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EBW DISPATCHES: Wisdom & The Foreign-Language Effect with Sayuri Hayakawa

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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 Foreign Language Effect


Wisdom & The Foreign-Language Effect

Can speaking in a foreign language actually change the choices we make? If so, we might reasonably expect the greater difficulty involved to result in poorer choices. Not necessarily so, according to a team of researchers at the University of Chicago. In fact, their research suggests quite the opposite – using a foreign language may actually lead to wiser reasoning.


Sayuri Hayakawa is a PhD candidate in the Department of Psychology at the University of Chicago. For a number of years she has been part of a team investigating the relationship between language and decision-making. In 2016, she was lead author on a paper outlining some of the surprising hidden effects that using a foreign language can have on our assessment of risks and our moral choices. The paper considers firstly the impact of using a foreign language on our decision-making. The author then discuss potential explanations for these effects.

With millions of people worldwide now conducting their lives in their second language, the impact of the research has far-reaching implications.

Welcome to the wisdom of the Foreign-Language Effect.


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Part One – The Effects of Using a Foreign Language on Decision-Making

In the paper Using a Foreign Language Changes Our Choices (2016), Hayakawa and her colleagues Albert Costa, Alice Foucart and Boaz Keysar first reviewed the impact of using a foreign language on decision-making.

They outlined a number of ways in which using a foreign language can have an impact on decision-making, including the following highlights:


Risks are evaluated more consistently when processed in a foreign language.

Utilitarian behaviour is more likely to be endorsed when using a foreign language.


MORE CONSISTENT RISK EVALUATION

Consider how people typically respond to different kinds of risk when using their native tongue:

When faced with making a gain – People prefer a guaranteed win of £10 over an even bet of winning £20 or £0. They avoid the risky bet. They are risk averse.

When faced with making a loss  – People prefer an even bet of losing £20 or £0 rather than a guaranteed loss of £10. They take the risky bet. They are risk seeking.

Now consider framing effects. The same choice can be framed as a gain or a loss, but people’s risk aversion in the domain of gains and risk seeking in the domain of losses still persists.

For example, consider two identical scenarios which are simply labelled differently. People are risk averse when 200 out of 600 people will be saved (a gain) by a medicine but risk seeking when 400 out of 600 people will die (a loss). This is for people using their native language. (For full details click here).

Interestingly, as Hayakawa reports in the paper, this tendency is reduced when people use a foreign language, resulting in a more frame-independent treatment of risk. So, when using a foreign language, people are less likely to be duped by such a framing effect. For foreign language speakers, ‘saving 200 people’ and ‘losing 400 people’ is essentially the same.


Interestingly, as Hayakawa reports in the paper, this tendency is reduced when people use a foreign language, resulting in a more frame-independent treatment of risk.


MORE UTILITARIAN BEHAVIOUR

Utilitarian behaviour refers to actions that lead to the greater good for the greater number. The classic example is of a train headed down a track where it will kill 5 people. You are on a bridge overlooking the scene and can stop the train by pushing a large man off the bridge and on to the tracks below. Do you sacrifice one person to save the 5 others? The utilitarian choice is – Yes, you do.

And that’s exactly what people using a foreign language are more likely to do, when compared to those using their mother tongue. According to the latest research, when ‘moral rules’ (for example, ’cause no harm’) and utilitarian principles conflict, people using a foreign language are more likely to make the utilitarian choice than those using their native language.


According to the latest research, when ‘moral rules’ (for example, ’cause no harm’) and utilitarian principles conflict, people using a foreign language are more likely to make the utilitarian choice than those using their native language.


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Part Two – Potential Processes Responsible for The Foreign-Language Effect

Having outlined some of the effects that using a foreign language can have on decision-making, Hayakawa and her colleagues then propose a number of possible explanations for this effect:


Using a foreign language ENGAGES EMOTIONS LESS than a native tongue does.

Using a foreign language increases PSYCHOLOGICAL DISTANCE.

Using a foreign language increases disfluency, which leads to a more DELIBERATIVE MODE OF THINKING.


REDUCED EMOTION 

The leading explanation suggests that the Foreign-Language Effect is due to reduced emotionality. We learn our native tongue in an emotionally rich context, whilst we learn a second language in a more methodical, distant manner. This would suggest that thinking in a foreign language may be less affected by emotion.

However, Hayakawa is keen to point out that in terms of decisions, ‘less emotional’ doesn’t always mean ‘better’. As she explained to evidencebasedwisdom, ‘When we say “decision bias” or “emotional choice”, it’s usually with negative connotations. The truth is, however, that heuristics, biases, and emotional gut reactions are extremely useful tools for helping us make choices when we have limited information and don’t have the time or resources to think through every step of a decision. In these types of situations, using a foreign language may mute these important intuitions, leading to less optimal choices. … It may be the case that such intuitions shine through more clearly when using a native tongue and could lead to a better choice.’


When we say “decision bias” or “emotional choice”, it’s usually with negative connotations. The truth is, however, that heuristics, biases, and emotional gut reactions are extremely useful tools for helping us make choices when we have limited information and don’t have the time or resources to think through every step of a decision. In these types of situations, using a foreign language may mute these important intuitions, leading to less optimal choices. … It may be the case that such intuitions shine through more clearly when using a native tongue and could lead to a better choice.


INCREASED PSYCHOLOGICAL DISTANCE 

The authors also suggest that use of a foreign language might enable one to stay at some distance from the problem and more easily achieve a ‘bird’s eye view.’ When discussing the possible implications of the research for real-world decision-making, Hayakawa pointed out, ‘There is already research demonstrating that increased psychological distance can lead to greater humility, creativity, and improved negotiation outcomes. To the extent that our findings generalize beyond the lab to real-world situations, using a foreign language could result in similar outcomes.’


There is already research demonstrating that increased psychological distance can lead to greater humility, creativity, and improved negotiation outcomes. To the extent that our findings generalize beyond the lab to real-world situations, using a foreign language could result in similar outcomes.


DELIBERATIVE MODE OF THINKING ADOPTED

Rather than the extra demand on the brain impeding our decision-making, the paper’s authors suggest the opposite may in fact be true – that the increased difficulty of speaking in a foreign language may sound alarm bells that greater consideration and more careful thinking is required, resulting in the adoption of a more considered mode of thinking.

This aligns with reasoning outlined in Daniel Kahneman’s ‘Thinking Fast and Slow‘, which suggested that ‘trick’ Maths problems were answered correctly more frequently when the problems were presented in a more illegible format.


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So it seems that the Foreign-Language Effect can indeed lead to wiser decisions in certain situations. Hayakawa suggested that whilst following our intuition can sometimes be a quick route to a good decision, there are other times when such short cuts are just not up to the job.

As she explained, ‘The problem is that we often over-apply these heuristics to situations where they are no longer useful or relevant. It’s in these situations where the psychological and emotional distance of using a foreign language could help us make a better, more reasoned choice.


The problem is that we often over-apply these heuristics to situations where they are no longer useful or relevant. It’s in these situations where the psychological and emotional distance of using a foreign language could help us make a better, more reasoned choice.


So how might we actually apply this research in our own lives? Should we all be brushing up on our school French and Spanish?

Whilst keen to point out that this research is still in its early days, Hayakawa did stress the importance of paying attention to the effect that language can have on our thinking: ‘While it’s still too early to begin offering tips for daily life, it’s important to keep in mind that the language we use may be affecting us in subtle ways, and could potentially be used to help nudge us into different mindsets.’


While it’s still too early to begin offering tips for daily life, it’s important to keep in mind that the language we use may be affecting us in subtle ways, and could potentially be used to help nudge us into different mindsets.


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The paper discussed in this dispatch can be found here:

Using a Foreign Language Changes Our Choices (Hayakawa, Costa, Foucart, Keysar, 2016)


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

The Foreign-Language Effect: Thinking In a Foreign Tongue Reduces Decision Biases (Keysar, Hayakawa, An, 2012) – In this paper, Deputy Director of The Center for Practical Wisdom and Director of The Multilingualism and Decision-Making Lab Boaz Keysar investigates the impact of using a foreign language on the processing of risk.

Your Morals Depend on Language (Costa, Foucart, Hayakawa, Aparici, Apesteguia, Heafner, Keysar, 2014) – In the paper, Albert Costa of the Center for Brain and Cognition at Universitat Pompeu Fabra investigates the relationship between foreign language use and increased utilitarian decision-making.

Wisdom in a Foreign Langauge – Sayuri Hayakawa Video Presentation at Center for Practical Wisdom Research Forum July 2016 – In this video presentation, Sayuri Hayakawa outlines the team’s research, including recent experimental data.

How Knowing a Foreign Language Can Improve Your Decisions – Scientific American Magazine article, 2012 – Learn more about the team’s research into the impact of the Foreign-Language Effect on risk perception


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

EBW DISPATCHES: Wisdom, Body & Soul with Patrick Williams

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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, Body & Soul


Wisdom, Body & Soul with Patrick Williams

What can we actually do to become wiser? Whilst gaining a broad range of life experience and then learning from those experiences may well lead to the development of wisdom, are there any specific practices that can help us along the way? Recent research by a team at the University of Chicago explored the impact that a number of physical and mental practices might have on wisdom. The results are both surprising and exciting.


In 2016, Patrick Williams was working as a postdoctoral scholar in the Department of Psychology at The University of Chicago. Whilst collaborating with a research team in the University’s Center for Practical Wisdom, he was the lead author on an intriguing paper with some bold new claims about wisdom.

Could wisdom really be found in such strange places?


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Wisdom, Meditation and Ballet

Is experience with certain physical and mental practices associated with wisdom?


In the paper The Relationship between Mental and Somatic Practices and Wisdom (2016), Williams and his colleagues Heather Mangeldorf , Carly Kontra, Howard Nusbaum and Berthold Hoeckner explored how experience with certain physical and mental practices is associated with wisdom.

They were essentially investigating the question ‘Are people that have many years of experience doing these practices wiser than those that don’t?’ The practices investigated were:

Meditation

Alexander Technique

Feldenkrais Method

Classical Ballet.

The study involved 298 people participating in an online survey, in which they were first asked about how many years of experience they had. They were also asked to complete the Three-Dimensional Wisdom Scale as well as a number of other psychological questionnaires.

Study highlights suggested that:

People who practiced meditation were on average the wisest.

People who practiced ballet on average were the least wise.

For both meditation and ballet, more experience was associated with greater wisdom.

No equivalent association was found for the Alexander Technique or the Feldenkrais method. 


The first point the authors are keen to make clear is that the study is cross-sectional and, of course, just correlational.

‘Cross-sectional’ means that the study looked at lots of people with different amounts of experience all at once, rather than following a single group of people as they acquired experience.

‘Correlational’ means the study identifies a relationship, but doesn’t indicate the direction of the relationship – Do meditation and ballet make you wise, or does being wise make you stick with meditation and ballet? No-one can say at this point.

Click here to read Principal Investigator Howard Nusbaum talk more about this.


What specific aspect of meditation might make you wiser?


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When Williams and colleagues looked more closely at the relationship between meditation and wisdom, another interesting discovery was made. Whilst you might expect meditation to both reduce personal anxiety and boost feelings of empathy, this is not what was found.

Whilst greater experience with meditation was associated with reduced personal anxiety, there was no evidence of a relationship between meditation and empathy. Further analysis suggested that lower personal anxiety was associated with higher wisdom.

All in all, this suggests that if meditation does lead to wisdom, it may do so not by boosting empathy but by reducing personal anxiety. As Williams explained, ‘This is one possible interpretation which is supported by research into meditation and anxiety.’ 


All in all, this suggests that if meditation does lead to wisdom, it may do so not by boosting empathy but by reducing personal anxiety.


How might experience with ballet make you wiser?


The finding that ballet is associated with wisdom was particularly surprising to the research team. In fact, ballet was only included in the original set of four practices for comparison purposes and was not expected to be associated with wisdom. The data initially lead to some interesting discussions amongst the team. Williams recounted some of these ideas to evidencebasedwisdom, recalling ‘We hypothesized after-the-fact that the association between wisdom and ballet practice may be due to increased sensitivity in ballet dancers to the somatic markers that guide decision making. Because dancers have a heightened sense of their bodies, this could increase the mind/body connection, which could lead to greater wisdom.’ 


We hypothesized after-the-fact that the association between wisdom and ballet practice may be due to increased sensitivity in ballet dancers to the somatic markers that guide decision making. Because dancers have a heightened sense of their bodies, this could increase the mind/body connection, which could lead to greater wisdom.


However, the authors of the study make it very clear that more research is needed to get a clearer understanding of the nature of this intriguing relationship. Follow-up studies are currently underway with a number of ballet schools in Chicago to replicate the initial study and to learn more about the mechanisms at play.

Nonetheless, the paper provides the first evidence of a relationship between both meditation and ballet training with wisdom. As stated in the paper’s closing comments ‘Although we cannot determine causality from our data, the negative relationship between trait anxiety and wisdom suggests the possibility that meditation and ballet training may contribute to wisdom by training a person to avoid, manage, or overcome personal anxiety or anxieties inherent in each practice and in life in general.’ 

Although we cannot determine causality from our data, the negative relationship between trait anxiety and wisdom suggests the possibility that meditation and ballet training may contribute to wisdom by training a person to avoid, manage, or overcome personal anxiety or anxieties inherent in each practice and in life in general.

So, what can we actually do to develop wisdom?

Meditation and ballet may be a wise place to start.


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The paper discussed in this dispatch is available below, so click to read the original research:

The Relationship between Mental and Somatic Practices and Wisdom (Williams, Mangelsdorf, Kontra, Nusbaum, Hoeckner, 2016)


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

Patrick Williams – Keep up with the work of the paper’s lead author Patrick Williams by visiting his webpage.

EBW Wisdom Profile: Howard Nusbaum – In this profile, principal investigator and Director of The Center for Practical Wisdom Howard Nusbaum discusses the findings of the paper in more detail.

The Center for Practical Wisdom – Read more about the Chicago team behind this paper and learn about further wisdom research currently underway.

UChicago News Article ‘Meditation and ballet associated with wisdom, study says – Read more about the paper in this University news article.


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: Howard Nusbaum

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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 seventh interview in the series, Director of The Center for Practical Wisdom and Professor of Psychology at the University of Chicago Howard Nusbaum talks to evidencebasedwisdom about wise decision-making, the relationship between ballet and wisdom, the importance of attention, and the surprising role of the supreme court in the new field of wisdom research.


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Image credit: The JJ Effect


On Wisdom, Language and Attention


Howard Nusbaum is Professor of Psychology at the University of Chicago and Director of The Center for Practical Wisdom. He is also the Director of The Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences at the National Science Foundation. Whilst Co-director of the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago, he also co-directed the Defining Wisdom Project (2007-2011) and was Principal Investigator for the Wisdom Research Project (2012-2015). His research interests include wisdom, attention, learning and language.

On a recent trip to Oxford, UK for The Jubilee Centre‘s ‘Character, Wisdom and Virtue’ conference, he spoke with evidencebasedwisdom about the origins of University of Chicago’s Wisdom Research programme. He also talked about wise decision-making, the relationship between ballet and wisdom, the importance of attention, and the surprising role of the supreme court in the new field of wisdom research.


 On Wisdom and The Virtues


On Wisdom and Expertise


On Wisdom and Learning Mathematics


On Wisdom and Ballet


On Wisdom and Attention


On Wisdom, Nudging and The Supreme Court


On Wisdom and The Virtues


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In your research, do you have a definition of wisdom that you find the most helpful?

In my lab, as opposed to the whole centre, I work on a simplified model of ‘prudential judgement in service of human flourishing’, taking that from Aristotle, although I have been reminded by my colleague Candace Vogler about Aquinas, and how wisdom can be thought of as orchestrating the moral virtues, so that it illuminates the Aristotelian perspective that human flourishing is not just what makes us happy. Human flourishing has to do with human pursuit of the moral virtues. So, the way I think about it is ‘virtuous decision-making’, if you will, in the moral virtue sense.


In my lab, as opposed to the whole centre, I work on a simplified model of ‘prudential judgement in service of human flourishing’


Is virtue the same as “the common good”?

There was a lot of talk about that at the conference. I think that’s a reasonable statement. As a psychologist, I think of it more as ‘prosocially-oriented dispositions’. Valerie Tiberius has a great book ‘The Reflective Life’. As a philosopher, she’s written a kind of theory of wisdom that reads a lot like a psychological theory. Essentially, in her book, she discusses how the virtues set value commitments. If you value the virtues of generosity or courage, those virtues provide you with guideposts by which you can judge a prospective decision or action. You may ask yourself, ‘Is this courageous? Is this generous?’ If those are my values and goals, then I want to use those as guides in my decision-making.

From Valerie’s theoretic perspective, we should also examine the values of others and take their perspective when evaluating choices and situations.

And that’s where the other-centred perspective comes in?

Exactly. So what that does is opens the door to think about other kinds of virtues. For instance, the intellectual virtues, like epistemic humility or reflection, are critical to perspective-taking. I can’t really take your perspective in the sense of inhabiting your value commitments unless I can put mine aside and believe yours.

That’s hard to do!

It’s hard to do, but nobody said wisdom’s easy! And I think that’s what the crux of the problem of wisdom is, in large part. All too often we talk about the wise person as that person who can easily do that difficult thing. This is why in the Center for Practical Wisdom we have shifted. We take a narrower definition in the sense of ‘to move in the direction of human flourishing.’


We take a narrower definition in the sense of

‘to move in the direction of human flourishing.’


On Wisdom and Expertise


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When we talk about an individual gaining ‘experience’, surely there must be some physiological change where that experience is stored in the body. The idea of experience must map onto a physical change…

There’s a lot of research on expertise. What you see is that when expertise is developed in various domains of endeavor, there’s a reduction in cortical activity. It’s as if your brain does not work as hard when you’re an expert in something than if you’re a novice.

What might be important about that, and I stress the might because I don’t think we really know (although some people would say that we do) is that, if there’s more metabolic activity in your brain, there is a possible competition for resources.

In other words, that metabolic activity is using up “energy” from something and somewhere, and so we want to understand whether that’s a drain on your ability to make use of other kinds of rational, analytic processes that aren’t part of those demands. So, if you want to be able to flexibly select what you’re doing, expertise provides more capacity to do that.

The novice may just have more overall brain activity engaged as well as affective responses – that may just make a kind of neural “fog of war” for them to try to understand things.


The novice may just have more overall brain activity engaged as well as affective responses – that may just make a kind of neural “fog of war” for them to try to understand things.


That makes it very difficult for them to step back from the situation. There’s no capacity left! Like when you’re first learning to drive, there’s a lot to think about. A couple of years later, you can drive and carry on an in-depth conversation at the same time.

When you look at work about expertise in golf for example – what you find is that golf experts can’t tell you what they did on any particular putt, and a novice can tell you every little thing – ‘Well I was breathing fast here, and my foot was like this..’. The Golf expert is like ‘Here’s how you do a putt, but I don’t remember this detail,’ but they can break out of that when they’re confronted with a more challenging situation. They have more discretionary control in some sense.

That’s what Margaret Plews-Ogan has said, that experienced doctors are mostly functioning in an automatic mode. When something doesn’t fit the normal pattern, it pops up as a flag, and they switch to a broader, more probabilistic, deliberate way of thinking. It sounds like the Daniel Kahneman ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’ model.


On Wisdom and Learning Mathematics


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Daniel Kahneman‘s research suggests people are more successful at solving ‘trick’ Maths questions when the question is scribbled and hard to read. That surprised me, as intuition would suggest that the clearer you present a question, the better chance people would have at solving it. The suggestion was that the unclear presentation forced people to switch into the ‘System 2’ slower, more deliberate thinking mode.

If what you’re doing is running down the lane of habit and habit isn’t going to work in this way, but you signalled that this fits habit, then you’re in trouble.

It turns out that when you look at the mistakes that kids make in learning Math, how they categorise a problem at the outset is predictive of success. Bob Siegler’s  research on the development of Math skills shows that kids, when they’re presented with a problem, they put it in a category, and say ‘This problem is one of those – this other problem is one of these’ and they know how to deal with those and they know how to deal with these and so that’s how they come up with solutions.


It turns out that when you look at the mistakes that kids make in learning Math, how they categorise a problem at the outset is predictive of success.


I have noticed this myself when teaching Maths. When a child presents an alternative method for tackling a problem, it places a great demand on the teacher who has to then check the logic of it to see if it stacks up. If teachers don’t or can’t do that, then the children can quickly lose faith in the internal logic of the subject.

This is one of the things that Jim Stigler grappled with for a long time. It’s exactly that issue – that a lot of teachers that teach Math don’t understand Math. They know how to teach what they know how to teach, but they don’t understand the Math concepts. When they go from teaching how to calculate the area of a square to a rectangle to a triangle, they’re on solid ground. But when they go to the circle, they just give a formula. They don’t understand how to conceive the relationship among those, and then communicate it. What that does is it simply enforces the memorization of formulas instead of understanding the concepts.


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Do you think it makes sense to place the most experienced Maths teachers in the younger-age group classrooms, so students are presented these big ideas for the first time by teachers who have the deepest understanding of the concepts?

Not necessarily. It is important to match teaching ability, understanding of concepts in the teacher, and the lessons for students appropriately. It is important that teachers really understand the concepts they are trying to teach, and have the perspective on education to develop an appropriate lesson plan, and the skills to be able to communicate the concepts on the one hand, and provide guidance and feedback to students on the other. Wisdom is needed in that teachers need to know what they themselves know, what students know and need to know, and how to reflect on helping students build up their understanding as befits the students’ needs.


On Wisdom and Ballet


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In February 2016, you published the paper ‘The Relationship between Mental and Somatic Practices and Wisdom’  which showed that greater experience in ballet and meditation correlates with greater wisdom. What do you think might be the mechanism by which ballet and meditation are related to wisdom? Is it a matter of practiced self-regulation and self-control?

The nature of the study doesn’t allow us to say any more than the following: We can say that either very wise people stick with ballet, or we can say sticking with ballet makes you wise. It’s just correlational and it’s cross-sectional.

We do have evidence that when people have just started in ballet dancing, they are lower on measures of wisdom than other groups such as meditators. That suggests the choice of learning ballet does not attract wise people generally. However to stick with ballet over years requires self-control, and understanding of others. We just cannot say whether the practice of ballet works to develop those abilities, or whether the rigors of ballet practice select out the wisest of the group who started.

One of the things we’re trying to do is to replicate that now – we’re working with a couple of ballet schools in Chicago. The first question is, ‘Does the study replicate?’ The finding with ballet dancers is a bit counterintuitive, and we want to make sure that the results can be replicated in another sample.

It might be that ballet requires a couple of things. There’s no evidence for what I’m going to say but it seems plausible that you have to be pretty well self-regulated to keep at ballet because it does hurt, it is painful, and it’s hard. You have to learn how to pay attention very well to the things that people do with their bodies other than you and then repeat them yourself. That’s a skill in and of itself. If you watch a dancer who is demonstrating a move and then you try to do it, unless you yourself are a dancer, you’re pretty much out of luck. It’s really hard! Even though it looks simple, even though the demonstration may slow it down.


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What’s interesting to me is the notion that attention to people moving is especially honed in ballet dancers. If you are practiced at paying attention to people, it may have other implications such as listening more carefully to what other people say, and thinking about what they say from their perspective. There are components of wisdom, like self-regulation, the willingness to work hard and persevere, the willingness to attend to people in ways that other people don’t attend to them, and the ability to focus attention.


What’s interesting to me is the notion that attention to people moving is especially honed in ballet dancers. If you are practiced at paying attention to people, it may have other implications such as listening more carefully to what other people say, and thinking about what they say from their perspective.


So the way ballet dancers practice is to sort of mentally simulate the moves. So they are also engaged in a kind of mental simulation process about other people which is a form of perspective taking.

So they imagine themselves doing the moves and that strengthens the relevant neural connections?

If you look at sports coaches for example, they tell people to do this. You go home and even though you’re not on the field, you run through the moves mentally and you run through them in sequence. You practice them over and over again. So it turns out that when you practice those movements, it actually does activate parts of the motor system. It’s not perfect but it has benefits for performance.

I think that the practice strengthens the use of working memory, and that’s something that may translate into other abilities.

There is this idea of Antonio Damasio’s Somatic Marker hypothesis, which suggests that feelings in the body are associated with emotions, and that these markers influence decision-making. Is it possible that the correlation between ballet and wisdom is something to do with an increased sensitivity to signals from the body that leads to better decision-making?

So it turns out that if you test ballet dancers and you say ‘Put your two fingers in alignment, when you can’t see one hand and you can see the other (above and below a table-top for example),’ ballet dancers are far better at it than non-ballet dancers, but they’re not very good at telling you about their heart rate.

So their interoceptive awareness, that is awareness of the internal bodily states is not as good as their kinaesthetic awareness of the position of their limbs. However, I’m not entirely convinced that that’s necessarily what’s going on. It could be, but we don’t have any evidence to suggest that at this point.


On Wisdom and Attention


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You have worked for many years in the field of attention, and you have also written recently about its relationship with wisdom. Can you tell us a little more about the relationship between attention and wise decision-making?

I think attention is critical to the way we structure our understanding of the world around us. There’s a lot of stuff going on in the room but we make selections – some are directed and some are just habitual, some are based on expectation, some are based on desire – and the information that we make use of comes out of the direct control of attention.

If you are thinking about something actively – say you’re going to give a lesson and you’re rehearsing the general plan for the lesson in your mind – we think about that as sort of mental rehearsing, but in fact it uses the same mechanism as attention. It’s a kind of control process that we execute serially over a series of pieces of information.

When we engage with the world, we do the same thing externally. Information that we take in and the information that we use depends on the attention system. Why is that important? It turns out that the information we take in determines the kind of decisions we can make.


It turns out that the information we take in

determines the kind of decisions we can make.


This could be an example of attention, it could be an example of something else, but I think it’s probably attention. Doctors are trained to think of themselves as scientists, even though they’re not scientists, so they approach medicine as if it were a scientific process. That’s how they’re trained. That’s how they’re admitted to medical school.


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When they take a patient history, and the patient says ‘Well, you know, I’ve been having heartburn and shortness of breath’ and whatever – when it comes like that – symptom, symptom, symptom, symptom – the doctor has no problem. ‘Here’s a piece of information, here’s another piece of information and so on.’ They line that up. But other patients come in, and instead they tell a little story. The doctor has to figure out how the story which does not contain a list of symptoms provides information about the medical problem. ‘So, what is this patient telling me? Here’s a clue, and here’s a clue.’ So they’re sorting the story for evidence and they don’t pay attention to the narrative, but the narrative may have the information in a form that is not a series of clues.

Because they think of themselves as scientists

Right. So they’re looking for scientific evidence. Well in many cases, a person might come in and start talking about her sister, ‘Well my sister’s been complaining about this, this, and this. Doctor I’m really here about this, but my sister’s got this problem.’ So, for the doctor, everything about the sister is a kind of irrelevant noise.

But I listened to a talk by someone at the Institute for Medical Humanities at the University of Texas Medical Branch, and it turns out that a lot of personal history is given by people as a personal narrative, and describes ‘referred pain’ and ‘referred symptoms’. So she might be talking about her sister, but she’s actually echoing things about herself as the patient.


This means important medical information is displaced in this narrative space and the doctor’s missing it.


This means important medical information is displaced in this narrative space and the doctor’s missing it.

So if they thought of themselves more as counsellors or listeners, they might take more of that information in?

Right, if they’re having a conversation with their spouse and their partner says ‘Why are you talking about your sister? We’re talking about you.’ – then they might reply ‘Well you know, we’re a lot alike.’ I think the issue is that doctors don’t attend to the personal history as if it were a personal narrative. They attend to it as if they’re picking the wheat from the chaff. The wheat is defined by symptoms that they can recognise in terms of their scientific view of medical knowledge.


They attend to it as if they’re picking the wheat from the chaff. The wheat is defined by symptoms that they can recognise in terms of their scientific view of medical knowledge.


On Wisdom, Nudging and The Supreme Court


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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?

In the early stages of the Defining Wisdom Project back in 2007, we spent a lot of time putting out information on our website. We built a community of people interested in wisdom and wisdom research. For every person who reads something on the website, they may tell somebody else about wisdom. I believe that has propagation effects.

I also believe there was a trend building. Before we started the ‘Defining Wisdom Project’ I think there was interest growing in wisdom. With the Obama administration, one of the things that we saw in the U.S. was a debate that took place about the role of empathy in the Supreme Court. There has always been a kind of tension in the Supreme Court between different views on interpretation of the Constitution – legal scholars and jurists who say the constitution is a living document that changes with society and others who say ‘No, No. It’s fixed in the form of whatever the founders intended.’

One of the things that President Obama introduced into the discussion as a constitutional scholar (he taught constitutional law at Chicago), was the notion that we should pick a justice on the basis of her empathy. A number of people said, ‘That’s ridiculous. A judge should be objective!’ Obama made an argument that essentially said ‘We’re fooling ourselves when we think that justices really put aside their life experience and knowledge and just see the words of the Constitution as words.’ Justices bring their life experiences to bear on interpretation and judgment.

There is a claim made that the Supreme Court justices become more liberal over time, or at least there is a trend for that to happen. Those that were appointed by fairly conservative presidents as conservative justices sometimes move more to the center and other more centrist judges have moved more left. One can infer that occurs because of the kind of experiences they’ve had in making judgements, because the constitution didn’t change over their tenure.


During the Obama presidency we saw ‘Nudge policy’ emerge in the White House. Cass Sunstein, former advisor to the White House, was a kind of wisdom fellow traveler in many respects.


During the Obama presidency we saw ‘Nudge policy’ emerge in the White House. Cass Sunstein, former advisor to the White House, was a kind of wisdom fellow traveler in many respects. Nudge policies might be thought of as encouraging a kind of institutional wisdom. From this perspective one can think, ‘People want to do something. How can policies help them achieve their goals?’ Sendhil Mullainathan  a behavioural economist at Harvard was one of the ‘Defining Wisdom Project’ grant recipients. He argued strongly for the notion of Institutional Wisdom. Institutions, even if not the members of the institution were wise, even if none of them were, could still put policies in place so that the constituents to whom those policies applied might act more wisely.


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I think that things like ‘Nudge’, things like the ‘Defining Wisdom Project’, things like the president actually having a kind of openness to the role of science in government, exemplifies wisdom in many respects – and all those things coalesced at a certain time to help bring more interest in wisdom to the forefront.


I think that things like ‘Nudge’, things like the ‘Defining Wisdom Project’, things like the president actually having a kind of openness to the role of science in government exemplifies wisdom many respects – and all those things coalesced at a certain time to help bring more interest in wisdom to the forefront.


That’s really interesting because there is a lot in the news now about how people are going to miss Obama’s maturity and adult behaviour, and what really looks very much like wisdom.

I don’t think until recently I would have termed it ‘wisdom’ per se, and yet his political demeanour is consistent with that of wisdom. He worked for compromise in spite of what some politicians say. He operated in a cooperative way, receiving the president-elect and so forth. There are a lot of things that he did, and yet he was not afraid to take action in service of policies that he thought were for the good of the country. That looks like wisdom to me.

Wisdom doesn’t mean you’re popular and wisdom doesn’t mean that people like you, but it may mean that the choices that you make help the greatest number of people in the greatest way.

There are lots of examples of wisdom exemplars from history who are in fact not treated very well by the communities they find themselves in!

One would hate to use that as the diagnostic criterion of wisdom, but I think that it’s entirely consistent with what we’re seeing.

What are your hopes for the Center for Practical Wisdom over the next few years?

Our goals have always been to support wisdom research, given the means that we have to do so, which means we’ve supported projects in Israel, and in Spain, and in other places, as well as collaborating with researchers in other countries.

I want to continue that because I think we can support research on a small scale where other institutions wouldn’t provide support. I also think that it’s important for us to continue to bring together people working on wisdom on a regular basis, to communicate about their work and then to publicise that work as much as possible.

On the one hand, we have a mission to explain why wisdom is important, why it should be studied, and that it should be taught or conveyed or learned. On the other hand, wisdom research is necessary and needs support, and we will continue to do wisdom research at the University of Chicago, because it undergirds that kind of message.


In essence the message is, ‘We need to understand more about wisdom, so that we can help people become wiser and find ways of changing educational institutions.’


In essence the message in, ‘We need to understand more about wisdom, so that we can help people become wiser and find ways of changing educational institutions.’


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

University of Chicago Center in Beijing: “Wisdom Research at The University of Chicago” Howard C. Nusbaum – Video of Howard Nusbaum presenting an overview of Chicago’s Wisdom Research in December 2012 in China.

The Relationship between Mental and Somatic Practices and Wisdom (Williams, Mangelsdorf, Kontra, Nusbaum, Hoeckner, 2016) – In this paper, Nusbaum and colleagues explore how experience with various mental and physical practices is associated with wisdom.

Big Questions Online Series: What Psychological & Social Factors contribute to the Development of Wisdom? – Howard Nusbaum (2014) – In this article Nusbaum considers the role of emotion in wisdom and indeed if there are different types of wisdom.

7 Days of Genius Series: Wisdom Depends on the Skill of Attention – Howard Nusbaum (2015) – In this article, Nusbaum suggests wisdom is a skill that can be learned and that it depends on your ability to manage your attention.

The Huffington Post: What Makes Us Wise (2011) – In this article, Nusbaum discusses work taking place in Chicago at the conclusion of the Defining Wisdom project.


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

 

EBW DISPATCHES: Wisdom and Successful Aging with Monika Ardelt

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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 Successful Aging with Monika Ardelt

What good is wisdom anyway? Researchers are not convinced that wisdom necessarily leads to happiness, so why is it so highly prized? Wisdom researcher Monika Ardelt’s latest research on wisdom and hardship suggests an intriguing answer to this valid question. Wisdom may in fact be a resource to support that inevitable challenge that awaits us all – Aging and dying well.


Monika Ardelt is an Associate Professor of Sociology and pioneering wisdom researcher based at the University of Florida. She has worked in the field for over 20 years and is responsible for the widely used and much-respected 3D Wisdom Scale (full EBW Wisdom Profile here). Her research interests include wisdom, of course, but also ‘Aging Well and Dying Well.’ With this in mind, perhaps the titles of two of her most recently published papers, Wisdom at the End of Life and Wisdom and Hard Times should come as no surprise.

In fact, Ardelt very much views wisdom as an essential resource for navigating the process of aging and dying gracefully.


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Wisdom at the End of Life

Does Wisdom help older people feel better?


In the paper Wisdom at the End of Life: An Analysis of Mediating and Moderating Relations Between Wisdom and Subjective Well-Being (2015), Ardelt and Carladenise Edwards investigated the role wisdom might play in later life, in particular how it might have an impact on the subjective well-being (a measure of how well we feel) of older people. They were essentially asking the question ‘Does Wisdom help older people feel better?’ The study looked at two groups of seniors –41 people who were either hospice patients or lived in a nursing home, and 156 people still living in the community.

Study highlights suggested that:

For older people, greater wisdom was associated with greater subjective well-being. This means that, in later life, wisdom did make people feel better about their situation.

For hospice patients or people living in nursing homes, wisdom had a stronger effect on well-being than it did for the relatively healthy community residents. This means that, for those in more challenging circumstances, wisdom was even more important in helping them feel good about their situation.

This second point is particularly interesting. Ardelt explains the finding in the following way: ‘It is easy to feel well if people are healthy, are part of a community of supportive relatives and friends, and have enough resources to engage in recreational activities, go out to eat, travel, and are able to do other things that make life enjoyable. It is much more difficult to be satisfied with life if one is confined to a nursing home due to physical disability or has been diagnosed with a terminal illness with less than six months to live’


It is easy to feel well if people are healthy, are part of a community of supportive relatives and friends, and have enough resources to engage in recreational activities, go out to eat, travel, and are able to do other things that make life enjoyable. It is much more difficult to be satisfied with life if one is confined to a nursing home due to physical disability or has been diagnosed with a terminal illness with less than six months to live.


So the first paper suggests that wisdom does indeed help older people feel better, particularly for those who are in objectively challenging circumstances.


Wisdom and Hard Times

Can wisdom reduce the impact of tough times?


In the paper Wisdom and Hard Times: The Ameliorating Effect of Wisdom on the Negative Association Between Adverse Life Events and Well-Being (2016), Ardelt and her colleague neuroscientist Dilip Jeste explored the relationship between wisdom and hardship. Typically, as we get older, the going gets tougher. As well as managing greater physical challenges, our social lives can shrink, leading to an overall reduction in how well we feel we are, or our ‘subjective well-being.’ In their study, Ardelt and Jeste studied the wisdom, adverse life events and well-being of 994 adults aged 51-99 years old. They were asking the question ‘Can wisdom reduce the impact of tough times?’

Some highlights of the study were:

Greater wisdom weakened the impact that adverse events had on people’s subjective well-being. This means that the wiser the person, the less effect hard times had on how well they felt.

Ardelt’s wisdom assessment measure, the 3DWS actually has 3 components – cognitive, compassionate and reflective. The research suggested that the reflective component of wisdom was primarily responsible for both the association between wisdom and subjective well-being, and the reduction of the impact of adverse life events on subjective well-being.

Ardelt proposed a possible explanation of the dominance of the reflective component of wisdom in helping reduce negative impact during tough times. ‘The reflective dimension of wisdom allows individuals to perceive phenomena and events from different perspectives, enabling them to look at adverse life events from a more detached perspective, which might help them to stay calm and emotionally balanced in times of stress and adversity. This, in turn, contributes to the maintenance of subjective well-being, even during hard times.’


The reflective dimension of wisdom allows individuals to perceive phenomena and events from different perspectives, enabling them to look at adverse life events from a more detached perspective, which might help them to stay calm and emotionally balanced in times of stress and adversity. This, in turn, contributes to the maintenance of subjective well-being, even during hard times.


So, the second paper suggests that the reflective dimension of wisdom in particular can serve to protect our subjective well-being during tough times.


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These two papers shine a spotlight on the role wisdom can play during challenging periods. Why do we seek wisdom? The research suggests that we do so to help us navigate hardship. And one challenging period we all have to navigate is the adventure of growing old.

Ardelt suggests that wisdom is a resource for navigating tough times: ‘Wisdom becomes particularly valuable in times of crises and hardships when external means to increase well-being are considerably reduced. Wise people know how to be content even if objective circumstances are less than ideal by being accepting of what is and grateful for the good things they still have, such as the love of family and friends.’


Wisdom becomes particularly valuable in times of crises and hardships when external means to increase well-being are considerably reduced. Wise people know how to be content even if objective circumstances are less than ideal by being accepting of what is and grateful for the good things they still have, such as the love of family and friends.


So if wisdom is so such a valuable psychological resource in challenging times, and old age in particular, what can people do to foster this capacity? Ardelt was able to offer some practical advice on how we might start nurturing this resource in preparation for the road ahead. ‘Learning from life experiences and adversity seems to foster the development of wisdom. However, this is easier if one engages in a praxis that strengthens the reflective wisdom dimension, such as mindfulness meditation. Evidence shows that meditation is positively related to three-dimensional wisdom and that advanced practitioners of meditation tend to score higher on wisdom than novices.’


Learning from life experiences and adversity seems to foster the development of wisdom. However, this is easier if one engages in a praxis that strengthens the reflective wisdom dimension, such as mindfulness meditation. Evidence shows that meditation is positively related to three-dimensional wisdom and that advanced practitioners of meditation tend to score higher on wisdom than novices.


The two papers discussed in this dispatch are available below, so click to read the original research:

Wisdom at the End of Life: An Analysis of Mediating and Moderating Relations Between Wisdom and Subjective Well-Being (Ardelt and Edwards, 2015)

Wisdom and Hard Times: The Ameliorating Effect of Wisdom on the Negative Association Between Adverse Life Events and Well-Being (Ardelt & Jeste, 2016)


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

EBW Wisdom Profile – Monika Ardelt – In this recent profile, Ardelt spoke with evidencebasedwisdom about her experiences in the field of Wisdom Research, and the growth of the field itself. She also talked about the role of wisdom in ageing and dying well and discussed the possible role meditation might play in the development of wisdom.

Conversations on Wisdom University of Chicago – Video interview with Wisdom Researcher Monika Ardelt – Here Ardelt outlines her much-celebrated three-dimensional wisdom scale

EBW Post: 3-DIMENSIONAL WISDOM: Can wisdom be measured? – In this post, some of the challenges associated with measuring wisdom are considered and the development of Ardelt’s 3-Dimensional Wisdom Scale is discussed in further detail.


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

WHAT WOULD GANDHI DO ABOUT TRUMP? High-Time For a Science Of Wisdom

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The new EBW article What Would Gandhi Do About Trump? High-Time For a Science Of Wisdom is published by Intentional Insights.

As stated on the site ‘The science of wisdom provides useful insights for turbulent political times.’


The full article can be read by clicking here.


Intentional Insights is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that empowers people to refine and reach their goals by providing research-based content to help improve thinking, feeling, and behavior patterns. 


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


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.

Charles

WISDOM PROFILES: Michel Ferrari

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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 sixth interview in the series, Associate Professor in the Department of Developmental Psychology & Education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto Michel Ferrari talks to evidencebasedwisdom about teaching for wisdom, the many faces of wisdom and the importance of seeking the broadest cultural frame for wisdom.


Associate Professor of Psychology Michel Ferrari


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On Teaching for Wisdom


Michel Ferrari is an Associate Professor in the Department of Developmental Psychology & Education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto. He is also director of Wisdom and Identity Center. His research interests include personal wisdom in people of different ages and from different cultures around the world. He has also edited a number of important books in the field, including The Scientific Study of Personal Wisdom and Teaching for Wisdom. He spoke with evidencebasedwisdom about teaching for wisdom and creating wisdom-nurturing classrooms. He also talked about importance of the narrative mode and the role of experience, the many different faces of wisdom and the importance of seeking the broadest cultural frame in our conceptions of wisdom.



On the Scientific Study of Wisdom


On Teaching for Wisdom


On Creating Wisdom-Nurturing Classrooms


On Wisdom and the Narrative Mode


On Wisdom and Experience


On the Many Faces of Wisdom 


On the Need for Wisdom Research


On Wisdom, Technology and Culture


On Building Wise Societies


 


On the Scientific Study of Wisdom


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

I did a postdoc with Robert Sternberg in the mid-90s and he was already working on this at that time. My thesis was actually on expertise and various manifestations of that. My PhD was about how people who are more or less expert in Karate learn Tai Chi. That seems a little obscure and unrelated, but it’s related in this way which is ‘What does it mean to be an expert?’ You might understand things differently, that is what a lot of Expertise studies are about, but you have to act differently and you have to have the skill to accomplish certain kinds of things. That’s what really makes you an expert. It’s not just knowing something, but you have to be able to do something. That’s what struck me about wisdom. Wisdom involves people that are able to be successful in managing their own lives and helping other people do the same, raising quality of life for themselves and everyone around them. That’s at least the way I’ve understood it. I really liked his general approach that really is in that line. Here in the University of Toronto, we’re always developing different lines of research, and I thought this would be something interesting to do, especially if you consider it more broadly. Toronto’s such a multicultural city it really strikes you that you have people from all around the world who come with different ideas, different understandings of what it means to live a fulfilling human life. So what would these different groups think about wisdom? Would they mirror our North American understanding or would they have something unique and different in their way of understanding wisdom? So that’s how I got to the sort of things that I’m doing now.


Wisdom involves people that are able to be successful in managing their own lives and helping other people do the same, raising quality of life for themselves and everyone around them.


Whenever I talk to people about wisdom, there doesn’t seem to be much disagreement over its importance, but people are often sceptical about the possibility of actively nurturing wisdom…

We’re also victims, to a certain extent, of our methods. There’s metaphysics and epistemology that goes behind different ways of studying something scientifically, and it’s like ‘This works great for something like Physics, but does it work equally well for something like wisdom?’ But then if you start looking, then you realise there is a huge range of methods available, and then the question becomes ‘What’s the most promising one?’ or ‘What do we want to conclude from that?’ or ‘How generalised do we want to be with what we find?’


On Teaching for Wisdom


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Does your research suggest that wisdom can be taught or rather can it only be acquired through direct experience?

I struggle with the question because it seems to me that, in some ways, wisdom is an attribution that’s attached to you by someone else. If someone does something that you didn’t think could be done and it seems like a marvel of insight, then you could say ‘That seems really wise’. Had they failed, you would have said ‘Well, that was a great effort but….’. It could have still been the wisest action if you go into their intent, but part of you feels that it’s not a perfect expression of wisdom. So, if that’s the case, then you can only teach people to approach a situation with the best resources they can. When I say wisdom, I mean some sort of critical insight or maybe even just rational approach to the situation that you’re trying to handle, which is both socially sensitive and engaged. Those all seem like important aspects of wisdom. As I’ve looked into this, I think that there are programs in schools that increasingly deal with these different elements. For example, through Philosophy for Children they’re introducing critical thinking. Social and emotional learning is an overarching theme which is brought into projects like Project Wisdom or Wise Skills. In another vein, you’ve got Positive Education that’s got its own set of 6 Virtues, one of which is wisdom, but the other 5 altogether are what most people in a broader sense would consider wisdom. Or Contemplative Education, in that case they have a focus on mindfulness. All of these things seem like they’re promising elements of what you’d want to teach for wisdom, but it’s coordinating them in a way that would be both sensible to deliver on a mass scale, but also that you would be able to assess it in some way, to show that you really have taught something, as opposed to simply reinforcing what people knew already.


When I say wisdom, I mean some sort of critical insight or maybe even just rational approach to the situation that you’re trying to handle, which is both socially sensitive and engaged.


There’s also the fact that schools can’t do everything. If you say ‘Can wisdom be taught?’ It’s not quite the same as saying ‘Can literacy be taught?’ Some people will drop out of school and they won’t actually learn literacy, or they might have some deficit which might make it extremely difficult for them to learn to read and write. If you use the same logic for teaching for wisdom, then you’d say maybe you could design a program that seems the most promising and would be useful for many students, but not everyone would benefit equally. Some people will come in already predisposed to be successful. Other people will struggle and some people may not be able to really make much use of it. So, can it be taught? I think that all the elements that can be learnt informally if you’re able to be really clear about what they are, often can be taught in a more formal setting, even if it’s through simulations or games set up in the classroom, or simply the way the classroom is organised. Increasingly I’ve been thinking about alternative education programs, like Montessori or Holistic Education. They’ve redesigned the educational experience in ways that seem like they would tap into many of the dimensions that are identified as important to wisdom – be actively engaged, be curious, think deeply about things, be socially coordinated, be sensitive to others, understand themselves and their own abilities. All those things are integral to what it means to be wise. For holistic education it’s about building these types of connections between yourself and others and the world.


They’ve redesigned the educational experience in ways that seem like they would tap into many of the dimensions that are identified as important to wisdom – be actively engaged, be curious, think deeply about things, be socially coordinated, be sensitive to others, understand themselves and their own abilities. All those things are integral to what it means to be wise.


So then the question is ‘Can we scale it up in the kind of formal education system we have in North America?’ Britain might be quite similar. That seems to be a little trickier but, in principle, equally possible. Even in the very way the school is organised – you’ve got grades, you’ve got a path, there are state-wide exams that everyone’s got to do more or less well on. That sets up a kind of individualistic frame of reference that can undermine efforts to say ‘You’re all working together and need to support each other!’ or something like that. ‘You’re all working together – except for this exam when you’re working by yourself, and don’t look at anybody else’s paper!’ So I think some elements of the system are designed in such a way that they work against the kind of things that promote wisdom, but at the same time, that doesn’t have to be the last word. In other aspects you really could emphasise these things that are wisdom-promoting.

I see how assessing people individually can work against some of these social ways of working that might promote wisdom. Are there any effective ways of assessing students whilst they’re working in groups which might be helpful in this situation?


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Kurt Fischer has a theory of development about how you work independently on a functional level and how you work optimally when you have social support. That introduces ideas like Dynamic Testing in which you say ‘Okay, What can you do on your own, and what can you do when there are other people supporting you?’ Those are all ways that you could still make the point that, if we get some support – we can do better. So even if you graded each person on their own, but under conditions like that, that could work. It’s also important that the grading is not about ‘You’ve passed, so you get to advance, but you’ve failed so go back to square one.’ That type of summative assessment can be demoralising if you’re not one of the winners. Rather it’s important that it’s a diagnostic assessment in which you say ‘Okay let’s see what you could do with some support on. I think I see what you’re main problems are – these two areas. Let’s continue to work on that.’ It’s important that you have a set-up in which you’re combining both critical engagement, and a kind of social sensitivity, as we said before. Here in Ontario at OISE (Ontario Institute for Studies in Education), Marlene Scardamalia has been working for years on a program called Knowledge Forum – I actually included that as one of the chapters of the ‘Teaching for Wisdom’ book – where the aim is to get children to start from their own ideas. So for example, you’ll have a question like ‘Why do leaves change colour in the fall?’ They then get to explore that question but also their own answers or other people’s answers. They can say something like ‘I think it’s because when it gets cold, they change colour’. Then another student said (this is an actual example of hers) ‘Well I put some leaves in the fridge and they didn’t change colour. That can’t be the answer, so we’re going to have to keep looking.’ So they have a whole discussion like this where they’re mutually supporting each other, and you get great comments like ‘Hey! Newton was working on your problem!’ They become the authorities in trying to generate or create new knowledge, but they’re also part of a community within the classroom that’s able to track how far they’re advancing on the question. Teachers could still have an impression about what each child is contributing in that type of a system and know if someone’s having trouble or struggling with something. That type of approach it seems to me is really very promising.


On Creating Wisdom-Nurturing Classrooms


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Have any studies been done which suggest certain courses of teaching or programs lead to a sustained increase in students’ level of wisdom?

I don’t think so. I think the closest we find is something like Igor Grossman’s work with Self-Distancing, which is integral to his understanding of wisdom, but it hasn’t been done in the school setting. Although it hasn’t been done with a wisdom measure, it has been done with other measures that would really map on very closely to wisdom. Something like Philosophy for Children, there’s a UK-wide study report I was just reading that has shown that it really did have an impact on student performance along some dimensions. There’s a meta-analysis of social and emotional learning that shows those types of programs really do benefit student’s academic performance, for example. Mindfulness programs, for example, like MindUP and other programs like that, have shown that they do have a positive impact on both students’ anxiety levels, and also their academic performance.

Some researchers stress the importance of living in a culture that nurtures virtue or wisdom, and this may be more important in developing wisdom than passively listening to stories of what wise individuals have done in specific scenarios in the past.

What you’re getting at is the importance of not just what you’re being told within the curriculum, but in fact the whole way the school day unfolds – how you’re treated, what’s expected of you. All these types of things are integral to what you’re really going to learn there.

That sounds difficult to scale up. I can see it working in a small school environment, like a Montessori school, but to scale it up across North America, wouldn’t it require changing the whole structure of how schools are run?

Maybe, but it might just require a change of frame of mind in what you’re trying to accomplish and how you’ll do it. There are many examples given in studies that show that there’s something about the whole way in which students move between classes and set up relationships with teachers that could actually be altered, and maybe not with some radical transformation of the whole school, but just by the way that people are relating to each other. In other words, these examples say to me that there’s a lot of potential within the system as it stands to develop something closer to wisdom and really the art is going to be finding the right kind of policies. Just the way that harassment policies can be set in place that have really transformed the way that people deal with each other person-to-person, there might be other guidelines or policies that can be put in place to really change what’s expected of teachers. Teacher training programs can be rejuvenated so that they emphasise these themes more and maybe even cultivate personal maturity or skillsets that are needed to engage students in this way.

If you look at bullying, that used to be something that was just considered part of school life. Teachers nowadays are on the whole very well trained to deal with it, and even pupils have a good understanding and vocabulary around bullying, so I can see a parallel there to what you’re suggesting.

Exactly, and I think that’s a much more hopeful way to think about it. If you say ‘We’ve got to change everything everywhere!’ that would never happen. If you think of it more like an evolutionary change. We need to go from where we are. How can we evolve in ways that are more likely to generate more wisdom?


On Wisdom and the Narrative Mode


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In your research, do you have a definition of wisdom that you find the most helpful?

I’ve been trying to put together that kind of a framework, and I’m not 100% satisfied with what I’ve got, but I feel like I’m getting closer. I guess my broadest frame is a sort of narrative understanding, coming out of narrative psychology, where you’ve got human actors confronting situations, and they have certain resources, which can by psychological or physical or social and they use those to overcome some sort of trouble. Heroic narratives are ones in which you’re successful, and tragic ones are ones in which you fail. Wisdom is a certain kind of heroic narrative. It’s a narrative in which the heroism is on an internal plane – how you deal with things, how you understand things. Also it coordinates with the external – how successful you are, how well you’re able to accomplish things that other people were not able to accomplish. So that is a sort of broad frame, but I’m also interested in the way that wisdom intersects with insight and self-regulation, in particular self-regulation of learning. All kinds of models have been developed that include attributions that you have about your own capacity to succeed at things, or your own ability to refine and have foresight and monitor what you do. Considering wisdom in that way allows us to coordinate a lot of the other models and definitions that are out there. So that’s the way that I’ve been thinking about it.


Wisdom is a certain kind of heroic narrative. It’s a narrative in which the heroism is on an internal plane – how you deal with things, how you understand things. Also it coordinates with the external – how successful you are, how well you’re able to accomplish things that other people were not able to accomplish.


There’s a lot of discussion around whether wisdom is a character trait or a rather a temporary state – trait or state. But you are saying that it’s about both – a wise person has certain stable characteristics but wisdom then requires these traits translating into certain actions…

You can imagine stories where people who normally have those characteristics don’t have them any longer under certain circumstances! Even the social psychology studies where you’re in a rush and although typically you’re a very nice person, you walk right by this person on the side of the road (click here for details of the 1973 original ‘Good Samaritan’ study). You could even ask ‘What’s the frame of the story?’ Sometimes the story is ‘I can’t be late’ and that’s framing my action, so someone needing help is actually a problem for me. If I’m not in a rush, then maybe helping the person by the side of the road – that’s the story! We have quite a capacity to flexibly alter the kind of stories we tell ourselves. Maybe for wise people, stories of compassion are front-of-mind and trump other ones.


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Sternberg talks about wise people seeking ‘the greater good’, looking for a good outcome for a greater number of people, not just yourself. Is that a way of framing your stories to include other people and their interests?

Well, the nice thing with stories is that they’re dramatic and you can have lots of different characters in them. His Balance Theory of Wisdom  seems correct, apart from the part when you’re determining ‘Who are the stakeholders? What is the balance?’ because who’s going to be the judge of it? It’s also going to be set within a story that will involve your understandings of people, and what is in people’s best interest. Even like ‘Who should I be accounting for?’

Right – how big does this circle go…?

Exactly! Think of the Buddhist meditation practice where you start with the people next to you and then you expand to all sentient beings. Then you have to ask ‘Is my cat sentient?’ ‘Is this mosquito sentient? How about this microbe?’ We can’t escape the fact that we’re importing all of these other understandings into whatever we think is a wise action, even with Sternberg’s Balance Theory of Wisdom. Going back to the cultural reference, I think that’s what’s interesting about cross-cultural studies. If forces you to consider what other people are going to answer, in the light of the way they’re framing the question. They could agree with you in the abstract, but when it comes down to cashing it out, then you can get very different types of wise figures or different types of actions.

Could adopting a narrative lead you to think of yourself in fixed and limiting kind of way?

It’s not ‘narrative’ itself that is wise or unwise, but it’s the kind of narrative you tell. It’s the whole way in which you understand what it means to be a human being – what sort of stories are important and are to be nurtured and which other ones are limited or misguided or something like that. In that sense, thinking of yourself as a certain kind of person with certain features would itself be problematic. That’s kind of the Buddhist view, that there is no ‘self’, no anchored character that is unchanging, with attributes that are fixed. Whereas if your view of ‘self’ is much more interdependent and connected to other people and to the context in which you’re acting, then that’s really the way you’re going to tell the story and that will reflect a certain kind of wisdom.


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So wisdom doesn’t rely on having a narrative mode, rather it relies on having a specific kind of narrative?

The narrative mode to me invites more interdependence and selflessness into your broader conception of what’s going on, so in that sense it invites something that is often characteristic of wisdom, a kind of self-transcendence, because the moment you’ve told a story, it makes you think about all the other people and the entire context within which whatever you’re doing is taking place. It becomes very hard to maintain that it’s just you – ‘If only I’d been different!’ That’s true, but on the other hand, if you’d got there 10 minutes earlier, it would also have been a different story. It’s something that’s not entirely within your control. Maybe a woman crossing the street with a baby carrier to get to the daycare centre held me up by 5 minutes. It’s not my fault, but I am 5 minutes late and maybe that was critical, and had I been there 5 minutes earlier, it would have been a very different story. The point is, it gives you lots of different stories in which way the story could unfold. I think that reflecting on that, and considering alternate types of stories that are possible out of all the same elements is a way to cultivate wisdom. I guess that’s where I think the narrative mode is helpful, as opposed to a thinking of it as a set sort of trait. ‘Oh, you’ve just got to be more open. You’ve just got to have more gratitude’. Although those are important, they’re important within the kind of stories. You appreciate for example that it’s not just up to you. You can be very grateful, but you can imagine circumstances under which gratitude is actually the wrong response. If someone cheated to get you to bypass the most worthy candidate for a job, you could be grateful, but maybe you shouldn’t be grateful. You could be thinking something more like ‘I should be ashamed of that!’


The narrative mode to me invites more interdependence and selflessness into your broader conception of what’s going on, so in that sense it invites something that is often characteristic of wisdom, a kind of self-transcendence, because the moment you’ve told a story, it makes you think about all the other people and the entire context within which whatever you’re doing is taking place. It becomes very hard to maintain that it’s just you.


In the paper ‘Intellectual Aristotelian Character Education: An Outline and Assessment’ Matt Ferkany and Benjamin Creed at Michigan State University suggest that virtue is ‘uncodifiable’, meaning that the virtuous response depends entirely on the context, as you’ve just outlined with your example about gratitude. This ‘uncodifiable’ nature of virtue seems to be something shared by wisdom, and I imagine that is one of the challenges faced when ‘teaching for wisdom’?

The important thing that I find appealing, which is a very Aristotelian view, is that wisdom is doing something that transcends the narrative. It’s when set storylines don’t actually give you the correct response, and you need to find the best outcome that betrays important values as little as possible. The classic example is when you’re friend is shot before your eyes and critically injured. Should you care for them or should you run after the perpetrator and stop them? There’s actually no right answer to that, but you need to come to an answer. The wisdom will be in the quality of the answer that you’re able to generate, and your ability to tell a story in which that was the best expression of what matters most. It may well bring in things like balance, interdependence and the types of things that come up in other models, or compassion. The attributes that are important, that are going to be important trait characteristics will only be able to be understood within a context of a story, and often a story that requires some sort of on-the-spot creative engagement with what’s really the situation in front of us. That’s the Aristotelian point about wisdom too. It’s not something that will be, as you say ‘Codifiable’ or knowable even in advance. It’s about, given everything that’s happening right at this instant, all the constraints and possibilities that are there, what should be done? I totally agree with that.


That’s the Aristotelian point about wisdom too. It’s not something that will be, as you say ‘Codifiable’ or knowable even in advance. It’s about, given everything that’s happening right at this instant, all the constraints and possibilities that are there, what should be done?


On Wisdom and Experience


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Accepting for the moment that the accumulation of life experience, perhaps adverse experience in particular, plays at least some part in the development of wisdom, are children equipped to make much sense of such kinds of wisdom-related questions at a young age?

For me, I guess I see it a little bit differently. Judith Gluck has said, and Ursula Staudinger has said this too (it comes out of the Baltes view) – part of what is involved in wisdom is life review. I guess Erikson would have said the same thing. It comes from reflection on your own life and the meaning you make of your own experiences. Adverse experiences are almost like a limit case to that. If it’s really disruptive to your whole understanding of yourself and the world, then you’ve really got to make sense of it to go forward. It forces you to think deeply, to maybe rethink your way of understanding things. Maybe it also will broaden your horizon. If you go back to the kind of story you’re telling, I might have had a story about myself advancing along a certain path, which seems very clear. That story can be quite narrow. It’s just me, and a couple of the things I was supposed to do. But a major adversity, imagine you’ve been diagnosed with cancer and you’re not sure to survive, for example. Something like that immediately broadens your frame. ‘What should I count as the most meaningful thing about my life story? Is it really what I had originally thought?’ I think that’s the sense in which adverse experiences could, of course, be the main driver in developing wisdom. Monika Ardelt made the point that a traumatic experience could be one of the quickest ways to shake you out of your complacency and give you more wisdom, but I think if you go back to children, even things like making friends or making sense of new settings, going to school for the first time. They’re not adverse in the sense of bringing harm, but they’re destructive in the sense that your whole life could now have a new set of contingencies or constraints that force you to redefine who you are and what you can do and what’s important to accomplish. Considered on that level, children can gain wisdom within their own life context and within their own capacity to understand things. I like the Baltes’ idea that development is a ratio of gains and losses and I think that works very well in terms of attributes that are characteristics of wisdom. So, if open-mindedness is a feature of many models of wisdom, children are paradigm cases of open-mindedness! They don’t have any preconceptions. They’re the ultimate beginner’s mind, because they’re just beginning. So in that sense they should max-out on that dimension.


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For other things, like the ability to coordinate perspectives, to coordinate their understanding with other people’s understanding, that’s an accomplishment that takes many years and maybe even in to early adulthood before you’re really successful at doing that. So that’s something that you gain as you get older, but you might lose your open-mindedness then, because you get set in your ways, you get fixed ideas about things. So the trick in terms of developing wisdom might be to maintain or not lose certain capacities, whilst you gain others. That’s kind of the way I think about it, and that’s why some people do consider children to be wise or say things that are wise. Sometimes they say their honest unvarnished opinion about something and it just happens to be right and nobody dared say it – ‘the-emperor-has-no-clothes’ type of story. In so doing, they can actually speak the truth and that’s what was needed in that situation. It’s considered wise, because they’re not over-thinking it, really. Of course there are going to be other situations when they don’t appreciate the implications of what they’re about to do. They might be climbing on something thirty feet up in the air, sure that they could never fall, whereas we have a pretty good idea that they really could fall. That would then be reckless and unwise, because they’re not able to appreciate the whole context of what they’re doing.


So that’s something that you gain as you get older, but you might lose your open-mindedness then, because you get set in your ways, you get fixed ideas about things. So the trick in terms of developing wisdom might be to maintain or not lose certain capacities, whilst you gain others. That’s kind of the way I think about it, and that’s why some people do consider children to be wise or say things that are wise.


Some people, as they get older and believe they know themselves better, avoid certain types of experiences, and then live narrower and narrower lives. This reduction in new experiences doesn’t seem like it would nurture the development of wisdom.

Ursula Staudinger made the point that personal wisdom can decline in older age for just that reason. It’s much more threatening to accept ‘Everything I’ve been doing for the last 30 years is wrong’ than, ‘Everything I’ve been doing for the last year and half is wrong!’ The more invested, the more sunk cost, and the more habituated it becomes, and it makes it harder for you to break out of that, except under really extreme circumstances. Nic Westrate, who’s doing a PhD with me but has really been a leader on my thinking on this issue, has this idea that it can’t just be experience because everybody has experiences all the time, but it’s the ability to reflect and distil something from that experience that’s going to be critical to developing wisdom. Going back to something that you might teach for wisdom, Keith Oatley proposed that reading novels (click here to read details of the original study), and then really thinking about it critically is very useful in teaching some sort of lesson or getting you to really reflect on what matters about the way people relate to each other.

So you could definitely teach people ‘reflective skills’ that would enable them to benefit from the experiences they would then go on to have?

Right. Circling back to this idea of narrative, it’s reflecting on your experience, but it’s the kind of reflection – it has to be set within a broader narrative. ‘Who am I as a character, and what sort of stories matter to me? How should I deal with a certain kind of trouble I encounter in terms of issues and problems that arise? Will this lead to a better quality of life or more things that I value than some other way?’


On The Many Faces Of Wisdom


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You recently published the paper ‘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)’. The paper suggests that when asked to nominate someone they consider to be wise, people tended to nominate ‘practical’ individuals more than individuals who had especially profound insight or were particularly compassionate people. Did this surprise you?

That was a little surprising. We thought it was going to be more evenly spread. Since we had all these different types of exemplars that people had mentioned, we thought that they would be more uniformly spread out across the sample. Thinking about it in the end, in a way it’s not that surprising because, having read the interviews themselves, which are the broader context of these nominations, you see that wisdom is often understood in terms of this kind of practical skill. One older Canadian woman, when asked to think of a moment when she’d been wise said ‘I’ve been wise all my life! You can’t get to my age without being a little bit wise.’ What does she mean by that? Well earlier on, when she was younger, there wasn’t much money to go around. Even people who were working didn’t have enough money to buy all the things they needed, so they needed to make their own things. They needed to think on their feet, and make do with what they had. All of that is what she’s counting to be wisdom, and that’s a kind of practical wisdom. It manifests politically, but also on a smaller scale such as managing your life the best that you can, with the resources you’ve got. That was a very dominant view of wisdom.

I find it quite an encouraging view, since it suggests that wisdom isn’t so much an esoteric, rarefied abstract concept, but that people really think of it much more as a practical tool, a compass for navigating their day-to-day lives…

When it was suggested that anybody can manage their day-to-day life, she replied ‘Not at all! Some people went bankrupt’. Being able to do that is an accomplishment and, as you say, it’s an accomplishment that manifests in day-to-day life. You don’t have to design a rocket to the moon or something. You can just manage what you need to be able to do, in order to have the best life that’s possible for you.

It also puts wisdom back at the heart of things, as opposed to something that is the preserve of people that meditate for hours, or study a lot. Framed in this way, it’s no wonder society keeps coming back to wisdom through the ages – it’s how you get through your life.

At the same time, it’s also more. I’ll tell you one of things that impressed me most whilst working on this international project we did. I did some interviews in Canada. One person I talked to – a 90-year old man – I said to him ‘Think of a moment in your life when you were wise.’ He said ‘Well, I was going to step onto the bus and I missed my step and I fell and broke my hip’. I said ‘So missing the bus was somehow wise?’ and he said ‘No, that was really stupid, but my whole life changed in an instant, and I realised that every instant of your life is like that. That’s wise.’ It’s not really practical in the way that the first example is. It’s more a perspective on every moment. It could cash out in terms of the way you might act. It’s an insight that’s closer to maybe Taoist insights that you read about, but also these are insights that everyday people have. He’s not citing some archaic text. He’s basically saying ‘This is something I realised that struck me, that I want to communicate to you about wisdom.’

It’s extraordinary to me that those two perspectives or experiences are even referred to with the same word, when they seem so different in nature – one being about managing resources in daily life and the other being one of the most profound insights into the nature of being alive.

They are different, but at the same time, and I think Stephen Grimm makes this point, they coordinate with each other, because of course if you have that kind of insight it will govern your attitude towards the way that you manage things, maybe even help you to accept the way things turn out, or don’t turn out. I don’t know if you need the second part for the first. It could be that someone is really, really skilled in a day-to-day way without having that kind of insight, and I guess that even with that insight, you might not be that good at managing your time, for example. They could be somewhat orthogonal but they do seem like they could work together, in terms of classic definitions of wisdom anyways.


On The Need For 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? 

My own personal thinking about it, and what I would infer from Robert Sternberg’s movement into wisdom as a topic, is that people have studied intelligence, or say leadership, or for that matter many other things, that seem like they’re optimising student performance, and then you can get people who are really successful in business, in politics and in day-to-day life that you meet on the street, and yet there are still problems like global warming that seem like they put all of humanity at risk. Also you have political conflicts that seem like they would be tractable if all the major players could just get on the same page and promote what’s for the benefit of the greatest number, but it doesn’t happen. It feels as though there’s something lacking. If the best and most powerful people we’ve got, who we admire in other ways, are not able to solve these types of problems, there must be something missing in our understanding of what it takes to be somebody to be admired and be successful. I think that is where wisdom comes in, because you can say ‘Sure. They’re very smart in a way that’s very intelligent or very crafty, and they’re able accomplish a lot, but they’re still lacking something that we’re going to call wisdom. They’re able to run a very successful company, but it’s by cracking the whip and scaring their employees and working them like slave drivers. So it produces a result, but not one we’d ever want to be on the inside of! Those types of things suggest that we would at least hope there’s a different way. It’s not true for everybody. For other people, it isn’t the case. They can be successful, but in a way that benefits everyone. You can say ‘That’s what we should be cultivating in people and our educational system!’ It sort of comes naturally out of that. As a scientific community we can say ‘Well actually we’ve got enough to say about many of the elements, so maybe we can now tackle this as a theme to be explored’


If the best and most powerful people that we’ve got, who we admire in other ways, are not able to solve these types of problems, there must be something missing in our understanding of what it takes to be somebody to be admired and be successful. I think that is where wisdom comes in.


On Wisdom, Technology and Culture


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Which single practical change do you think would lead to the greatest increase in the levels of wisdom in society? I suspect your answer may include ‘Education’ but, over to you! 

I was actually thinking that! Some sort of public education that emphasises compassion and critical thinking and how these are coordinated. I think there are a lot of elements but I think that would be the overarching framework. The difficulty is that education itself is something that represents a value system. We can actually say that wisdom is something we value, but what we mean by wise is often at the very least culturally slanted. There is some sense in which you can look to Confucius, The Buddha, Mahatma Gandhi, people in foreign cultures that really inspire people all around the world, so it’s not as though wisdom will be culturally specific in one way. In another way, what counts as an ideal of human flourishing is not always cashed out in exactly the same way in different cultures. So, I think that they can have slightly different conceptions of wisdom. Sometimes it could benefit us to look to other cultures and see ‘What do they mean by wisdom?’ In terms of designing an education system that will promote wisdom, it’s going to be a conundrum, especially in a place like Canada where people are coming from all around the world. Then, presumably, you’ve got to find a way that everyone can agree on, but is not as such a high level of abstraction that you can’t actually do anything. It can be an ideal aspiration, but it still needs to be cashed out in terms of what curriculum you’re going to teach. The single most practical change could also be something like ‘cultivating a mindset of selflessness or mutual interdependence.’ That stands behind someone like Robert Sternberg’s theory but other theories too, where to the extent that we can cultivate that, a lot of the other virtues associated with wisdom will naturally fall out. Like if you have that view, you just will seek a harmonious balance, or you will be compassionate, you will have gratitude, you will be open-minded. A lot of the other things that are associated with wisdom could come from that. So it could be that that might be a core thing to try and cultivate within education that most people would agree is positive. 


The single most practical change could also be something like ‘cultivating a mindset of selflessness or mutual interdependence.’


Young people must be more aware than ever that our lives are more interconnected than ever. Do you think this intuitive understanding of interconnectedness could be part of the reason behind the growth of interest in wisdom? 

We’re living in an interesting time where there’s a kind of paradox between nation states that have national interests, and corporations and the internet that are global. There are other things that absolutely cause all kinds of problems, but also all kinds of opportunities. You can have a very rare illness and find a community online. There might only be a 1000 of you around the globe but if you can find each other, you can all meet online. That kind of thing, as you say, really highlights the fact that there’s a connection that spans all types of different groups that otherwise would always have been considered separate. So it’s not just like ‘We’re all one family’ but also it’s like there’s a net of intersecting communities that invites a kind of complexity that you really wouldn’t have found even 50 years ago.

Some writers have suggested that the younger generation, which is constantly connected online, have a much clearer understanding of this interconnectedness than we do?

Isn’t it Marshall McLuhan’s argument that the true power and impact of a new technology is never appreciated in the first generation of use, which is why people called cars ‘horseless carriages’? They just had no concept of what this was going to do. I think you’re right. This type of technology can be really radically transformative at a much more fundamental level than just being a way to call a lot of people, or being part of a chat group as I would describe it. It might radically transform your conception of what sort of person you are.


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What do you make of developments suggesting that, since many ancient texts and modern theories of wisdom have a lot in common, wisdom may have a biological basis in the brain?

Maybe I’m Kantian in this way that I think you can never have a purely biological understanding of people, because anyone we meet is a person that has been raised in a human culture. In that sense, the cultures that we’re encountering have something shared. Even if you go back to ancient India, you still have urban environments. I suppose some of the sages lived in the forests, but even then they were on the outskirts of cities. There could be commonalities that come from the synthesis of the biology and culture that still speak to us thousands of years later. I’m sure that’s true, but I wouldn’t want to go with a purely biological argument for that reason. I do think that we don’t want to totally erase the differences between cultural visions of wisdom, because I think on a very high level they might resemble each other but the closer you get to the ground to the actual instances, you might find examples that surprise you in different places. You can’t have a theory of wisdom that is divorced from your general understanding of what it means to be a human being in your broader metaphysics about the ultimate nature of reality. That’s why I think it’s interesting to look at different religious perspectives. In a project we are running now, we’re comparing Muslims, Christians, Buddhists and Atheists in Canada and South Korea. It invites the question ‘Is there something about the national culture of Canada and Korea that might differ? But is there something about the Christian way of understanding the world vs The Buddhists vs Atheists or Muslims – does that actually alter?’


You can’t have a theory of wisdom that is divorced from your general understanding of what it means to be a human being in your broader metaphysics about the ultimate nature of reality. That’s why I think it’s interesting to look at different religious perspectives.


So you could establish if the cultural or the religious factor has the biggest impact on their views regarding wisdom?

We’ve had trouble finding Muslims in South Korea actually, but in the current times it would be one of the most interesting to find out about. Canada came out of a Christian culture, coming out of European colonisation, which was very broadly Christian, and yes, Buddhism is here to. In Korea, although I’m sure there are Christians that have been there for at least a hundred years, broadly speaking it has much deeper roots in Confucianism and Buddhism, so that’s part of the question we’re going to ask. Even if you’re an atheist in either of those countries, you might end up looking more Christian or Buddhist, depending on where you’re raised. So the question would be ‘Is your wisdom going to be different, in you day-to-day dealings with people?’ That’s what this study is going to try and illustrate. Part of me wants to say that people are wise in similar ways around the world. It could also be that people differ. Take something like music. You’ve got different musical systems. You have entire systems that have developed in, say China, or India or Europe. They all make use of patterned sound, and you can appreciate when you listen to it how great it is. You can appreciate the beauty of it, the complexity of it, even though it’s very different. To my mind, I’d be much more comfortable with that view of wisdom, where people come up with something and you think ‘Wow, that’s really fantastic, but it’s not necessarily something that I would have thought of or would have come out of my way of thinking of things.’ Hopefully it will work in reverse too. They might go ‘Wow that’s really amazing’ from the other side. ‘We hadn’t thought of it that way.’ Maybe a sort of fusion of horizons is possible. Historically we have our own horizon of understanding, but the more we bump up against other ones, the more opportunity then to broaden and integrate those.


Maybe a sort of fusion of horizons is possible. Historically we have our own horizon of understanding, but the more we bump up against other ones, the more opportunity then to broaden and integrate those.


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Doesn’t something like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights suggest that, although there are of course cultural differences, ultimately there are some core universal values, which all societies agree on?

Theories of wisdom like Monika Ardelt’s theory in which you’ve got these aspects like the cognitive depth of understanding, and a sort of reflective coordination of perspectives and a compassionate aspect, the synthesis of all those three, that would be an example of some sort of ‘universal declaration.’ Everyone can sort of buy into that, but it’s when you come to cash it out in terms of ‘What exactly do we mean by that? How exactly are we going to achieve that?’ Then I think you can really find divergences. Maybe that’s what we need. Something that allows us to have something universal at a very broad level, but still appreciate cultural nuances. It’s like saying that everyone can agree on what’s edible for human beings, but we can still have different national cuisines. ‘Sure I could eat ants. There’s nothing stopping me. There’s protein and vitamins but I’d rather not, but that could just be my upbringing. In fact it’s entirely my upbringing’ By analogy, there could be certain styles or ways of doing things that count as wisdom in certain places, that you might think ‘I just really wouldn’t operate that way, yet I can appreciate that it’s effective and it accomplishes something.’


Maybe that’s what we need. Something that allows us to have something universal at a very broad level, but still appreciate cultural nuances.


To suggest wisdom could be completely extracted from culture would suggest that you’re operating as an individual. If you think about what Sternberg says about wisdom, that it’s about optimising the best outcome for the group, then it seems unlikely that the same action in two different cultures would be able to optimise for two very different groups.

That’s true and I think we need to be careful in terms of ‘what’s our unit of analysis?’ It’s almost implied that the unit of analysis is always the individual. You could imagine a much more collective view of wisdom – the way different corporations act in the world or what kind of responsibilities they take, or different nations, or even different cultural communities and how they relate to each other or to minorities within their communities or people in poverty – ‘How do we as a community handle problems that arise that affect all of us within our community but also affect our dealings with other communities? So I think there’s a place for considering wisdom at that level.


On Building Wise Societies


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If you start to think of wisdom on a societal level, there must be ways of structuring institutions that would nurture or lead to wiser behaviour?

I think, for example, Bhutan is sort of leading the way in this type of thinking. People can argue about how they’re implementing the details of it, but their aim is to promote not just the Gross National Product, but Gross National Happiness and they’ve got various indicators of what that would involve – spots tests with the population as a kind of census measure etc. I found that really inspiring. And they’re trying to tailor the education system to cultivate the sort of virtues that would lead to a way of life that would contribute to that sort of society. I think that’s a fascinating way of thinking about the whole issue of cultivating wisdom.

Well, could you imagine a ‘Gross National Wisdom’ index at some point?

That would actually be interesting but it raises the question of whether wisdom is a means to an end of something like happiness. What is wisdom supposed to accomplish? I guess it could still be interesting. If happiness is a balance between doing better and also feeling better about whatever the actual situation is – improving things to the exent that we can and accepting that is the limit of what we can do for now – if that’s integral to what we mean by wisdom, then maybe that would contribute to or even be synonymous with what it means to be happy. I think that’s exactly the sort of conceptual work that needs to be done. What is it that is going to be a marker of wisdom and how will it relate to other things that seem like ultimate core values that we’re trying to cultivate?

I find it really encouraging to consider how fields like emotional intelligence or, even more broadly, mental health have moved from the edge to the centre of public discourse. It suggests that there is the potential for the frameworks and ideas that we have been discussing here to be central to public debate in the years ahead.


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What we valued in our education system was economic at first and that is important. Then you can say ‘Well we’ve accomplished more or less that objective. Now what else can we add in that will further improve our quality of life and society?’ I think that’s where Bhutan is heading but I think you can imagine that becoming a universal practice.


What we valued in our education system was economic at first and that is important. Then you can say ‘Well we’ve accomplished more or less that objective. Now what else can we add in that will further improve our quality of life and society?’


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?

I think that one of the main things that is going to be required is conceptional coordination of all the models that are on the table, even if there was a taxonomy outlining that we understand wisdom in different senses. There’s Personal vs General Wisdom that Ursula Staudinger has proposed. Roger Walsh came up with definitions of wisdom in a paper last year, that go from practical to various levels of conceptual insight into the fundamental nature of reality and what it means to be a human being in that context. Already you can say that coordinating those two is not obvious, but if you then extend it out to other models that we’ve been talking about in this interview… I think one of the things we need to do is get a handle on ‘What are we talking about exactly?’ Part of the way that that can be done in my opinion is, which is some of the work that we’re doing, is looking at what wisdom means in different countries at different ages and actually at a limit case in atypical populations, like people with Autism. We’re asking people with Autism in Pakistan and Canada what it means to be wise and give examples from their own life. Something like that gives you a chance to explore the range. A lot of these explicit theories, knowingly or not, come out of the implicit ideas people hold about wisdom but often, because we’re scientists, we’re coming out of very similar contexts. We may not be attuned to other possible theories that are out there that we would need to account for, certainly if we were going to talk to people from other places, but even to get the broadest understanding about what wisdom is. So I think that’s important. I also think there’s the relationship of wisdom to other value systems, whether they’re religious values or national cultural values. That seems like an important thing to be exploring. So that type of work to my mind is very important.


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To my mind wisdom is often a marker for what we most admire or aspire to – some sort of synthesis of intellect and character. But I think it’s also important to say ‘Do we have any proof that we really can cultivate these?’ I was saying that Igor Grossmann’s Self-Distancing studies are very interesting, as an example of a practice that people can do that seems to really benefit them. Also we want to know ‘Does it benefit them in their lives in some way?’ It’s a pretty utilitarian way of thinking but we want to show that it does something – makes them more successful in their engagement with the world, in their problem solving, or it changes their attitude so they suffer less in some way. It seems that he is able to show that there is that kind of positive effect with self-distancing but conceptually we could ask what’s involved in this practice – ‘Are you really distancing yourself from yourself or are you rather connecting yourself to others?’ So we can do experimental studies like that and see how they relate to wisdom.


Also we want to know ‘does it benefit them in their lives in some way?’ It’s a pretty utilitarian way of thinking but we want to show that it does something – makes them more successful in their engagement with the world, in their problem solving, or it changes their attitude so they suffer less in some way.



Why not have a look at the following videos, papers and books to learn more about Michel Ferrari’s research?

Center for Practical Wisdom Research Forum 2016: “Wisdom Exemplars” by Michel Ferrari, PhD – Video of Michel Ferrari’s talk at the inaugural Center for Practical Wisdom research forum in July 2016. The talk ask the question ‘Do other cultures have different kinds of wisdom exemplars than we do and if so, what might this mean for using North American wisdom frameworks for measuring wisdom in cross-cultural research?’

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 and colleagues 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.

Interdisciplinary Moral Forum: “Motivating the Self to Virtue in Western and non-Western Countries” by Michel Ferrari, PhD – Video of Michel Ferrari’s talk at the Interdisciplinary Moral Forum on March 12-14, 2015 at Marquette University for the Self, Motivation, and Virtue Project, in which wisdom is proposed as a key factor in motivating the self to virtue.

The Scientific Study of Personal Wisdom: From Contemplative Traditions to Neuroscience (Ferrari & Westrate, 2014) – This volume contains a broad overview of many different approaches to the scientific study of wisdom, from a diverse range of fields including Gerontology, Developmental Psychology, as well as Philosophy and contemplative traditions.

Teaching for Wisdom: Cross-cultural Perspectives on Fostering Wisdom (Ferrari & Potworoski, 2008) – This book contains a range of chapters addressing the eternal question of whether wisdom can be taught. Specialists from a broad range of disciplines including Anthropology, Psychology, Religion and Philosophy contribute unique and diverse perspectives.


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 GRAPHICS SERIES: Part III

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The third part of the EBW Graphics Series includes infographics highlighting a number of new topics: Sternberg’s Balance Theory of Wisdom,  3 Long-Term Wisdom Interventions, Webster’s HERO(E) model of wisdom and a close look at the evidence for the widely held belief that ‘Older means Wiser’.


The full EBW Graphics Series can be viewed online by clicking here.


Sternberg’s Balance Theory of Wisdom

The following infographic provides an outline of The Balance Theory of Wisdom developed by Professor of Psychology Robert Sternberg in the 1990s. The theory highlights the importance of marshalling effort and resources towards achieveing ‘the common good.’ To read more about The Balance Theory of Wisdom, click here.

 

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The Balance Theory of Wisdom

Older & Wiser

The following infographic provides an overview of the evidence supporting the widely held belief that ‘older means wiser.’ In terms of empirical evidence, Paul Baltes and Jacqui Smith, two pioneering wisdom researchers from the Max Plank Institute in Berlin, suggested in 1989 ‘the harvest is relatively small’. However, research over recent years has started to tell a different story. To read more about the complex relationship between ageing and wisdom, click here.

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Older & Wiser

The HERO(E) Model of Wisdom and The Self-Assessed Wisdom Scale

The following infographic provides an overview of The HERO(E) model of Wisdom and the associated Self-Assessed Wisdom Scale, developed by Professor of Psychology Jeffrey Dean Webster. Unlike most of the other wisdom frameworks dominating the research community, the HERO(E) model includes HUMOUR as one of the central components in its description of wisdom. To read Jeffrey Webster’s full Wisdom Profile, click here.

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3 Long-Term Wisdom Interventions

The following infographic highlights 3 of the most promising candidates for developing wisdom over the long-term, according to the research community. The graphic refers to work by Baltes, Staudinger, Lopez, Tedeschi, Calhoun and Hölzel over the period from the mid-1990s up until 2011. To learn more about the development of wisdom, click here to watch the EBW animation ‘Developing Wisdom.’

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3 Long-term Interventions

The full EBW Graphics Series can be viewed online by clicking here.

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

Charles