for the programme – they were also volunteers but they had not yet participated.


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What we found was that, after roughly six to seven months, the people who had participated and then continued to volunteer, they were on a very upward trend on ‘openness to new experience’, whereas the waiting group stayed flat and stable. We take this to say ‘One way to deal with an avoidance of novelty, if you wish, as we get older, is to provide the opportunities that make it likely that also in a new environment, you’ll be successful. And if you provide the skills to people that help them grow in confidence that they can be successful, then they do have positive experiences.’


We take this to say ‘One way to deal with an avoidance of novelty, if you wish, as we get older, is to provide the opportunities that make it likely that also in a new environment, you’ll be successful. And if you provide the skills to people that help them grow in confidence that they can be successful, then they do have positive experiences.’


It’s like a positive spiral, as compared to, first of all, not even providing the opportunities for novel experiences, and secondly just expecting everyone to deal with it themselves, leading to failures and negative emotions that people try and stay away from if they can. So I think there are some easy ways, even in the labour market, to counteract this closing in on openness.

So the assumption that older people would of course be wiser leads to the assumption that they would automatically be able to handle novel situations. In fact, you’re saying that older people still need skills training if they’re going to be successful at something they take on later?

Yes, and I mean a lot of volunteers I think were very surprised by what they encountered in the volunteering setting. They found that it wasn’t such that people were waiting there with open arms: ‘Oh finally you’ve come Mr Smith, with all your time and your experience.’ That’s not the way it is. Actually you need to take yourself back a lot, if you want to make a contribution.

You spoke today about two different types of response to life’s challenges – ‘adjustment’ and ‘growth.’ You were describing how the interaction between them perhaps gives us the most likely hope of moving in the direction of wisdom. Could you tell us a little bit about that?

Yes. Actually this is an insight from the personality literature, which has taught us over the last decades that, as we walk through life, we make progress on certain dimensions of our personality just by getting older – it’s quite wonderful! We become more agreeable. We become more conscientious. We become more emotionally balanced, have higher environmental mastery, become more self-acceptant and have more positive relationships with others.

At the same time, we become less open to new experience. We unfortunately lose purpose in life. We lose our incentive for further growth, and we lose out on autonomy.


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So there are two streams. On the one hand, the one that improves with age, describes how we actually get better in the way we adjust in the community in that we are living in society. We are dealing with the tasks that are given to us and we are successful. We are mastering them. We maintain our wellbeing. We are good with others. This is very important – I always call it the social glue of society – because people who are conscientious, they are reliable. People who are agreeable are easy to deal with and they are not moody. So, it’s a very important piece in a community.

On the other hand, this decline in openness, this decline in purpose in life, the decline in the growth impetus, is a decline in our maturation towards growth and moving beyond ourselves – a bit grandiose, but that’s what growth is. That is actually what would lead us further towards wisdom. Currently what we observe is that, with age, this goes down rather than up.

From the most recent data analysis of our longitudinal data set, it seems that this movement towards adjustment provides an important launch pad for the potential for moving forward on growth. We found that one type of people did exactly that. They criss-crossed between moving forward on adjustment and moving forward on growth, and both profited towards, in the end in later life, being higher on wisdom.


We found that one type of people did exactly that. They criss-crossed between moving forward on adjustment and moving forward on growth, and both profited towards, in the end in later life, being higher on wisdom.


Meanwhile, the opposite group had more of an exclusive priority on adjustment, which is actually very much rewarded, because we may turn out to get a better salary. If we are more streamlined, if we are good to the boss, we maybe get a raise, whereas the person who questions the boss may not so easily get a raise, and so forth and so forth. So actually those people who prioritise adjustment and supress growth, they have the least chance of coming out with higher wisdom in late life.

So, as much as some level of adjustment is important to be able to have the degrees of freedom to think about growth, if you prioritise adjustment over growth, it is drying growth out, if you wish.


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It’s an interesting contradiction to the kitchen-sink wisdom of ‘put a brave face on it – look at the silver lining.’ If we were to look at applying this research, how could you change society in a way that would perhaps nudge people away from always reaching for adjustment, and perhaps embracing the growth mentality more? Is there a way of turning that idea into something practical? 

That is a tough one. First I would say, the fact that we find the most frequently observed movement is towards adjustment with age, suggests this is something which is, how should I say, functional for society, because these people are very valuable members and they make a contribution. So, you would not want to ‘nudge’, as you called it, too many people into too much growth, because what you then get is a lot of emancipated people who will call into question all the good ways that have been developed in a society. They will question whether that is really how we want to move forward and if that really is the best way to do things, and so forth, and so forth. If we have too many of those people in a society, it’s quite a revolutionary society in perpetuity, in a way.

Does that mean it’s unstable?

Yes. In the wisdom literature that goes back to the early days of humankind, you will find that wisdom is reserved for a few in a given society, and that has a good reason. I think it is very helpful for society to have a few wise people that can be turned to for advice and orientation at times of crisis, but then in between there is the safe ground of ‘adjustment’ guiding society, making it prosperous.


In the wisdom literature that goes back to the early days of humankind, you will find that wisdom is reserved for a few in a given society, and that has a good reason. I think it is very helpful for society to have a few wise people that can be turned to for advice and orientation at times of crisis, but then in between there is the safe ground of ‘adjustment’ guiding society, making it prosperous.


Then at a crucial turning point, it may be good to turn to the wise ones again, as compared to a society that is full of the wise, which may not find enough balance and steadiness.

So that makes a distinction between happiness and wisdom then. A society in which everyone was happy would be sustainable, but not a society in which everyone was wise?

It would be a society that would need to be prepared for constant change, which would be very exhausting.


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The concept of wisdom has been around for millennia. The first empirical work on wisdom was your work on the development of the Berlin Wisdom Paradigm in the mid-eighties. Why is this renewed interest in wisdom happening now? Why not a hundreds years ago? Five hundred years ago? Is there something about the make-up of society today that is leading people to turn to wisdom, and perhaps engage with it more scientifically?

Yes indeed. There has been actually a very interesting philosophical analysis of that question. Around that time, it came out in the 70s and 80s, their analysis lead to the result that they thought it has to do with a greater pluralism in society.

Globalisation and the connection between different societies results in a merging of value systems, of opportunities, of how to lead your life. There are many options. With increasing living standards we have lots of options – which school to go to etc. For every single part of life we now have a lot of choice, which wasn’t the case in the past, and certainly not in the beginning of the twentieth century before the two world wars. It was much more streamlined and there was a much clearer pattern of what a good life was meant to be.

The analysis of the philosophers was that due to this pluralisation in options, more and more people looked for guidance and orientation, and wisdom through the millennia always had been turned to when there was a need for guidance and orientation. So it seems that in modern, postmodern and deconstructivist times, people more and more look for new guidance.


Globalisation and the connection between different societies results in a merging of value systems, of opportunities, of how to lead your life….. The analysis of the philosophers was that due to this pluralisation in options, more and more people looked for guidance and orientation, and wisdom through the millennia always had been turned to when there was a need for guidance and orientation. So it seems that in modern, postmodern and deconstructivist times, people more and more look for new guidance.


Of course one form of guidance that we can observe around the globe is fundamentalism. Some societies or groups in societies do away with the anxiety and the uncertainty by returning back to clear-cut, black-and-white and easy rules, but let’s hope that the majority is still trying to embrace the plurality and make it such that it is easier for individuals to find their path in the plurality.


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

Conversations on Wisdom: Uncut Interview with Ursula Staudinger – In this video from the Center for Practical Wisdom at the University of Chicago, Staudinger discusses her early work on developing the much-respected Berlin Wisdom Paradigm and the controversial conflict between wisdom and happiness.

Wisdom: A Metaheuristic (Pragmatic) to Orchestrate Mind and Virtue Toward Excellence (Baltes & Staudinger, 2000) – In this paper, Staudinger and Baltes present an overview of the development of The Berlin Wisdom Paradigm.

Improving Wisdom: Video Presentation – In this talk at the University of Chicago’s Wisdom Research Forum 2015, Staudinger talks about the future direction of wisdom research and the essential role neuroscience will have to play for the field to develop in the years ahead.

Huffington Post: Wisdom Isn’t What You Think It Is, And It Doesn’t Always Come With Age – In this interview for The Huffington Post, Staudinger highlights 10 essential and surprising findings from the field of wisdom research.

Nobel Prize Dialogue Seoul 2017: The Positive Plasticity of Human Ageing – In this video stream, Staudinger discusses the modifiability of human ageing and the importance of cognitive training for an ageing population. Staudinger’s keynote can be viewed a 4:00:00.

EBW Podcast: Wisdom Reloaded – In this EBW podcast featuring many of the world’s leading experts in the field of wisdom research, Staudinger discusses the critical interplay between adjustment and growth on the path to wisdom development across the lifespan.

Personal Wisdom: Validation and Age-Related Differences of a Performance Measure (Mickler & Staudinger, 2008) – In this paper, Staudinger and colleagues outline the development of a performance measure for personal wisdom.

EBW article ‘The Berlin Wisdom Paradigm: An Expert Knowledge System’ – This EBW post outlines Staudinger and Baltes’s work on the Berlin Wisdom Paradigm in more detail. You can also see an EBW Graphic titled The Berlin Wisdom Paradigm here.

EBW Animation Series – Defining Wisdom – The Berlin Wisdom Paradigm is detailed in this EBW animation Defining Wisdom.

Ursula M. Staudinger’s site – Visit Staudinger’s own site where you can find up-to-date information on her ongoing research.


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


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

EBW PODCAST: Wisdom Reloaded

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EBW Podcast - Wisdom Reloaded


This August, a select group of the world’s leading behavioural scientists gathered in Chicago for the Center for Practical Wisdom Research Forum 2017. Their task? To tackle some very ancient questions with some very modern tools. What is wisdom? Can it be measured? And critically, how do we develop it?
EBW went to Chicago with microphone it hand, to find answers to these questions – to pick the brains of these wise experts, and to hit the city streets to learn what the people of Chicago have to tell us about living wisely in the modern world.

Click below to listen to the TRAILER, the FULL PROGRAMME or to hear the separate PARTS I – V of the programme.


Featuring: Monika Ardelt, Igor Grossmann, Heather Harden-Mangelsdorf, Anne Henly, Dilip Jeste, Barnaby Marsh, Greg Norman, Howard Nusbaum, Margaret Plews-Ogan, Ursula Staudinger, Robert Sternberg, Masami Takahashi, Nic Weststrate, and the people of Chicago.

TRAILER – 2 mins


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Click below to listen to the 2 minute trailer for the programme.



FULL PROGRAMME – 48 mins


EBW Radio - Wisdom Reloaded - full programme

Click below to listen to the full programme.



PARTS  I – V


EBW Radio - Wisdom Reloaded - parts


Click below to listen to the programme in separate parts

PART I – Introduction – 12 mins



PART II – Defining Wisdom – 6 mins



PART III – Measuring Wisdom – 10 mins



PART IV – Developing Wisdom – 14 mins



PART V – Conclusion – 5 mins




To watch talks from the Wisdom Research Forum 2017, visit the Center for Practical Wisdom’s youtube channel. To learn more about wisdom research visit the Center’s site here.


Special thanks to the University of Chicago’s Center for Practical Wisdom for help in putting the programme together.


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

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

Charles

EBW DISPATCHES: Wisdom in the Brain with Dilip Jeste

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The EBW Dispatches Series reports the latest developments from the frontline of wisdom research. Key findings are highlighted and illuminated – with a little help from the researchers themselves. The relevant papers can be found at the end of the dispatch.


EBW Dispatches - Wisdom & the Brain


Wisdom in the Brain with Dilip Jeste

How do you reliably measure wisdom? Whilst there are a number of different wisdom scales available, what are these scales actually based on, and which one should we use? Professor of Psychiatry Dilip Jeste has been working hard to pull these different strands of measurement research together to give us the SD-WISE – a bold new wisdom scale with great potential and a whole new way of thinking about wisdom in the human brain.


Dr. Dilip V. Jeste is Director of The Stein Institute for Research on Ageing, and Distinguished Professor of Psychiatry and Neurosciences at the University of California, San Diego, and a neuropsychiatrist with particular specialism in successful aging and schizophrenia. He is also a former president of the American Psychiatric Association. He has published a number of influential papers detailing the neural activity associated with wise behaviours (click here and here to read more).

Recently, he has turned his attention to the question of measuring wisdom. In an attempt to combine both ancient and modern conceptions of wisdom with a potential neurobiological framework of the wise brain, his team have now introduced a new wisdom scale to the world – the San Diego Wisdom Scale, or more simply, the SD-WISE.


The SD-WISE – a new way of measuring wisdom


In the recent paper A New Scale for Assessing Wisdom Based on Common Domains and a Neurobiological Model: The San Diego Wisdom Scale (SD-WISE), Jeste and his team outline the development of a brand new wisdom scale. Following the development of the scale, they then tested it on 524 adults between the ages of 25 and 104 years of age.

The paper suggests the following:

The new scale is RELIABLE. This means that an individual’s scores on the test tends to be similar if repeated.

The scale demonstrates CONVERGENT and DISCRIMINANT VALIDITY. This means that the scale tends to give similar results to other scales measuring wisdom, and gives different results to scales measuring constructs other than wisdom.

The scale correlates (although weakly) positively with well-being and negatively with emotional distress. The fact that these correlations were weak suggests that the scale isn’t just measuring some general positive/negative mental state.

The scale demonstrates a weak, negative correlation with age. This means older people generally achieved lower scores on the scale than young people.


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Regarding the final point relating to age, it is important to remember that the study did not follow one group of people over a long period, assessing them at intervals as they aged (known as a ‘longitudinal’ study). Rather, one group of people of varying ages were all assessed at one point in time and their scores were then compared (known as a ‘cross-sectional’ study).

Jeste explains: Ours was a cross-sectional study. Whether wisdom changes with age can only be evaluated with a longitudinal prospective study. Many of the published cross-sectional studies do not show a significant increase in wisdom with aging and so, our results were not surprising. Cross-sectional studies have cohort and survivor biases, among a number of their limitations.


Ours was a cross-sectional study. Whether wisdom changes with age can only be evaluated with a longitudinal prospective study. Many of the published cross-sectional studies do not show a significant increase in wisdom with aging and so, our results were not surprising. Cross-sectional studies have cohort and survivor biases, among a number of their limitations.


The above findings would all suggest that Jeste’s team have introduced a reliable, valid new tool for measuring wisdom.

Why, though, is this important, when several widely used reliable and valid wisdom scales are already available to researchers?

What’s new about the San Diego Wisdom Scale?


San Diego Wisdom Scale – New foundations and new possibilities


There are two ways in which the SD-WISE is distinct from previous wisdom measurements – its broad foundations and its neurobiological framework.


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BROAD FOUNDATIONS

Jeste and his team built their wisdom framework on a very broad range of existing ideas about wisdom, including empirical scales currently in use, opinion of leading wisdom researchers and even ancient conceptions of wisdom from beyond the western world.

Jeste explains: Most measures of wisdom are based on their creators’ perspective on wisdom. Ours was based on: (a) A comprehensive review of the literature on definitions of wisdom used in empirical studies ever since empirical research on wisdom began with the work of Baltes and Clayton in the 1970s, (b) A consensus among international experts on wisdom obtained through a study using Delphi or Rand Panel method, and (c) A mixed methods study of the conceptualization of wisdom in an ancient scripture from non-western world – i.e., the Bhagavad Gita. Most of the components of wisdom that are included in our scale are common to ALL of these sources, and may, therefore, be indicative of a broadly agreed construct of wisdom.


Most of the components of wisdom that are included in our scale are common to ALL of these sources, and may, therefore, be indicative of a broadly agreed construct of wisdom.


NEUROBIOLOGICAL FRAMEWORK

Jeste’s team have made the effort to link recurring components of wisdom amongst the above sources to corresponding areas in the human brain. This has enabled them to develop a framework for conceiving of the neurobiology of the wise brain.

Jeste outlines their approach as follows: We have previously reported that all these components seem to share a common neurocircuitry comprised of prefrontal cortex (dorsolateral, ventromedial, and anterior cingulate) and amygdala. Thus our scale has a putative neurobiological basis.


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The SD-WISE, therefore, potentially lays the groundwork for extending wisdom research beyond the field of psychology, placing it on a more biological footing.


We have previously reported that all these components seem to share a common neurocircuitry comprised of prefrontal cortex (dorsolateral, ventromedial, and anterior cingulate) and amygdala. Thus our scale has a putative neurobiological basis.


Future Directions for the SD-WISE


There are a number of limitations with scales that ask people to rate themselves for wisdom, and the SD-WISE of course shares these limitations.

Social desirability bias can lead people to give answers to questions that make themselves look better than they really are. Furthermore, self-delusion can shield people from their own weaknesses (see EBW animation Measuring Wisdom for more details.)

In fact, wise people often have a better understanding of their own weaknesses than unwise people, so might give themselves a more harsh rating than the glowing self-rating a deluded unwise person might return.

As Jeste points out: Yes, there is certainly a possibility that some unwise people would rate themselves as wise and vice versa. However, wisdom correlated with well-being and with education, as one would expect. Similarly, there was no relationship with gender or income, consistent with the literature. The significant correlation of SD-WISE scores with 3-D-WS and SAWS scores also supports validity of our scale. Clearly, subjective measures have limitations, but at least in the near future, I don’t see a reasonable likelihood of developing valid objective measures of wisdom. Advances in subjective measurements with techniques such as Ecological Momentary Assessments should be used.

The paper outlines a number of possible directions for future research. First of all, the scale needs to be trialled in different groups and cultures.

The authors also suggest that it would also be interesting to see the SD-WISE used in a longitudinal study, following one group of people over a longer period, to learn more about how the components of wisdom might be related to aging .

The paper even suggests that the SD-WISE could be used to study the components of wisdom in large animals, similar to earlier studies of well-being in apes. In such studies, as you might expect, the caretakers complete the scale on behalf of their animal subjects.


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Critically, the paper suggests that the SD-WISE might play an essential role in developing and testing interventions intended to enhance the components of wisdom.

Such interventions might be psychosocial, technological or biological. As Jeste suggested in the recent EBW Wisdom profile: As a physician, I think that’s important. We should have ways of treating people who are suffering because of a lack or loss of one or more of these components of wisdom, so we can help them.


The paper discussed in this dispatch can be found below.

A new scale for assessing wisdom based on common domains and a neurobiological model: The San Diego Wisdom Scale (SD-WISE)


Why not have a look at the following resources to learn more about Dilip Jeste’s work:

TED Talk – Seeking Wisdom In Graying Matter – In this 2015 talk at TEDMED, Jeste outlines the potential for increasing wisdom in the aging brain.

Six Questions That Show If You’re Wise – The Independent – In this article, you can take a brief version of the SD-WISE and see how you score for wisdom.

Neurobiology of Wisdom: A Literature Overview – Meeks & Jeste (2009) – In this paper, Meeks and Jeste identify specific regions of the brain that are active during behaviours considered to be sub-components of wisdom.

Can Wisdom Be Enhanced? – Center for Practical Wisdom Research Forum 2017 – In this talk at the University of Chicago, Jeste provides an overview of the latest research into the components of wisdom

Defining and Assessing Wisdom: A Review of the Literature – Bangen, Meeks & Jeste (2013) – In this paper, the researchers build on their earlier work, adding three further components of wisdom.

Wisdom and Successful Aging Talk – In this 2010 talk at The Sam and Rose Stein Institute for Research on Aging, Jeste outlines the six component model of wisdom, parallels with the Bhagavad Gita, and the neurobiology of wisdom and successful aging.

Comparison of the Conceptualization of Wisdom in Ancient Indian Literature with Modern Views – Jeste & Vahia (2008) – This paper details Jeste and Vahia’s findings regarding similarities and differences between modern and ancient conceptions of wisdom.

EBW Graphics Series – Jeste’s work is detailed in the graphics The 6 Components of Wisdom and Jeste’s Family Model of the Wise Brain.

EBW Animation Series – Defining Wisdom – Jeste’s 6 component model of wisdom is detailed in this EBW animation Defining Wisdom.

We all have some wisdom. But what is it? – San Diego Union-Tribune article – In this article, Jeste discusses the neurobiology of wisdom and differences between eastern and western conceptions of wisdom.


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

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

Charles

WISDOM PROFILES: Robert Sternberg

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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 ninth interview in the series, we meet Professor of Human Development at Cornell University and former president of the American Psychological Association, Robert Sternberg. He is both one of the founding fathers of the field of wisdom research and one of its most outspoken advocates. Here he talks to evidencebasedwisdom about intelligent fools, inequality and getting serious about wisdom in education.


WISDOM PROFILES SERIES - Robert Sternberg (1)


Image Credit: Jason Koski/University Photography, Cornell


On Wisdom and Foolishness


Robert Sternberg, a veritable polymath of psychology, is Professor of Human Development at Cornell University. A former president of the American Psychological Association, he has developed successful theories of intelligence, creativity and even love. In the field of wisdom research, he is renowned for his Balance Theory of Wisdom. Click here to read a key paper in which he argues that universities place too much value on intelligence and ignore the importance of creativity and wisdom in education, proposing that a synthesis of wisdom, intelligence and creativity would better prepare students to maximize their positive future impact in the world.

Following his recent talk at The Center for Practical Wisdom Research Forum 2017 at the University of Chicago, entitled ‘Appointment in Samarra: Are We Rushing to Create a Society of Smart (and Not So Smart) Fools?’, evidencebasedwisdom was able to catch up with him and pick the brains of one of the field’s founding fathers and most outspoken advocates.


Do you have a definition of wisdom that you find the most helpful in your work?

One’s use of one’s knowledge and skills to help foster a common good; by balancing one’s own with others’ and with higher interests; over the long as well as the short term; through the infusion of positive ethical values.

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You have said before that many of the assessment tests currently in use, such as SATS, might be doing more damage than good. How might these tests actually be hurting us?

They are reasonable tests of narrow academic skills. But this is a sad commentary on our schools. Regrettably, many if not most of the people who have succeeded through the current system did so by their SAT-type skills and like everyone else, they are attracted to and favor people like themselves. So we end up with successive generations of leaders who are analytically smart, but lack creativity and wisdom.


So we end up with successive generations of leaders who are analytically smart, but lack creativity and wisdom.


At the moment, our leadership isn’t even analytically smart — a backlash by the people who feel they have been screwed by the academic elites of the country. So the system is starting to crash and burn because of the foolishness of some of the high-SAT types. Unfortunately, this problem extends to both political parties – not just one of them.

Is there any research to suggest that you can teach for wisdom?

We have done some research on teaching for wisdom. Of course you can teach for wisdom. Ask anyone about a few key role models who have transformed their lives. I have some and I bet you do too. Our American history curriculum, which we designed to teach wisdom, suffered from two flaws. It was too hard, and it was too hard for teachers to teach who were unfamiliar with the concept of teaching for wisdom. One mostly develops wisdom through role modeling or through books (such as, I hope, my book Psychology 101 1/2).

You have developed instruments to improve the applications process for university undergraduates. How can we change universities into places that, post-successful application, go on to produce wise leaders?


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First, we start taking wisdom seriously as a set of skills we want to develop. That will be hard, because university professors are highly selected for IQ, somewhat selected for creativity, and not selected for wisdom at all. The three attributes do not necessarily go together, and often people with high IQs are fools — that is, they are unrealistically optimistic about their own ideas; egocentric; falsely omniscient; falsely omnipotent; falsely invulnerable; and ethically disengaged.


Often people with high IQs are fools — that is, they are unrealistically optimistic about their own ideas; egocentric; falsely omniscient; falsely omnipotent; falsely invulnerable; and ethically disengaged.


Worse are people with low IQs who are fools. A lot of them are running around in Washington DC right now, up to the top. In my book, What Universities Can Be (Cornell, 2016), I describe in detail how to create a university that promotes the development of active concerned citizens and ethical leaders.

You frequently cite many of the negatives of the modern world – war, climate change, inequality etc. as examples of how wisdom is sorely lacking in our society. What about many metrics that have improved in recent years across the planet – literacy, extreme poverty, standard/cost of living, infant mortality, medicine, life expectancy etc.?

Yes, many things have improved. I agree. But I think what happened at the Grenfell Tower in London ought to be a warning. We are too concerned with “means.” Things have improved on average, but many people have been left behind. The world has improved greatly for the top 1% or even top 20%. Consult this chart:

Most of the world is being left behind. That is how fools and authoritarian knaves can be elected to the highest political offices. The people who have been left behind rebel, only to discover that the person they elected played them for suckers. Sadly, many of them will not even realize that.

You have said in the past that wisdom is all about ‘doing the right thing.’ How is wisdom different from simply ethics?

Ethics is part of wisdom, as shown in the definition above. Someone can be ethical but not wise but someone cannot be wise without being ethical.

Considering a century that just gave us what looks like an increase in intelligence but a decrease in wisdom, are you hopeful about the future?

At the moment I’m not as hopeful as I would like to be. In the US, the Republican Party has shown itself to have many leaders who are cowards and who are amoral con artists who talk the talk of morality while failing to walk the walk. The Democratic Party has leaders who have really good ideas for the last century. But they need to move over for the next generation, and so far they are not. Their message is a warmed over 20th century message that probably was good in the time of the New Deal.


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The current government is anti-education, anti-science, anti-reason, pro-discrimination, pro-prejudice. I am hoping I can restore the optimism I felt in earlier years. I’m hoping that the generations of my children (I have 2 older children and 3 younger ones of different generations) can do better than my generation has done.

You mentioned in your talk at the Wisdom Research Forum 2016 that a lot of research is ‘…is analytically strong, but didn’t matter’. How do we decide which questions/challenges matter?

At this point, things in this country are going steeply downhill. Every day brings more outrages and overt challenges to democracy. We need research that can be put into practice and that will save our civilization before it is too late. This may sound Cassandra-like, but I think that’s where we were. We are dealing with hugely serious problems — nuclear annihilation, gradual disappearance of liberal values, an upper class that cares only about itself. I’m not sure how long we can go on like this.


Every day brings more outrages and overt challenges to democracy. We need research that can be put into practice and that will save our civilization before it is too late. This may sound Cassandra-like, but I think that’s where we were. We are dealing with hugely serious problems — nuclear annihilation, gradual disappearance of liberal values, an upper class that cares only about itself. I’m not sure how long we can go on like this.


Publishing articles in journals that a few people read and that have as their main outcome the granting of tenure to the authors seems to me out of tune with the needs of the times.

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

Incorporate teaching for wisdom in the schools — and most important of all — role model it. When we have a president who role-models the opposite everyday, and is proud of it, I’m not sure how far we will get in the near future.


Incorporate teaching for wisdom in the schools — and most important of all — role model it.


What do you think is the most ‘pressing/fruitful’ line of inquiry for the wisdom research community over the next few years?

How to create change in schools and society. NOT how to get papers published to advance careers. Even most wisdom researchers are focused on the latter, and that is not wise.


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

TedXTalk – None of the Above: Why Standardized Testing Fails – In this 2012 talk at TEDxOStateU, Sternberg outlines the many shortcomings of how we assess young people.

Is the U.S. Education System Producing a Society of “Smart Fools”? Scientific American Article – In this article, Sternberg sounds the alarm bell about the pitfalls of narrow academic tests and how they might be hurting rather than helping society.

Why is the World Falling apart? The (Non)-place of Wisdom in Today’s World talk – In this talk at the Center for Practical Wisdom‘s Wisdom Research Forum 2016, Sternberg outlines the urgent need for prioritising wisdom in addressing many of the problems currently facing the world.

EBW article ‘The Balance Theory of Wisdom: It’s All About Doing the Right Thing’ – This EBW post outlines Sternberg’s much-respected wisdom framework in more detail. You can also see an EBW Graphic titled The Balance Theory of Wisdom here.

Academic Intelligence is not enough (Sternberg 2009): Sternberg outlines why we need to think more broadly about intelligence and wisdom in education.

Conversations on Wisdom – Uncut Interview with Robert Sternberg: Sternberg frankly discusses his contributions to the emerging field of wisdom research. The interview was conducted as part of a new documentary film entitled The Science of Wisdom.

Career advice from an oldish not-quite geezer: Interview in The Chronicle of Higher education in which Sternberg provides practical advice gleaned from an illustrious and fascinating career.

Psychology 101 1/2 – The Unspoken Rules for Success in Academia: Sternberg’s 2004 book shares the wisdom accrued over the course of a rich and lively career in many of North America’s leading institutions.

Wisdom: Its Nature, Origins, and Development: Sternberg’s 1990 book is a seminal text in the field of wisdom research, laying the foundation for the growth in the field over the following years.

Why Smart People Do Stupid Things: Sternberg’s 2002 book on the common pitfalls of the highly intelligent.

EBW Animation Series – Defining Wisdom – Sternberg’s Balance Theory of wisdom is detailed in this EBW animation Defining Wisdom.

Robert J. Sternberg site – Visit Sternberg’s own site where you can find up-to-date information on his ongoing research


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

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

Charles

ARE FRIENDS THE ENEMIES OF WISE CHOICES? The Hidden Factors Influencing Our Most Important Decisions

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Friends Post


The new EBW article Are Friends the Enemies of Wise Choices? The Hidden Factors Influencing Our Most Important Decisions is published by Intentional Insights.

The article explores the surprising role of social relationships in wise decision-making.

The full article can be read by clicking here.

The article is also published on The Huffington Post, The National Compass and Psychology Today.


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

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

WISDOM PROFILES: Dilip Jeste

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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 eighth interview in the series, Director of The Stein Institute for Research on Ageing, and Distinguished Professor of Psychiatry and Neurosciences at the University of California, San Diego, Dilip Jeste talks to evidencebasedwisdom about the six components of wisdom, the family model of the wise brain, and the the future of wisdom-enhancing interventions.


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On the Neurobiology of Wisdom


Dr. Dilip V. Jeste is Director of The Stein Institute for Research on Ageing, and Distinguished Professor of Psychiatry and Neurosciences at the University of California, San Diego, and a neuropsychiatrist with particular specialism in successful aging and schizophrenia. He is also a former president of the American Psychiatric Association. He has published a number of influential papers detailing the neural activity associated with wise behaviours (click here and here to read more) and you can watch his fascinating TED talk Seeking Wisdom in Graying Matter by clicking here.

In this conversation with evidencebasedwisdom, he discussed parallels between modern and ancient conceptions of wisdom, the grandma hypothesis of wisdom and the six components of wisdom highlighted by his research. He also outlined his family model of the wise brain, and delved into the future possibility of technological and biological wisdom-enhancing interventions.


On The Paradox of Aging


On The Growth of Wisdom Research


On The Six Components of Wisdom


Comparing Ancient and Modern Conceptions of Wisdom


On The Family Model of the Wise Brain


Wisdom in the Aging Brain and The Grandma Hypothesis


Wisdom, Medicine and The Future



On The Paradox of Aging


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

I’m a geriatric neuropsychiatrist. My personal area of research for many years has been schizophrenia in older people. Schizophrenia is a serious mental illness – some people call it cancer of the mind. The notion is that schizophrenia only gets worse with time – people lose their mind over a period of years and then they become demented. That’s why it used to be called ‘dementia praecox.’ Actually when I started studying schizophrenia in older people, I was asked ‘Why are you studying it?’ because it must be so depressing. Yet what we found over the years was that, in people with schizophrenia, actually the symptoms improved, their well-being improved, they seemed to start functioning better, smoking became less common, and they became more adherent with medication. That was a surprise. When we first published these findings, people said ‘What you are seeing is probably not schizophrenia.’ That was not the case. We were following people with genuine schizophrenia.

Some time after that, the movie ‘A Beautiful Mind’ came out. It’s the real life story of a Nobel laureate (John Nash) who had schizophrenia from his twenties who started getting better in his fifties and sixties, and then went back to research, writing papers and teaching. What is happening that these people are getting better in later life?


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Another question was ‘Is this something unique to schizophrenia or is this something that happens in the general population?’ So we started a study called SAGE – Successful Aging Evaluation study . It includes 2000+ people, somewhat randomly selected, in the community, from age 21 to more than 100 years old. What we found was that with age, the physical health declines as expected. The cognitive function declines after 60 or so, but mental health seems to improve almost in a linear fashion from age 20 to 100. That really was a surprise. It looked like people in their 20s and 30s had the most depression, anxiety and stress, and as people got older, all of those things seemed to go down and people seemed to feel happier.


That really was a surprise. It looked like people in their 20s and 30s had the most depression, anxiety and stress, and as people got older, all of those things seemed to go down and people seemed to feel happier.


So I realised there were two paradoxes of human aging. One was that people seem to get happier with age. The other was an even broader issue – Why do people live long after they lose their fertility? That’s not consistent with the Darwinian hypothesis of survival of the fittest. Indeed in the wild, large animals don’t live long after they lose fertility, unless they are in the zoo or research labs and are protected. Yet humans continue to live for decades after age 45-50 when they lose their fertility at menopause in women or andropause in men. On top of that, they are becoming physically disabled with age. So, something must improve to compensate for those losses. What is that something? Is that wisdom?


So I realised there were two paradoxes of human aging. One was that people seem to get happier with age. The other was an even broader issue – Why do people live long after they lose their fertility?


I grew up in India. In the oriental cultures, older people are thought to be wiser, but I’d not given much thought to wisdom from a scientific perspective until we observed greater happiness in older age. Then I started thinking whether it is actually wisdom that increases with aging and that’s associated with greater happiness. So the next question was ‘What is wisdom?’

I find it very encouraging to hear that mental health problems decrease as we get older.

That’s what I tell people in their 20s: ‘You have everything to look forward to during the rest of your life.’

It’s funny that we commiserate with people that they’re getting older when they have a birthday, when what you’re saying is that we have it upside-down.

Exactly! We call it ‘fountain of youth’ – the 20s and 30s – and it is, from a physical point of view, but not from the mental point of view. In fact, older age is the fountain of wisdom.


On The Growth of Wisdom Research


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After being neglected for so long by the scientific community, why do you think that wisdom has recently started to receive more attention? Might the aging global population be a factor?

That’s an excellent question. Wisdom has been a religious and philosophical concept for centuries, from the time of Aristotle and Socrates and so on, yet empirical research on wisdom started only in the 1970s, with Baltes at the Max Planck Institute, and Clayton in the US starting to work on wisdom. Since then, we’ve seen the Berlin Paradigm  and other work. Even then it was not in the popular media. That began around 2000. The number of papers on wisdom published in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s was quite small. There were only a handful of articles in the beginning and slowly they increased but starting around 2000, there has been a kind of explosion of papers. What is interesting is that wisdom is receiving coverage in the popular media too. That is what I think is causing the overall increase in empirical wisdom research.

I think you are right in saying it’s to do with the population aging. It’s also the baby boomers getting older. This is a ‘can-do’ generation. They always took pride in who they are and how they could change the world for the better. Aging is a hard thing to accept for anybody, because we don’t understand it – we have no control over it. In a way, wisdom of aging provides the positive perspective that you mention. There is no doubt that the population is aging, especially the baby boomers. I think that people are getting interested in whether wisdom is really something that increases with age.


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On The Six Components of Wisdom


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I understand that you carried out a review of the scientific wisdom literature in order to identify the most common components in the various definitions of wisdom. Can you tell us a little about the components of wisdom you identified?

I got interested in scientific literature on wisdom. Then, the first question was ‘How do you define wisdom?’ We started by reviewing the literature on wisdom. There were a number of papers in recent years but only some of them tried to define wisdom. So we took all the studies that had some definition of wisdom. Most of us agree that wisdom is a complex trait. It’s not just one thing – it’s not like ‘optimism,’ which is a single specific trait. Wisdom is far more complex, comprised of different components. So we made a table listing each study and what components it included, and then we took the most common components that a number of papers seemed to agree on. We found six such dimensions or components.


Most of us agree that wisdom is a complex trait. It’s not just one thing – it’s not like ‘optimism,’ which is a single specific trait. Wisdom is far more complex, comprised of different components.


One is ‘Social decision-making.’ This is the concept of the ‘village elder’, or ‘Solomonic wisdom.’ When people have a debate going on and they don’t know what to do, they would go to the wise person and the wise person would make the right choice. That’s social decision-making.


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The second one is ‘Emotional Regulation’ – control over one’s emotions. Think of it as the exact opposite of teenagers! Their emotions change from hour-to-hour, minute-to-minute, whereas a wise person would have pretty stable emotions. Not absence of emotions, but having control over the magnitude and the variation in emotions.

Would that include boosting positive emotions, or would it just refer to modifying peaks and troughs? 

It is clearly modifying both. It’s about reducing the severity of both depression and excitement. At the same time, it’s somewhat on the positive side. That’s why wisdom is associated with well-being and happiness. Not an extreme, ecstatic kind of happiness, but more contentedness than sadness, so there is emotional regulation primarily and associated with it is positivity.


That’s why wisdom is associated with well-being and happiness. Not an extreme, ecstatic kind of happiness, but more contentedness than sadness, so there is emotional regulation primarily and associated with it is positivity.


The third one is ‘Prosocial Behaviours’ – things that we do for others rather than for ourselves – compassion, empathy, altruism. I think this is probably the single most important component of wisdom.

Then comes ‘Insight’ – knowing yourself. It includes self-reflection. You are trying to analyse yourself and understand yourself. Understanding yourself is much more difficult than people think it is.

It’s impossible, almost! 

It’s much easier to understand somebody else than understanding ourselves, yet a wise person is somebody who knows herself or himself well. Not completely, but well – and keeps on trying to do that – self-reflecting. Understanding one’s strengths as well as one’s weaknesses.


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The fifth is ‘Acceptance of uncertainty’, which also means ‘acceptance of diversity of views.’ I may have strong feelings about something, but I understand why somebody else might have different feelings about it.

That’s very difficult to do – Everyone obviously thinks that the position they have is right, otherwise they wouldn’t have it!

Right. It doesn’t mean that you give up on your values. I may have strong opinions about the death penalty, or stem cell research, or abortion or what have you. I can have my values, but I can also understand why someone else may feel or think differently. Other people are not necessarily dumb or evil if they think differently. It also means not being 100% certain about what I think is right.

… which means you’ll be more prepared to change your mind if new information presents itself.

Exactly! That’s something we don’t see too often in politics these days. Instead we see total certainty and confidence in one’s own views.

The last component in that list was still being ‘Decisive’, in that you accept uncertainty, you accept diversity of views, and yet you cannot sit on the fence all the time. You cannot be ambivalent all the time. You have to make a decision. You have to be decisive and act upon it. A wise person is not somebody who will spend all the time thinking about the pros and cons of everything. That needs to happen initially, but it needs to then end at some point, and a decision has to be made. Even after making the decision, you might continue debating internally, but you have to act.

Good parents and leaders are supposed to be wise. For a parent, for example, when a teenager comes and says ‘I’m sorry, but I’m not going to go to school. I’m just going to stay here with my friends who smoke and use drugs’, you can say ‘I understand why you say that, but you cannot do so!’ So you have to be decisive. Similarly for a country leader or president, if there is a war breaking out, you have to make a decision. In the Second World War, Franklin Roosevelt was debating whether the US should enter the war. There was a lot of debate, but he ended up being decisive. Decisive doesn’t necessarily mean going to war. It may mean going for peace, whatever it is, but there needs to be a decision.

So being aware of, but not paralysed by, uncertainty.

Exactly. So those are the six most common components. We subsequently published another literature review in 2013 looking at additional new literature. We found that those six were still the most common components, but there were three others that some people have proposed as components of wisdom. Those three are ‘Spirituality’, ‘Sense of Humor’ and ‘Openness to new experience.’

These three are not as widely accepted as the first six.


Comparing Ancient and Modern Conceptions of Wisdom


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You also reviewed the ancient Indian text the Bhagavad Gita for references to wisdom. Can you tell us about any parallels between these two distinct wisdom frameworks?

The reason for reviewing the Gita was that one of the criticisms of the concept of wisdom is that it is a cultural concept – that it varies from time to time, from one culture to another. So I wanted to look at a document that could be as different from modern thinking on wisdom, as possible. Growing up in India I was familiar with the Gita – it’s kind of the Indian Bible. The Gita is supposed to be a treatise on the wisdom of life, from a religious/philosophical perspective, but I wanted to look at it from a scientific perspective.


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So we did a mixed methods qualitative and quantitative study in which we looked at every place where the word wisdom or its opposite ‘foolishness’ was found, and we recorded in what context these words were used. For example, the Gita says something like ‘A wise person is one who has control over emotions and doesn’t get too excited or too depressed or too angry.’ That suggested that emotional regulation was a component of wisdom according to the Gita. Doing that, we looked for various components of wisdom and determined which were the most commonly used ones. It was really a surprise to us that five of the six components were exactly the same as the six I described to you earlier.


Five of the six components were exactly the same

as the six I described to you earlier.


That’s extraordinary!

It was a total shock. I would have expected them to be quite different. There were slight differences. ‘Diversity of views’ was not stressed in The Gita. On the other hand, the Gita talks about ‘Spirituality and Love of God’. It’s a religious document after all. Also, the Gita talks about ‘Lack of focus on materialism’ as an important component of wisdom, but that’s not included in the modern western concept. So clearly there are a few differences, but those differences are minor. They really pale into insignificance compared with the commonalities, which really were a big surprise.

So what’s exciting about that, as you suggest in your talk Wisdom and Successful Aging is, if there are such similarities across different cultures and different times, this would suggest that there is some sort of biological or neurological basis of wise behaviour. Is that what you are suggesting?

Yes. Exactly. It suggests that the basic concept of wisdom hasn’t changed across centuries – the Gita was written around 500 years BC, and it comes from a very different culture. So if you are thinking today the same way people thought in a different part of the world, centuries ago, it probably is something that is part of being human. It is something that is ingrained in our brain and genes. That suggests it’s biologically based.


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So if you are thinking today the same way people thought in a different part of the world, centuries ago, it probably is something that is part of being human. It is something that is ingrained in our brain and genes. That suggests it’s biologically based.


On The Family Model of the Wise Brain


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In the same talk you discuss which brain regions are involved in supporting wise behaviour. Can you tell us a little about your family model of the wise brain?

Different regions of the brain have different functions. These regions are numbered by Brodmann. The cortical areas are numbered from 1 to 52. There’s a motor area of the brain, there’s a sensory area of the brain, an area for verbal language and so on. But how do you decide where ‘Wisdom’ is located? So we looked at different components of wisdom and checked out the neurobiological research on each of the components mentioned above. What was surprising was that, in spite of there being 6 components, and there being so many regions of the brain, it was actually only a few areas of the brain that were involved in all the wise behaviours. Those areas were the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala.


What was surprising was that, in spite of there being 6 components, and there being so many regions of the brain, it was actually only a few areas of the brain that were involved in all the wise behaviours. Those areas were the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala.


The prefrontal cortex is the newest part of the brain in evolution – it’s what makes us human. The amygdala is the oldest part of the brain – perhaps every living animal with a brain has an amygdala. Within the prefrontal cortex, there are three regions that are important – dorsolateral, ventromedial and there’s something that connects them – the anterior cingulate.

If you look at the function of these areas – this is really an oversimplification, but just to give an idea – the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is like a proverbial father. In a family, when the parents are raising a kid, the two parents try to balance each other. This could sound sexist but this is just to give some kind of prototypical idea. The father is usually thought to be the disciplinarian. He tells you what not to do. He gets mad if you don’t go to school. He says you must do this. If you don’t get good grades, then the father get’s upset. He says ‘Why am I spending money on your education?’ This is the part of the cortex that tells us not to do things that are socially unacceptable or undesirable.


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The ventromedial prefrontal cortex, on the other hand, is like the proverbial mother – kind, compassionate. She understands you – she supports you. If you don’t feel like going to school, she’ll say ‘Okay, I understand how you feel. Let’s see what we can do.’

And sometimes there are conflicts between the two. The father says ‘You must go to school’ and the mother says ‘Well, he’s not feeling well.’ There’s a conflict, so what do you do? You go to your uncle or aunt, the anterior cingulate, who helps you detect and possibly resolve the conflict between the two, because that person is somewhat distant. The uncles and aunts have good relations with you, they care for you, and they are involved in detecting and, if possible, resolving dilemmas when there are factors on both sides that are competing for your attention.

Still you need a friend on whose shoulders you can cry. That’s the proverbial friend. That’s the amygdala. The amygdala is the centre of emotions. Again, I want to stress this is oversimplification of the complex neurobiological functions of different areas of the brain and their interconnections.

It’s fascinating that, according to this model, wise behaviour involves the oldest part of the brain and the newest part of the brain.

If you think about it, wisdom is balance. It is balance between the proverbial father-like thinking and the proverbial mother-like thinking, and also between cognition and emotion, between the oldest and the newest parts of the brain.


If you think about it, wisdom is balance. It is balance between the proverbial father-like thinking and the proverbial mother-like thinking, and also between cognition and emotion, between the oldest and the newest parts of the brain.


One can’t be too unselfish either. If I give away everything I have, I won’t survive! So it’s also a question of balance between selfish and unselfish behaviours.

So the anterior cingulate cortex seems to be central as it’s, in effect, negotiating between these two other areas?

Well, usually the dorsolateral and ventromedial parts function efficiently and don’t always need a mediator, but when necessary, anterior cingulate can be the conflict detector and sometimes, resolver. There is also another level of balance between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala.


Wisdom in the Aging Brain and The Grandma Hypothesis


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We typically think of our brains shrinking as we get older, but also we think of older people on average being wiser than younger people. Is there evidence to suggest that the aging brain might actually enable wiser behaviour in older people?

One thing to clarify at the outset is that aging itself doesn’t produce wisdom, in the sense that, there are older people who are not wise and there are younger people who are wise. So, the hope that everyone will become wiser by aging is not realistic! However, I think that really it is the experience associated with age and what you do with it at the psychological level – that is what helps. It is how you use the experience associated with age. After stress for example, some people will develop PTSD. Other people will actually grow from the stress – post-traumatic growth. Aging won’t prevent development of wisdom but it can actually facilitate wisdom, if there is appropriate physical, social and cognitive activity.


It is how you use the experience associated with age. After stress for example, some people will develop PTSD. Other people will actually grow from the stress – post-traumatic growth. Aging won’t prevent development of wisdom but it can actually facilitate wisdom, if there is appropriate physical, social and cognitive activity.


In general, brains can continue to evolve in people who are active physically, cognitively and socially – this is called ‘Neuroplasticity of Aging’. The brain continues to evolve and new synapses, blood vessels and, in some regions, even new neurons can grow if there is appropriate activity.


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More specifically about wisdom – I told you about the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala. So how can wisdom grow when the brain is also losing some things with age, when there is degeneration? I should again say that this is speculation and simplification at this stage of our knowledge – we don’t know for sure. However, one thing that occurs with aging is that brain activity shifts from the back of the brain to the front of the brain. This is called PASA – Posterior-Anterior Shift in Aging. There is a second phenomenon called HAROLD, which stands for Hemispheric Asymmetry Reduction in Older Adults. In a younger person, the right-brain and left-brain control different activities. As we get older that asymmetry decreases until you require both hemispheres of the brain and more areas of the brain to do the things that you could do with less of the brain when you were younger. The analogy I give is ‘When I was younger I could push a heavy cart with one hand. Now that I am older and have arthritis, I need both hands to push the cart, but I can still push it if I use both hands.’

Is the suggestion that, since you’re employing brain regions which are specialised for different functions that you’re bringing a broader range of skills to bear in ‘pushing the cart?’

You compensate for your losses by employing more regions of the brain. That’s how the prefrontal cortex function may improve in older people. With the amygdala, it’s really interesting. I talked about emotional regulation and positivity. What happens to the amygdala with age is that it responds less to stressful or negative emotional stimuli, than it does in a younger person.

And that’s exactly the component you were talking about earlier when you mentioned ‘emotional regulation?’

Exactly. So there are things that happen with nature that actually enable the brain to increase wisdom, if we allow it to, by engaging in physical, cognitive and social activity.


So there are things that happen with nature that actually enable the brain to increase wisdom, if we allow it to, by engaging in physical, cognitive and social activity.


In your TED talk Seeking Wisdom in Graying Matter you introduced the Grandma Hypothesis of Wisdom. This theory suggests that humans beyond the age of fertility can still support the propagation of their genes by helping in the upbringing of their grandchildren. Does this suggest that the increase in compassion etc. associated with wisdom may serve an evolutionary function – i.e. individuals that have developed compassion over their lifetimes are more likely assist in rearing grandchildren and hence gain an advantage over those that don’t?


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Yes, the idea is that after we lose our fertility, with menopause or andropause, we don’t contribute to the species survival. We don’t procreate. However, studies show that when grandparents are involved in raising their grandchildren, those grandchildren live longer, they are happier and they produce more children than the previous generation. So, through the compassion which increases with aging, you are contributing to the species survival by helping the younger generation live longer, be happier and be more fertile. This is hard science, not just feel-good TV science! It’s been shown in dolphins, whales, birds and humans, and these papers have been published in major journals like Nature.


Wisdom, Medicine and The Future


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As a doctor, do you have any thoughts about how doctors might be able to apply this research in their own work lives? What might be required to support the development of wise doctors and even more widespread wisdom in the medical sector? 

Studies have shown that at medical schools, as students go through the programme, at the end of medical school, their compassion and empathy goes down. Part of that maybe useful because if you’re so compassionate and so emotionally affected that when you see blood, you faint, you’re not going to be a good surgeon and that’s not what the patient needs. At the same time, you are not a machine. You can’t be cold or impersonal, and you have to have compassion. Unfortunately what is happening with medicine in general, at least in the US, is that it is becoming much more mechanised, with people spending much of the time with patients, working on a computer in order to complete the medical records. It becomes a transaction rather than compassionate care. It’s nobody’s fault, in a way, but also it’s everybody’s fault.


Unfortunately what is happening with medicine in general, at least in the US, is that it is becoming much more mechanised, with people spending much of the time with patients, working on a computer in order to complete the medical records. It becomes a transaction rather than compassionate care. It’s nobody’s fault, in a way, but also it’s everybody’s fault.


I’ve been talking about something called Positive Psychiatry. I published a book on that a couple of years ago and as president of the American Psychiatric Association developed a presidential theme of Positive Psychiatry.  It’s not just psychiatry, really it’s positive medicine, positive healthcare, where we need to focus on well-being, happiness and not just thinking of symptoms. What needs to happen is to make the physician more compassionate, more understanding and not just treat patients as cases who have diseases. We don’t treat diseases – we treat patients. We don’t treat symptoms – we treat people. Even in psychiatry, if somebody has severe depression on a depression rating scale with a score of say 20, we are thrilled if we can bring that score down to 10, or better, 5. Yet, we should not only seek to bring it down to zero, but actually we should aim to increase the happiness level to 20. We don’t think about that.


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So what is really needed is more compassion. When people talk about personalised medicine, they talk about it from the genetic or genomic perspective, but real personalised medicine is where you treat each individual in his or her own right and see how they can have 100% well-being and happiness.


So what is really needed is more compassion. When people talk about personalised medicine, they talk about it from the genetic or genomic perspective, but real personalised medicine is where you treat each individual in his or her own right and see how they can have 100% well-being and happiness.


How would you actually practically nurture compassion in doctors? Is this something that could or should be integrated in to medical school?

I think they should start promoting compassion, way before medical school. This is something that is a necessary part of teaching in elementary school, middle school, high school and so on. Right now we focus on making people smarter and more intelligent. That’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with that, but we should go beyond that and try to make them wiser.

Similarly we focus on hard skills like knowledge of anatomy, pharmacology, and medicine. We also need to focus on soft skills. How do you interact with people? How do you understand other people’s emotions? How do you regulate your own? How do you make wise decisions? We should actually judge people not on the basis of their IQ or their skills only but also on these sorts of things. The world’s most competent surgeon who has no compassion is not what you want. So you want someone who’s competent obviously, but also compassionate and wise.

I think what is needed is focus across all of our education that goes beyond hard skills and beyond making people smarter to soft skills and making people wiser.


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I think what is needed is focus across all of our education that goes beyond hard skills and beyond making people smarter to soft skills and making people wiser.


That’s really interesting. I saw you mentioned artificial wisdom in your TED talkI was just thinking that if hard skills are something that artificial intelligence might more easily be able to take off our hands than soft skills, which seem more human, I wonder if the next period, prior to artificial wisdom, might involve handing the hard skills to artificial intelligence and then doctors focusing more on those more human skills.

Probably that will happen. There is IBM’s machine Watson. Now this is helping people provide information so that they can make the right decisions. For example, an MRI shows a brain tumour, and there are certain kinds that are malignant, others which are more benign. If you put all the information into the computer, the computer will give you answers with associated certainties – ‘There’s a 75% chance that it’s this kind vs 25% chance that it’s that kind’ and then the human makes the decision about the diagnosis. So you’re exactly right. The machine can process the hard data and we can focus on soft skills.

But going even beyond that, I think machines can learn some soft skills. It’s already happening to some extent – machines’ recognition of facial emotions is no longer a fantasy. They can detect even from speech if somebody is being sarcastic, or making a joke. I don’t think machines can be 100% wise, but they can be much wiser than they are today. Now the focus in computer science is mostly on intelligence, data and smartness, but I think they can do better.


Now the focus in computer science is mostly on intelligence, data and smartness, but I think they can do better.


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? 

We have a long way to go before we understand wisdom well, but clearly this is an area of great importance. More work is needed in understanding wisdom, including the neuroscience part of wisdom, but also we need to think about ‘how do you make a person wiser,’ and eventually, ‘how do you make a society wiser?’

That can happen at some level through behavioural interventions or psychosocial interventions, using various principles of cognitive behavioural therapy to increase people’s wisdom. Technology would be helpful too. And Biology. As we learn more about where in the brain wisdom is located, which neurotransmitters are involved, which receptors are involved, I can see biological interventions. For example, Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation or Deep Brain Stimulation. So I see a time when we will have neurofeedback which will tell me that my dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is overactive and my ventromedial is under-active, so I need to do something to stimulate my ventromedial, and so on – that could happen in the very near future.

Another possibility is that we will discover chemicals that could impact wisdom – I don’t think that there would be any single molecule that could effect all of the components at one time – but, individually yes. In a way we already do that – take, for example ‘emotional regulation.’ The opposite of emotional regulation is ‘impulsivity.’ Excessive impulsivity is associated with ADHD – Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. So we treat ADHD in children with medications. In Autism, one of the symptoms is ‘lack of understanding of other people’s emotions and thinking.’ Children with Autism are very nice children, but they don’t understand what someone else might be thinking or feeling. An antisocial personality is different. These people understand exactly what someone else is thinking or feeling but they use it for illegitimate purposes. So if we were to have some chemicals that were to increase our cognitive understanding of another person’s behaviour, or our emotional understanding of another person’s behaviour, then we could treat certain components of autism or antisocial personality.

There is a type of dementia called frontotemporal dementia and if you look at the symptoms of its behavioral variant, it’s the exact antithesis of wisdom. So if we had a biological treatment to increase wisdom, I think we could help people with frontotemporal dementia. As a physician, I think that’s important. We should have ways of treating people who are suffering because of a lack or loss of one or more of these components of wisdom, so we can help them.


As a physician, I think that’s important. We should have ways of treating people who are suffering because of a lack or loss of one or more of these components of wisdom, so we can help them.


From a medical perspective, whether we should increase the wisdom of the general population I don’t know. That’s an ethical question. But clearly there is a need for us to understand how we can increase wisdom in different ways.

That’s what we’re focusing on right now. How can we measure wisdom in a better way? How can we understand it, and how can we begin to increase it in different ways?


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Why not have a look at the following papers and articles to read more about Dilip Jeste’s work?

TED Talk – Seeking Wisdom In Graying Matter – In this 2015 talk at TEDMED, Jeste outlines the potential for increasing wisdom in the aging brain.

Neurobiology of Wisdom: A Literature Overview – Meeks & Jeste (2009) – In this paper, Meeks and Jeste identify specific regions of the brain that are active during behaviours considered to be sub-components of wisdom.

Defining and Assessing Wisdom: A Review of the Literature – Bangen, Meeks & Jeste (2013) – In this paper, the researchers build on their earlier work, adding three further components of wisdom.

Wisdom and Successful Aging Talk – In this 2010 talk at The Sam and Rose Stein Institute for Research on Aging, Jeste outlines the six component model of wisdom, parallels with the Bhagavad Gita, and the neurobiology of wisdom and successful aging.

Comparison of the Conceptualization of Wisdom in Ancient Indian Literature with Modern Views – Jeste & Vahia (2008) – This paper details Jeste and Vahia’s findings regarding similarities and differences between modern and ancient conceptions of wisdom.

EBW Graphics Series – Jeste’s work is detailed in the graphics The 6 Components of Wisdom and Jeste’s Family Model of the Wise Brain.

EBW Animation Series – Defining Wisdom – Jeste’s 6 component model of wisdom is detailed in this EBW animation Defining Wisdom.

We all have some wisdom. But what is it? – San Diego Union-Tribune article – In this article, Jeste discusses the neurobiology of wisdom and differences between eastern and western conceptions of 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

EBW DISPATCHES: Wisdom and Meaning with Jeffrey Dean Webster

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The EBW Dispatches Series reports the latest developments from the frontline of wisdom research. Key findings are highlighted and illuminated – with a little help from the researchers themselves. The relevant papers can be found at the end of the dispatch.


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Wisdom and Meaning with Jeffrey Dean Webster

Does searching for meaning in life actually make us happier or even wiser? Well it’s not quite as straightforward as you might expect, according to some recent research to emerge from a team in Vancouver, Canada. For a start, seeking meaning and finding it are not the same thing. And even more surprisingly, their research suggests that how we file away our experiences might determine whether we are destined for happiness or for wisdom. 


Jeffrey Dean Webster, PhD is a Professor of Psychology at Langara College in Vancouver, Canada. He is a founding member of the International Institute for Reminiscence and Life Review and a member of the Gerontological Society of America. He is also responsible for the development of the widely used SAWS (Self-Assessed Wisdom Scale). In May 2017, Webster and his colleagues published a paper called Wisdom and Meaning in Emerging Adulthood (2017).

Let’s take a closer look at the entangled world of wisdom, meaning and growth.


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In the paper Wisdom and Meaning in Emerging Adulthood (2017), Webster and his colleagues Nic Weststrate, Michel Ferrari, Melanie Munroe and Thomas Pierce detail their two new studies which investigate the mutual development of wisdom and meaning in young adults.

Both studies measured wisdom using Webster’s own Self-Assessed Wisdom Scale, which you can read more about here or in graphic form here.


Why ‘Emerging Adulthood?’


Why the particular focus on ’emerging adulthood?’ As the authors state in the paper, this period is of keen interest to wisdom researchers: ‘Major life transitions, which are predominant in emerging adulthood (e.g. changing schools, moving to different locations, changing their social network, parental divorce), frequently entail the questioning of prior values and beliefs and are often experienced as stressful. Such transitions, particularly in the area of work and love, but also in general, may instigate processes of meaning-making and the development of wisdom.’


Such transitions, particularly in the area of work and love, but also in general, may instigate processes of meaning-making and the development of wisdom.


Part One – Wisdom on the path to meaning


In the first study they were investigating the relationship between wisdom and the search for and presence of meaning in life. The study involved 298 young adults between the ages of 18 & 29 completing self-report questionnaires. The Search for and presence of meaning were assessed using Michael F. Steger’s Meaning in Life Questionnaire.

Study highlights suggest:

‘Search for Meaning’ is mildly associated with ‘Wisdom.’ 

‘Presence of Meaning’ is moderately associated with ‘Wisdom.’

This would suggest that wisdom is more strongly correlated with finding meaning than seeking meaning. It’s of course important at this point to state that these correlations don’t tell us if wisdom leads to meaning or if it’s meaning that leads to wisdom.

In fact, as Webster explained to evidencebasedwisdom, ‘Wisdom is more likely to involve a progressive, mutually interdependent process in which wisdom and meaning-making reciprocally reinforce one another over time. Wise persons are more likely to search for and eventually find meaning in life, and this in-depth exploration and evaluation likely strengthens many of the components of wisdom, which in turn, stimulates and enables subsequent wisdom development.’


Wisdom is more likely to involve a progressive, mutually interdependent process in which wisdom and meaning-making reciprocally reinforce one another over time. Wise persons are more likely to search for and eventually find meaning in life, and this in-depth exploration and evaluation likely strengthens many of the components of wisdom, which in turn, stimulates and enables subsequent wisdom development.


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Part Two – How the wise process stressful events


In the second study, the researchers were interested in the relationship between wisdom and ‘processing styles’, namely ‘Exploratory Processing’ and ‘Redemptive Processing.’ Essentially, they wanted to know the answer to the question: Which of these processing styles do wise people tend to use when responding to stressful events in their own lives?

271 young adults between the ages of 17 and 29 provided written accounts of stressful life events, which were then scored by raters for their ‘Exploratory’ or ‘Redemptive’ processing styles. The coding schemes used, whilst based on similar approaches employed in related work, were further developed specifically for this study to capture maximal variation across the participants.

But first, what exactly is the difference between ‘Exploratory processing’ and ‘Redemptive processing?’ As the authors describe in the paper:

‘Exploratory processing refers to the extent to which the narrator reflected upon, explored and constructed deeper meaning from the stressful life event…

Redemptive processing concerned the extent to which the reporter had positively reframed the emotional meaning of the event over the long-term.’

So, how do high-scoring wisdom performers process stressful events? Do they focus on deriving lessons and insights, or do they instead focus on reframing the negative event in a more positive light so that they can feel better about the event?

Study highlights suggest:

‘Wisdom’ is moderately associated with ‘Exploratory processing.’ This means the higher the wisdom score, the higher the score for ‘Exploratory processing’ when recounting a negative life event.

‘Wisdom’ is not associated with ‘Redemptive processing.’ This means people’s wisdom score gave no indication of their ‘Redemptive processing’ score when recounting a negative life event.

Whilst this would seem to suggest that Exploratory processing is clearly a more reliable path to wisdom, Webster was keen to point out that both processing styles have their part to play: ‘It is important to reiterate that redemptive processing may play a role in wisdom as well., as it may be ‘wise’ to seek closure and emotional satisfaction (Redemption) as a coping strategy. Dealing with stressful life events may require, at least initially, a means to bracket the emotional turmoil associated with these types of disruptive events. Redemptive processing can allow for this type of ‘happy ending.’ Subsequently, persons might revisit their autobiographical memories associated with the stressor and be able to process the information in a more elaborate, growth-oriented manner. We need longitudinal studies to investigate how redemptive and exploratory styles interact over time.’


It is important to reiterate that redemptive processing may play a role in wisdom as well., as it may be ‘wise’ to seek closure and emotional satisfaction (Redemption) as a coping strategy. Dealing with stressful life events may require, at least initially, a means to bracket the emotional turmoil associated with these types of disruptive events. Redemptive processing can allow for this type of ‘happy ending.’ Subsequently, persons might revisit their autobiographical memories associated with the stressor and be able to process the information in a more elaborate, growth-oriented manner.


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The paper discussed in this dispatch can be found here:

Wisdom and Meaning in Emerging Adulthood (Webster, Weststrate, Ferrari, Munroe, Pierce, 2017)


Why not have a look at the following resources to learn more about the work:

Wisdom Research Forum: “The HERO(E) Model of Wisdom” by Jeffrey WEbster, PhD Video of Jeffrey Dean Websters’s talk at Chicago University’s Wisdom Research Forum 2015 discussing the HERO(E) model of wisdom.

Wisdom and Mental Health Across the Lifespan (Webster, Westerhof & Bohlmeijer, 2012) – In this paper, Jeffrey Dean Webster and colleagues investigate the relationship between age and various components of wisdom, suggesting an advantage in wisdom for middle-aged adults.

Paths From Trauma to Intrapersonal Strength: Worldview, Posttraumatic Growth, and Wisdom (Webster & Deng, 2015) – In this paper, Webster and Deng investigate the relationship between changes in worldview, wisdom and posttraumatic growth.

The Many Faces of Wisdom: An Investigation of Cultural-Historical Wisdom Exemplars Reveals Practical, Philosophical, and Benevolent Prototypes – Weststrate, N. M., Ferrari, M., & Ardelt, M. (2016) – In this paper, Ferrari, Weststrate and Ardelt demonstrate that, when asked to nominate someone they consider to be wise, people tended to nominate ‘practical’ people more than people who had especially profound insight or were particularly compassionate people.

Meaning In Life Questionnaire (Steger at al, 2006) – Explore the MLQ further by visiting Michael F. Steger’s Laboratory for the Study of Meaning and Quality of Life, and you can watch his TED talk ‘What Makes Life Meaningful’ here.

EBW Animation Series: Measuring Wisdom – This animation looks at how scientists wrangle with the challenges inherent in ‘scoring’ for wisdom and features Webster’s Self-Assessed Wisdom Scale.


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

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

Charles