EBW Graphics Series: MODELS OF WISDOM
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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 fourth interview in the series, Director of the University of Waterloo’s Wisdom and Culture Lab Igor Grossmann talks to evidencebasedwisdom about the processes behind thinking and acting wisely, Solomon’s paradox, the importance of context, and the role of self-distancing in supporting wise reasoning.
Igor Grossmann is an Assistant Professor of Psychology and the Director of the Wisdom and Research Lab based at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada. His main research interest is the complex processes that enable individuals to think and act wisely. He has also done pioneering work on the development of wisdom in different cultures. Dr. Grossmann was named one of the 2015 Rising Stars in the field of Psychological Science.
How did you first become interested in the study of wisdom?
In 2005, I came to Michigan to do a PhD in Social Psychology, interested in work by Richard E. Nisbett on how culture impacts one’s style of reasoning: holistic vs. analytic. One thing lead to another and we realized there are some parallels between the notion of holistic/dialectical thinking in cross-cultural psychology and how developmental psychologists and philosophers before them characterized core aspects of wisdom.
I understand that you are not so interested in investigating an idealised concept of wisdom, but rather your focus is on enabling people to act in a wiser fashion in their everyday lives. How do you define everyday reasoning that is wise?
That is correct. Running after ideals (which one cannot fulfil) has an “essentialist” tone to it, revealing a strong Western cultural bias – we like to think of the world in bits and pieces, instead of relationships and variability/change. Note, I do not dismiss the incredible cultural value of ideals and examples of people whose actions have shown incredible wisdom in the domains of politics, intergroup conflicts, or compassion. Such ideals can be truly motivational and there is a great deal of wisdom in such virtuous ideals and actions. Instead of dismissing them, research in my lab has tried to take such examples seriously. Anecdotal observations of these people’s lives suggests that they were more likely to show wisdom in some contexts than others. Even among the very typical exemplars of wisdom, wisdom varies across contexts, similar to how it varies in normal humans (see Grossmann & Kross, 2014). Indeed, most of what scientific research in psychology has taught us suggests that everyday life is much more about relationships and change rather than “essences.” Examining changes across relationships and contexts can help us to understand how to boost wisdom in everyday life.
For the last 10 years, my focus has been on examining the process of reasoning – the way people come up with a decision about how to handle various life situations. Defining everyday “wise” reasoning is very hard – depending on the situation, one vs. another aspect of reasoning may be more meaningful. Therefore, my colleagues and I have decided to focus on principles guiding one’s reasoning; such principles as intellectual humility, recognition of others’ perspectives and searching for a compromise between different points of view.
To figure out ways to capture such aspects of wisdom-related reasoning, my colleagues and I started humbly: we examined what aspects of reasoning scholars in psychology and philosophy have discussed and also tried to learn from people’s actual reflections on various social dilemmas. If the strategies discussed by scholars did not appear frequently enough, we did not consider them.
Can wisdom or wise reasoning be taught/learnt or can it only be
acquired through direct experience?
It depends on what one means by wisdom or wise reasoning. One can certainly teach people the virtue of such principles as intellectual humility. The deeper question is whether knowledge about such principles can be successfully applied in a situation when it is needed. In education, one speaks of a “transfer of knowledge” problem. It can be very hard: one may know what to do in principle, but one may not be able to recognize the situations when this knowledge may be needed most. My group has been working on identifying ways to circumvent this problem for wisdom-related reasoning, by using certain cognitive training and by identifying situations promoting vs. inhibiting such reasoning.
In short, some aspects can be taught. Others can be learned through cognitive training and modification of one’s environment (e.g. avoiding “conflict of interest” situations).
Regarding direct experience, despite a great deal of millennia-long theoretical speculations (and various folk beliefs in different countries around the world), there is no work that has addressed it in a conclusive fashion. Most of the developmental work on wisdom-related qualities has been either underspecified (i.e. researchers did not examine actual process of reasoning) or cross-sectional (i.e. researchers compared different age groups at the same time, confounding developmental/experiential factors with cultural factors such as growing up in different eras). Finally, I have not seen a clearly specified psychologically-informed model explaining how (and what kind of) direct experiences would translate into wise reasoning. Do only first-hand experiences qualify? What about vicarious experiences? What about the way you work through the experience (some people overcome, whereas others succumb to a challenge). Lots of unanswered questions there.
You have emphasised the importance in research of considering real behaviour and the influence of situation rather than focusing on idealised wisdom traits determined through self-report scales. What are the main challenges associated with studying wisdom and how can these challenges be navigated?
The main challenge is (ironically) to get various “wisdom researchers” in the same room and get them to agree on a common agenda, including ways to enrich each others’ research towards a common goal. This aside, studying behaviour is hard and requires specialized training in psychology, neuroscience, and psychometrics. As such, the challenges of wisdom are no different from challenges of any other big topic in social sciences, such as morality, prosociality, or intergroup conflict.
In your work you talk about context influencing our ability to reason wisely. As you have mentioned before, you have seen at least as much variability within people as between people. With this in mind, what kind of contexts or situations are most suited for nurturing wise reasoning, and do you think we can build those into our environments, communities and institutions?
Situations in which one is not personally affected can facilitate wise deliberation. In some ways, we already know that. For instance, the notion of “conflict of interest” is based on the idea that one’s judgment can be biased (and unwise) when one’s personal motivations are at stake. In legal and medical settings, we have adopted a framework on avoiding such situations. I would suggest to push it further and see how it can be implemented in everyday life, too. For instance, through mobile apps helping one to take an observer view point or reminding one to consult a friend to obtain an impartial perspective before making a decision.
In other, more recent work (see Wise Reasoning in the Face of Everyday Life Challenges – Grossmann, Gerlach, & Denissen, 2016), when the situation affected one personally, we have observed more intellectual humility and more objective perspective on a situation involving friends and co-workers vs. contexts in which one was alone. It is very preliminary evidence, but it suggests that creating more socially inclusive contexts can boost personal wisdom as well.
Your paper ‘Exploring Solomon’s Paradox: Self- Distancing Eliminates the Self-Other Asymmetry in Wise Reasoning About Close Relationships in Younger and Older Adults’ (Grossmann and Kross, 2014) suggests that ‘self-distancing’ can help individuals to make wiser choices. How can people actively ‘self-distance’ prior to making important decisions?
There are various strategies one can adopt. In the laboratory, we have successfully tried such strategies as imagining oneself from a third-person visual perspective when reflecting on one’s decision, using one’s name and pronouns he/she, or by imagining residing in a different country when reflecting on the future of one’s national politics. Its an empirical question whether these strategies can be successfully applied in everyday life, which is the central topic of our work right now.
The paper ‘The Foreign Language Effect – Thinking in a foreign tongue reduces decision biases’ by Boaz Keysar et al in 2011 suggested that the use of a foreign tongue creates greater emotional distance and hence allows for less biased reasoning. Is the use of a foreign language another way of self-distancing?
This is certainly the speculation Boaz Keysar and Albert Costa (his colleague) have, as far as I know from my discussions with them. They are still working on “bottling” this phenomenon. That is, they still need to show that foreign language results in greater emotional distance, which in turn results in less bias and wiser reasoning. To my knowledge, conclusive evidence to this question is still outstanding. Also, it appears that foreign language effect is rather fleeting. For instance, it vanishes with greater practice in speaking the foreign language. Thus, even though the phenomenon Keysar (and Costa) observe is highly interesting, I am hesitant to prescribe it as an effective strategy (unless you are on a quest to constantly learn new languages without a goal of truly speaking any of them!).
Your recent paper ‘A Heart and a mind: Self-distancing Facilitates the Association Between Heart Rate Variability, and Wise Reasoning’ (Grossmann, Sahdra & Ciarrochi, 2016) suggests a relationship between heart rate variability and wise reasoning, which only reveals itself if subjects are adopting a self-distancing rather than self-immersed perspective. You conclude that ‘wisdom-related judgement is not exclusively a function of the body or the mind. Rather, both greater HRV and an ego-decentred mind are required for a wiser, less biased judgement.’ Are there any ways that individuals can increase either their heart rate variability or their ego-decentred minds to support such wiser reasoning?
I spoke about training/activating an ego-decentered mindset above (see parts on self-distancing, which is a synonym). Regarding training of heart-rate-variability (HRV): Typically, it is very hard, as HRV is part of the autonomous nervous system and therefore hard to alter through conscious efforts. I have seen some laboratories in Europe trying to do so, and my lab is working on strategies to sustain high HRV (which is adaptive for calm deliberation on a problem). However, we are probably a few years away from truly answering this question.
Based on your work with Richard Nisbett on ageing and wisdom in Japanese and American cultures, he has suggested that Japanese culture tends to nurture wise reasoning from an earlier age. What is it about Japanese culture that leads to wiser reasoning and can we transfer any of these societal aspects to nurture wisdom in western societies?
In Japan, and some other East Asian societies (e.g. South Korea, China) there is a greater emphasis on teaching children perspective-taking and to consider how other’s perspectives can be integrated with one’s own. This happens from an early age, with elementary school textbooks emphasizing the value of perspective-taking (in contrast, North American textbooks for similar age-groups emphasize the value of being a self—focused, achievement-oriented individual). To give a concrete example: If you enter a Japanese friend’s home, and it happens to be a good friend, you can expect to be offered the type of food or beverage that you like without asking. Your friend would anticipate your perspective. He/she may also not directly ask you what you want (to read more about Grossmann and Nisbett’s work on the development of wisdom in different cultures click here)
Which single practical change do you think would lead to the greatest increase in the levels of wisdom or wise reasoning in society?
Such a question is impossible to answer. Societies are complex and constantly in flux, and it is hard to tell what can influence the wisdom of a whole society. If I had to pick the currently living generation of 20-40 years old Westerners, I would say less (or a more mindful) engagement with social media and greater focus on slow-thinking and slowly-cultivated relationships (rather than getting immediate social media rewards) can probably be very important to consider for the social engineering of wiser thought.
After being neglected for so long by the scientific community, why do you think that wisdom has recently started to receive more attention?
There are probably many reasons and one would need a historian from about 20 years from now to sufficiently address this question. My intuition is that the ever-growing complexity of our lives demands bigger picture solutions and ways to handle such complexity. In essence, most wisdom traditions try to grapple with questions of managing the complexities and uncertainties of life. Therefore, in uncertain times wisdom is likely to be more appealing. I would also think that the work of developmental psychologists in the 80s and Paul Baltes, Ursula Staudinger and their colleagues at the Max Planck Institute in Berlin in the 90s provided a fruitful soil for nurturing a scientific study of wisdom. Personally, I am greatly indebted to them.
What do you think is the most pressing priority or most fruitful line of inquiry for the wisdom research community over the next few years? What are you currently working on?
My lab is working on the longitudinal intervention program to facilitate wise reasoning and examine changes in reasoning, bias reduction, self-control, and psycho-physiology. I am also working on identifying situations and cognitive training strategies beyond self-distancing to boost wise reasoning in daily life. We have also developed the first-state-level reliable and efficient instrument to evaluate the process of wisdom-reasoning on large-scale samples. Some of my students work on evaluating the role of wise reasoning for attenuating intergroup conflicts in different parts of the world. Finally, we are also working on a large-scale cross-cultural evaluation of folk beliefs about wisdom and its development across societies from various parts of the world.
I am not sure if any of this work is a pressing priority, but it is something we have been doing and I invite anybody interested in this topic to join us.
Why not have a look at the following papers and articles to read more about Igor Grossmann’s research?
Exploring Solomon’s Paradox: Self- Distancing Eliminates the Self-Other Asymmetry in Wise Reasoning About Close Relationships in Younger and Older Adults (Grossmann and Kross, 2014) – In this paper, Grossmann examines contexts inhibiting wise reasoning and suggests that self-distancing can lead to wiser reasoning.
A Heart and a mind: Self-distancing Facilitates the Association Between Heart Rate Variability, and Wise Reasoning (Grossmann, Sahdra & Ciarrochi, 2016) – In this paper, Grossmann’s research highlights a relationship between heart rate variability and wise reasoning, which only reveals itself if subjects are adopting a self-distancing rather than self-immersed perspective.
Wisdom Research Forum: “Solomon’s paradox” by Igor Grossmann, PhD – Video of Igor Grossmann’s talk at Chicago University’s Wisdom Research Forum 2015
BBC – Future – The surprising downsides of being clever – Best of 2015 BBC Future articles discussing Igor Grossmann’s work on wise reasoning and intellectual humility, and their relationship with life satisfaction.
EBW Animations Series: Developing Wisdom – This recent EBW animation explores 3 surprising short-term wisdom-enhancing strategies, including Grossmann’s work on self-distancing interventions.
Wisdom and Culture Lab, University of Waterloo – Igor Grossmann is Principal Investigator at The Wisdom and Culture Lab, based at Waterloo University in Ontario. The lab focuses on factors that enable people to think and act wisely, mindful of the role of cultural contexts. The site has many useful resources and links, manuals for coding for wise reasoning, as well as PDFs of many of the lab’s publications.
If you have any thoughts about the interview, please get in touch. You can contact me via the about page or find me on twitter @EBasedwisdom.
The Wisdom Profiles Series is a collection of original interviews conducted by evidencebasedwisdom with leading researchers in the field of Wisdom Research or related fields. All participants are working to increase our understanding of wisdom and its place in the modern world.
In the third interview of the series, Adult Cognition researcher Eeva K. Kallio talks about integrative thinking, ill-defined problems, the limits of logic and the launch of the new European Wisdom Research Network Sophia & Phronesis.
EEVA K. KALLIO PhD is an adjunct professor in the University of Jyväskylä and University of Tampere, Finland. She is a founding member and the first president of ESRAD (European Society for Research on Adult Development) . She is also team leader of the ADULTE-WISE research team in University of Jyväskylä. Her main research interests relate to the development of adult integrative (i.e. relativistic-dialectical) thinking. In 2016, she became a founding member of the new European Wisdom Research, Learning and Development Network Sophia and Phronesis.
How did you become interested in wisdom research?
I’m an adjunct professor at the University of Jyväskylä and University of Tampere in the fields of adult development and adult cognitive development. My main field of study has been Adult Cognitive Development. During the whole time I have been a scholar in our University I have been researching adult cognition, especially in the first phase of my career. I did studies of the development of thinking in university students and I did an intervention study regarding the university students’ scientific thinking. After that, I changed my department and I became more interested in adult cognitive development, more generally. During that phase I first became interested in wisdom. I noticed that in many books on adult development, one part of the book was very often about the question of wisdom. This was about twenty years ago or something like that. So that was my first contact with wisdom research. I became immediately very intrigued by that because I also have the highest degree in Philosophy in my MA degree. It came so very close to that, to my area. I noticed that ‘Yes – Wisdom is very interesting’, but I didn’t consider it in a very serious way during those days. It was during the last decade that I became more interested in wisdom, because I have seen that the amount of research has very rapidly risen in that whole field. So it cannot be excluded anymore from this field, so it must be included somewhere as a part of adult development.
So, you’ve come to wisdom research through your background in Adult Cognition. Do you have a working definition for wisdom that you use in your research?
It’s a huge area and a huge field. It includes so many traditions and so many paradigms nowadays, because every scholar seems to have a very ambitious idea to have their own model. So there are very different models around here in this field. For me, I define it from scratch as a way or ability to take many perspectives at the same time, to handle them together to give the best positive solution for some given problem. It’s not only cognitive. It’s some kind of cognitive plus X-factor. There must be some kind of cognition part of it but there is something more. It’s not just intelligence and good reasoning or thinking in a logical way.
Is this ‘X-factor’ you refer to an emotional component, or is it the idea that intelligence must be employed in the service of ‘doing good’?
I think it must be something like that. There must be some kind of emotional involvement and also some kind of ethical action or ethical reasoning or ethical volition. And something like self-transcendence, of course, because you are working for the good of the whole group of humanity. So it goes beyond. It can’t be just cognition. It’s similar to my research interests before wisdom, which was ‘relativistic dialectical thinking’, or as it’s also often called, ‘postformal thinking’. It has been claimed to be a part of wisdom constructs, for example by Paul Baltes et al from the Berlin Paradigm. They are claiming quite openly that postformal thinking is a component of wisdom. So actually I have been doing wisdom research for decades without knowing I have been doing wisdom research!
In your research you refer to ‘postformal thinking’. I think people generally assume that formal, logical reasoning is the peak of adult cognition, but your work involves the study of ‘postformal thinking’, which is perhaps a mode of thinking that developmentally is reached after formal thinking. Is that something you could tell us a little bit more about?
So, Jean Piaget was a Swiss-born biologist who first claimed that, by observing his own kids, he found there is some kind of logical continuation of reasoning abilities and there are certain developmental stages, one after another, from childhood birth to youth. He claimed that it stopped here, and the highest form of that logical reasoning is what nowadays we call scientific, hypothetic, deductive reasoning and reaches its highest peak in adolescence. He didn’t assume any kind of postformal thinking beyond that. But there were great difficulties because, many years ago, formal thinking was studied in bigger groups all over the world, and it was found that not even half of the population were able to think in that way. So it was found that it was very rare. This scientific thinking was not the universal way of thinking. Because of that, very many researchers, especially in the United States, were interested to study questions such as ‘Can there be any other forms of thinking beyond formal thinking?’ and ‘Is there any kind of further development during our adult lifespan?’ So, Piaget’s theory gave rise to a very high amount of criticism and, because of that, many adult cognition models were proposed in the 1970s and 1980s.
So he suggested that this scientific reasoning was the peak of adult thinking but when they looked out into the real world, not many people thought in that way?
Right. Even in universities. I replicated it in my dissertation, here in the University of Jyväskylä. Not even here! It was two-thirds of the 100 students who were able to, to some degree, think in that way. i.e. about 2/3 were able in mixed concrete and formal thinking or showed some basic principles of formal thinking. The highest, matured forms of formal thinking in university students are very rare. It’s very surprising.
From what I have read in your work on postformal thinking, the idea is that in some situations it is appropriate to use logical thinking and in other situations it might make sense to use a different approach. If you had developed to that postformal stage, you could pick the right model for the right situation. Is that part of it?
Yes, in a way. In ‘postformal’ thinking, or integrative thinking, which is the term I prefer to use, one has overcome the limitations of formal thinking. In formal thinking, you always have the right answer to the question, because it’s some kind of two-value logic. These are so-called ‘well-defined’ problems. All the premises are given and the subject knows what has to be done. In well-defined problems, there’s only one right answer.
Which is not like real life!
Right! That’s the point. In adult integrative thinking, you can understand the right, logical conclusion, but in the midst of many perspectives, many world views, many value systems, many kinds of emotions and emotional processes. You can’t say that there’s just one conclusion because there is always the variation of these perspectives to consider (click here to read more about Kallio’s work on ‘integrative thinking’, or as ‘the ability to integrate complex components together’).
Is there possibly some kind of post postformal or integrative thinking stage? You could argue from perspective A this would be the answer, and from perspective B this would be the answer, but not stop there. Rather you could then synthesise these perspectives to find the optimal answer, or is that missing the point?
You’re right. In the highest form of integrative thinking or dialectical thinking or evaluative thinking or postformal thinking or whatever term you use, it is claimed that you can see those different viewpoints and you try to combine or integrate them for some kind of solution. Although you understand that it’s a temporary solution because all the time there are new perspectives and new problems arising.
So it could the right solution for this moment, having considered all the models. However it will only ever be a temporary solution?
You talk in your work about the need for the term ‘integrative thinking’. Can you tell us why there is a need for this label in the field of adult cognitive development?
I think, for simplicity. I have been reading so many of these papers on postformal thinking and formal thinking and there is a kind of confusion in the field nowadays. There are tens of postformal thinking models and they all use their own terms. I don’t even remember how many terms there are. Very loosely they are called ‘postformal thinking’ with their own terms, like inter-systematic thinking or evaluative thinking or dialectical thinking or autonomous thinking. That is the first reason for me using the term integrative thinking (click here to read more about Kallio’s work on integrative thinking). The second reason is a logical paradox suggesting ‘postformal’ is not the best description of this kind of thinking. We don’t even know how universal ‘formal’ thinking actually is because it hasn’t been measured so well so far, meaning the ‘formal’ stage hasn’t even been properly established. So there can’t be claims of any higher developmental stage. So there’s a paradox. There’s a contradiction here.
We can’t really talk about postformal thinking until we’ve become clear on formal thinking…
Right. That’s the point exactly!
So that’s why you prefer to not use the phrase postformal because it suggests it’s ‘above’, whereas integrative thinking doesn’t suggest it’s above?
Integrative is a natural term and it doesn’t have any kind of philosophical assumptions behind it. The labels ‘relativistic’ or ‘dialectical’ are mainly used in Philosophy. As far as I have been in contact with philosophers here in Finland, they criticise these terms very harshly because they carry a slightly different meaning for them.
Are you using the term ‘integrative’ in the sense that this kind of thinking involves integrating logic with emotion, internal with external, and so on?
Integration is necessary in any practical situation where you are faced with very fuzzy or ‘ill-defined’ problems, as these kinds of problem are called nowadays. There are no clear premises for how to reach the best conclusion, so you must integrate many features and many things in that practical situation. For example, cognition, the hidden motives and values in the group, emotional links between people, different worldviews and things like that. So integration ability in its highest form is needed.
If we can’t even master formal thinking as a species, how likely is it that we’ll be able to master multiple-model thinking, integrating these models and then picking the best solutions? Is this something that normal people can really do?
This is a big question actually. I think here, integrative or postformal thinking has much in common with wisdom. It is said that wisdom is a very rare phenomenon. Only very exceptional people can handle it. I think this is the same thing. I think it’s almost impossible for one person to handle so many variables in a situation. So, it’s more that we must be in the process of working towards it.
Are there ways people can develop their facility for thinking integratively or postformally in a practical sense?
In my dissertation I studied formal thinking, in the Piagetian sense, and the ablity to integrate different formal systems together. I gave a group of students two logical systems to compare with each other; they had to handle each logical system themselves and after that, they had to evaluate them and create some kind of meta sentence out of these different systems. So they had to consider many perspectives, but the domain was wholly logical in that case. I had two experimental groups. The original training session lasted one spring. I had a pretesting session of course and then a post-testing immediately after the teaching session and then a second post-testing after half a year. To one group I only taught formal thinking. I taught the other group to compare different logical systems with each other. The second group developed some sort of metacognition of different systems, understanding the differences and similarities between them, and it also had a lasting effect. In the post-testing it was found that only the group that was received that kind of evaluation and comparison way of teaching still exhibited that kind of integrative way of thinking.
By identifying post-formal thinking as the highest form of thinking, is there a danger that logic will be downgraded or abandoned?
This is a very interesting question. I think logic cannot disappear in this process. 1 + 1 is still 2. So it can’t change how true mathematical logic and its truth is. One must also understand however that there may be limitations, so we can go beyond rational logic in some instances.
So if it’s a well-defined problem we use logic, but if it’s an ill-defined problem, logic’s not up to the task, as such?
So I suppose some element of wisdom must involve determining what kind of problem you have in front of you – a well-defined problem or an ill-defined problem?
Right. Right. So it’s some kind of evaluation – you must reflect which kind of problem this is.
Again, it’s a lot to ask of a human being on a busy day, stuck in traffic!
Yes. It’s a very complex way of thinking.
Since the world is so much more connected nowadays, we are all faced with many different perspectives and worldviews in the press every day. Is the emerging interest in evaluative thinking in academic circles a response to the greater diversity of our modern times? Is there now a greater need for frameworks that allow us to entertain multiple perspectives and truths than in the past?
In a way, yes. It is right to say that we are living in such a global universe nowadays. Everything is connected. We are connected through the Internet, travelling, political change that affects all of us around the globe. We must make an effort to understand other cultures. Nowadays it’s a must in our world, but I don’t think it’s only a sign of our times. As far as I know there have been times in history where globalisation and some kind of global communications have been available. So I don’t think it’s only a feature of our time.
So why do you think that wisdom has recently started to receive so much more attention from the scientific community?
I think it’s because our times are quite chaotic. There are so many risks and it seems to me that we can’t solve them only by reasoning. The things that are problematic now are so complex, so universal and so global. For example, climate change, what we are doing to our earth, all these material things we are buying and not using anymore, the gap between rich countries and poor countries, this current exodus in Europe, and all this political imbalance which is going on. These are such big and interconnected problems that I think everybody feels in their gut that there is something risky going on, which can’t be solved with the same means we have used before. This can sound very pessimistic, but I really think there is some kind of need for something else and new now.
I have heard it said that we are acquiring knowledge faster than we are acquiring the wisdom to know how to use that knowledge.
Right. It’s a question of ethics and morals. We have plenty of knowledge based on scientific research, but we can use it for bad or for good.
This brings up the thorny topic of values. Especially in these culturally diverse times, people often feel uncomfortable talking about values.
Right – especially in universities! We are focused on just producing articles, and we don’t think about the consequences or conclusions of them. So we are just putting the knowledge into the hands of others and we don’t take any kind of responsibility for the results. It’s a very big problem, because we are then not involved in how those results are used in practice.
Science strives to be objective but values seem inherently subjective. Is there a way of analysing the values of different communities and teasing out the ‘metavalues’ that everyone can adhere to? Perhaps this is what initiatives like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights aim to do…
Right. I have seen papers where some of the core maxims of the different world religions have been collated together and there are quite a number of similar principles across religions. For example, ‘The Golden Rule’ – Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. It is found in many world religions. So there is some kind of meta-analysis to be done across the different value systems – ‘What are the common principles?’ The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the same thing. There is something common in all these different worldviews and perspectives and religions and spiritual practices or historic movements. They all have the same ideal goal. The problem is when someone thinks that they are the only one who has got the true opinion. This is a problem – the absolutist way of thinking – the ‘well-defined’ way of thinking. Do you see my point?
Absolutely, but it’s very difficult to hold an opinion and at the same time be accept that it might not be the right opinion. It requires two kinds of thinking at the same time.
Yes. There must be some kind of humility, to accept always that there exist other viewpoints that can be appropriate for that situation.
It may be that young people growing up today, who see so many different opinions in the papers and on the internet everyday are more comfortable with that kind of ‘multiple-perspective’ thinking?
Yes, I think so. I have seen that with young people here in Finland. They have different values and they find it very easy to get on with foreign cultures. For them, it’s easy to understand that there are many worldviews and that they are all equally valid at some time or on some level.
Based on your work, what do you think individuals can do to develop wisdom?
This is a very difficult question. It depends on so many different factors. The first thing that comes to my mind is to have lots of different experiences, but it’s not the sufficient condition for wisdom, I think. For example if you look at old people who claim to be wise, they have different amounts of experience, so experience can’t be the only thing that determines wisdom. The second thing I think is reflection.
I suspect that sometimes people’s range of experiences shrinks as they age and their lives can contract, meaning they are exposed to less diverse opinions…
Also there is the always the danger of becoming a cynic. The more you know about something, you may become more cynical. This tells us something about the nature of wisdom. The third component, besides the experience and reflection, must be some kind of ethical principles. If you have some kind of ethical ideal, I think it’s easier.
This helps clarify what exactly you’re optimising your decisions for, what you’re working towards. If you’re trying to make the wisest or best decision, you have to know ‘best’ in what sense, to what end…
Also, if you are a cynic you don’t have very high ethical standards because you don’t care about anything anymore.
Which single practical change do you think would lead to the greatest increase in the levels of wisdom in society?
I think I’m quite blind here. I’m living in Scandinavia and all Scandinavian countries have quite similar value systems: to have some kind of equal rights for everybody, equal education for example, to give everybody some kind of start point for their lives from childhood. I think this is quite important to make a stable country. Still there are many difficulties in Scandinavian countries but still we have been able to make an environment that has democratic principles. I think equal education is one of the really important things, and to educate people that all human beings are equal in a way.
What are you working on at the moment?
I am just about to publish the first book on adult cognitive development. It’s in Finnish and there is some negotiation going on for a translation into English to make it available internationally. It’s called ‘Development of Adult thinking – Towards Multiple Perspectives’. In Finnish, it’s coming out this June. Besides that, I have a handbook idea with three other scholars who have been very prominent in the field of adult development.
You and your colleagues have recently launched a European Wisdom Research Network called ‘Sophia and Phronesis’. What are you hopes and plans for this new network?
I hope the initiative creates group of scholars, who study wisdom from different perspectives. I also hope there will be some practical developments, not just theoretical studies of the field. (Click here to learn more about the Sophia and Phronesis).
Why not have a look at the following papers and articles to read more about Eeva Kallio’s research?
To contact Dr Eeva Kallio directly, you can email her at email@example.com
If you have any thoughts about the interview, please get in touch. You can contact me via the about page or find me on twitter @EBasedwisdom.
The Wisdom Profiles Series is a collection of new 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 second interview of the series, Associate Professor of Sociology Monika Ardelt talks about the development of her Three-Dimensional Wisdom Scale, the role of wisdom in ageing and dying well and the possible role meditation might play in the development of wisdom.
Monika Ardelt is an Associate Professor of Sociology at The University of Florida. Her research interests include Adult Human Development and Ageing and Dying well. For the last 25 years or so, she has been at the cutting edge of Wisdom Research. Professor Ardelt is responsible for the development of the highly respected and widely used Three-Dimensional Wisdom Scale, which you can try for yourself by clicking here. She 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.
This goes back to my dissertation research, actually. I was interested in Life Course research and I was studying with Glen Elder who was the Godfather of Life Course research and I wanted to know what predicts successful ageing from a life course perspective. I am a sociologist and, as a sociologist, we typically look at the objective life conditions of people in old age to predict successful ageing. So, for example, health, in particular subjective health, matters a lot. Social relationships in old age, financial situation, living conditions, you know, all of this, but it wasn’t quite satisfying for me. First of all, it doesn’t explain all of the variation in life satisfaction. The other thing I wanted to know was, could the life course matter, so in other words, what you have learned over the life course? This got me more into the psychological realm. So I was playing around with a couple of concepts. One of my professors in Germany, because I was studying first in Germany, he suggested, ‘Well, how about ‘autonomy’?’ Now autonomy is, of course, one of the first things that actually goes in old age, once you get really older and health declines. Mental health and physical health declines and autonomy shrinks. Then I was playing around with ‘coping’. ‘Coping’ is not a bad concept, you know, having learned how to cope with life. Then I was just thinking about this and then I said ‘Well, it’s something like ‘Wisdom’, and I said, ‘This makes sense to me. Somebody who has become wise over the years would have an easier time to age well because, kind of related to coping, they know how to deal with the vicissitudes of life.’ But then I said ‘Okay, but how do you measure this? There’s no way to measure this!’ I had to go the library to pick up this book related to the data that I was going to use and right next to it was the book by Sternberg that had just come out ‘Wisdom: Its nature, origins and development’ and I was like, ‘Wow! There are actually people who have studied this’. I had no idea. So of course I got the book, and I read it, and I was as confused at the end as when I started, because everybody defined wisdom in a different way. It was all over the place, but a lot of people referred back to this chapter by Clayton and Birren that they wrote in the 1980s, 10 years earlier. So I got the chapter and they had defined wisdom. They had done this multidimensional scaling analysis where they asked people of different age groups ‘What do you think are characteristics of wisdom?’ and then they gave it to another group of people of different age groups and they asked ‘How much are these characteristics of a wise person, of myself, of an older person?’ and so on, and they came up with those three dimensions – cognitive, reflective and the affective dimension of wisdom, and I said ‘Wow! This makes so much sense to me! Maybe you cannot measure wisdom per se directly, but it should be possible to measure the three dimensions of wisdom this way.’ So I was looking at the data that I had at this point, and they had the California Q-sort and they had the Haan’s Ego rating scale and I said ‘Okay, let me try and see if I can actually measure the three dimensions of wisdom in this way, by picking items that would fit those definitions.’ I tried it and it worked, you know, and this is how I started. And indeed it was positively related to successful ageing.
So you worked out that, even though perhaps you couldn’t directly measure wisdom, if people were in agreement that there were these three dimensions to it, which could be measured, then you’re measuring a proxy for wisdom?
Yes. I mean not everybody is in agreement, but it was a good starting point for me and it was a way of actually getting to wisdom, to measure wisdom. There are other definitions of wisdom out there, as you know, and people have measured it in different ways. It just made sense to me, and I had the data. I could actually try it out, and it just worked. It worked very well. Then later on, when I got my PhD and I got my job at the University of Florida, one of my faculty mentors said ‘You should come up with a scale that actually measures those three dimensions’. And I said ‘Hmmm – that is a good idea!’ I had a couple of undergraduate students and we went through all kinds of existing measures to pick out items which could capture those three dimensions. We put them in the three dimensions and then we tested it on about 200 people. Starting from 140 items, I then picked the 39 items that now make up the Three-Dimensional Wisdom Scale. It has actually behaved quite nicely, at least in a Western, North American, European context. Now, if you go to other places, I think the jury is still out on that one!
Is that something that’s been done yet, using your scale in Eastern cultures perhaps?
Yes, we have. We’ve tried it in India, China, and in Korea. It’s also been tried in Iran and Slovakia. Sometimes you have to take out some of the items. Some items just don’t work and that’s fine with me. But when we did it, we had about 100 people in China and India and in Serbia, and it didn’t work the same in each country. So, if you wanted to take out items, they were not the same items. And I said, ‘Well, it’s a hundred people. I don’t want to change the scale completely based on a hundred people’ and so that’s why I’m saying the jury’s still out on this. Now, Michael Thomas, Katherine Bangen, Dilip Jeste and myself have actually consolidated the 39 items down to 12 items, so now there’s an abbreviated scale . I was a little bit sceptical at first – ‘Can you really do that?‘ but actually, it works pretty well.
You’ve already compressed it down from 140 odd so down to 39…?
Exactly! But the 12 work interestingly quite well. Again, these have to be shown to work in other contexts. Also, it doesn’t work if you want to look at the individual dimensions, but it works surprisingly well. As I said, the jury is still out in some other contexts. It worked in Iran. It had high alphas, but then in other places it didn’t. If you picked out different items it worked, but it wasn’t the same items it each country, right? This is why we’re still working on that one.
I love the idea that there could be a scale that might be consistent across cultures. That’s quite a noble aim!
Yes. And I definitely like that too, and I’m happy to take some of the items out if they don’t work across cultures, but what hasn’t convinced me is that some of the items that don’t work in one culture do work perfectly well in another culture, so you would take these items out. However, if you take them out for that culture, then the scale doesn’t work in the first culture anymore! That’s why we haven’t completely figured this out. It’s also not clear to me if this is a translation problem. Sometimes I have people ask ‘Can I translate the scale?’ I say ‘Absolutely. Can you send me the translation you make?’ Then someone else later says ‘Can I translate the scale?’ and I say ‘I already have a translation. Look at this,’ and they look at it and they say ‘Err this isn’t really a good translation.’ So I say ‘Okay. Improve on it!’ I haven’t directed this. This is just happening.
It’s very exciting though. I love that idea. I suppose that it would suggest, if it can be done, that wisdom is something which can be extracted completely from cultural context. It seems like it couldn’t be completely extracted from the culture.
Well, it was interesting when we did this in Iran. It was kind of a basic study. We took out two items from the scale that really didn’t work, but that’s fine. We still had 37 items and the other ones worked pretty well. We then gave them to people in Iran from three different age groups and different educational backgrounds.What came out in terms of age and gender was that for the men, you have these increasing higher wisdom scores for the older age groups, particularly driven by the reflective and compassionate wisdom dimensions (which is what I used to call the ‘affective’ dimension but I now call the ‘compassionate’ dimension). That makes sense, right? There is a developmental perspective that, the older you get, the more reflective and compassionate you become. Among the women, the younger ones had higher scores on the cognitive dimension than the older age group. For the compassionate dimension, both older men and women were the same, both scoring highly in compassion. This is where you get into culture. Of course it was in part explained by education. But for the older women in Iran, it was much more part of their society not to question things, whereas for the younger women, they’re actually quite modern and emancipated.
So not only is it culture-dependent, but the cultures themselves are changing across generations at the same time, so there are lots of moving parts.
Exactly. There was some discussion ‘Was it wise for older women not to question authority and this was why they had lower cognitive scores, or does a certain openness in society allow for a questioning of authority and allow for personal growth?’
I have read that in certain Eastern cultures, discretion is considered a wise characteristic, so if it was considered indiscreet to speak out of turn, that might reduce your apparent cognitive score, perhaps?
Well the cognitive score is measuring the desire to know the truth and part of it is ‘wanting to know for yourself’ rather than leave this up to authority. The other part is to see the grey rather than the black and white. All the items in the cognitive items actually measure the absence of wisdom because the positively worded items didn’t work for some reason. So the tendency to see beyond black or white is wisdom and to know what to do even if the situation is ambiguous. It is an interesting question, right? What society would provide a good fertile ground for wisdom development?
You’ve been working in this field for a long time. Do you have a sense that it has been gaining more interest over the last five or ten years?
Absolutely. No question about it. When I started out, and this was in 1990 that I came across this book, when I was working on my dissertation and I got my committee together, one of my committee members said ‘How did you ever come up with this w-w-w-wisdom topic?’ They couldn’t even say it! And when people asked me, ‘What’s your dissertation about?’ and I’d say ‘Err, I’m studying, err, wisdom’. It was kind of embarrassing. If I had said ‘Hey, I’m studying pornography!’…
That would be fine. Anything but wisdom!
Yes! It was seen as a little bit ‘new-agey.’ It wasn’t really taken very seriously by some people; I wouldn’t say everybody. Some people were impressed, but it was definitely fringe. And now I’m not embarrassed anymore! I can talk about it. It’s out there. There are a lot of publications. People are interested. People have now studied wisdom in lawyers, in the judicial branch. Wisdom in business is really up and coming. Wisdom in management – people are really interested in that. It’s surprising. Wisdom in education is coming, and I think it’s kind of parallel to the mindfulness movement. That has really gained acceptance. Some people say it’s a fad, but it’s kind of parallel. There’s one study that just came out from the University of Chicago. They did a study where they actually looked at meditation using my wisdom scale. They compared it to ballet dancers and there were two other movement-based types. One was Feldenkrais, which I really don’t know about, and some other movement type. The ballet dancers were lower than the other types in terms of the wisdom score, but I was also very pleased to see that, those that had more experience in meditation tended to have higher wisdom scores. So there was a relationship between the amount of experience and the wisdom scores. That wasn’t the truest with the Feldenkrais and the other one, but it was also true for ballet and that I don’t know why.
Meditation is something you’re quite into yourself, so you’re probably quite pleased to see that result.
Yes. I was actually quite pleased indeed to see that.
Have they done a before-and-after 6-week trial?
No they haven’t at all. It wasn’t an intervention. I think it was an online survey, looking for practitioners of these four methods and then they were just asked ‘How many years have you meditated or done this practice for?’ and ‘How intensely are you doing it?’ ending up with the number of years and then giving them the wisdom scale questions and I think they have some control variables there. So it was not an intervention at all. At the University of Chicago’s Wisdom forum last year, there was one person who said ‘Well we did a meditation intervention and the wisdom score didn’t increase after a week.’ Well you know, it might not go that quickly! It has to be more intense than a week of intervention. After all, we’re talking about wisdom here. It would make more sense to really do a longitudinal study, which I don’t think has been done.
You would have thought there would be enough interest now to try something like that, especially with the interest in both those areas of wisdom and mindfulness meditation.
I know. I know. We need to study wisdom longitudinally, because it would be really interesting to see under which conditions wisdom grows or not, right? There are some longitudinal studies out there but most of them are cross-sectional.
And of course it could work the other way round, I suppose: people that are wise might be drawn to the practice of having some quiet time for reflection.
Yes. Absolutely. That’s why this is tricky. We did a study a couple of years ago, which hasn’t been published yet, asking ‘Can psychosocial growth be taught in university courses?’ We have a Centre for Spirituality and Health and we are trying to teach classes that further psychosocial growth. We did a before-and-after test. And yes – there was a certain movement in the direction of being wiser in the classes that we taught, whereas in the control classes, wisdom actually decreased!
That was a before-and-after, so that’s encouraging.
It is really encouraging. Exactly. So I think there is something that you can do. This needs to be published. I am overwhelmed. There are always more things to do that I need to do, than time to actually do them!
That’s good, I guess, because that’s a reflection of the growth of the field.
Yes. It’s good. Absolutely. You know, sometimes my colleagues say ‘I am burnt dry. I don’t know what I should study next.’ I don’t have this problem!
When I talk to people and say that I’m looking at the science of wisdom, people often come up with lots of reasons why it’s hard to study it. Having spent a number of years in the field, what do you think are the main challenges in studying wisdom? Obviously there are the problems of social desirability, self delusion, all these kind of things. How can you get round those kinds of problems?
First of all, let me say, in some ways, the criticism is overblown, I think. I have done face-to-face interviews with older adults and I was surprised how honest people seem to be. They seem to have no qualms about giving you an answer that seems socially undesirable, quite frankly. Of course, there is a certain direction, if you look at the wisdom scores, the way I’ve measured it is from 1 to 5 and the mean is not a 3, right. The mean is a 3.5 or 3.6, something like that, so there is a little movement into the ‘yes I’m like that’, but it’s not a mean of ‘4.something’ which you sometimes have when you get other scales like ‘purpose in life’. It’s harder for people to say ‘No, there’s no purpose in my life!’ Or Depression scales, quite frankly. If you look at depressive symptoms, a lot of people say ‘No, no, no’. It’s much harder for them to actually admit that they’re depressed or that they have depressive symptoms. So I think quite frankly it’s overblown. If you look at social desirability bias scales, there is a certain kind of correlation. Interestingly, it kind of balances out – the cognitive dimension is negatively related and the other two are more positively related. Webster’s criticising my scale because there’s a social desirability bias, and there is a certain correlation of social desirability, but it’s in the 0.2 range. Well 0.2, I mean! With the compassionate dimension you do get more of a social desirability, you’re supposed to be compassionate.
You can’t say you’re not compassionate.
Exactly, and it has a couple of more positively worded items. This is what Judith Glück and I were discussing. How do you get around it? In some ways I got around it by using a lot of negatively worded items, so that it measures the absence of wisdom in fact. In this way, people get a little bit more confused because, if they are wise, they have to say ‘No. I disagree with those items’. And that’s a little bit different, because people like to agree.
You don’t have to think about it.
Exactly. You really have to think about it, because people like to agree, and to say ‘No!’ to an item, that already goes a little bit against social desirability. If you only have positively-worded items, it’s a little bit harder to get this. That’s one of the reasons I ended up with a lot of negatively worded items, because the positively worded items didn’t have a lot of variation. A lot of people just said ‘Yes. Sounds good!’ You had nobody disagreeing with them.
All of the problems that we’ve been discussing could relate to lots of different psychological traits, but what about this aspect of wisdom that, people that are wiser may well know how far they are from wisdom, whereas the people that are fools might think they’re wise.
Yes. I think that is a valid criticism in some ways. The idea that you can fool yourself, not that people are lying, but that you fool yourself into thinking that you are better than you actually are, but the wise person knows themselves better, right?
So wise people could report themselves as less wise than foolish people.
This way they would report themselves more honestly. Right, okay. I would answer to that, you might just go with the 4s rather than the 5s. If you look at answers such as ‘strongly agree’, you could still just tick ‘agree’ Or for other worded items, ‘definitely true of myself’/‘not true of myself’, you could tick ‘somewhat true of myself’ or ‘hardly true of myself’. So the wise person might not go to the extreme, because they know they don’t to it all the time. They might not say ‘definitely true of myself’, but they might say ‘ mostly true of myself’
So they’re not going to go the opposite end of the scale, but they might modify their choice downwards.
Exactly. I don’t think that someone who really strives for that would go to the other direction and say ‘No – this is just not true of myself’. So again, I’m not too worried about it in this regard. That’s why I like mixed methods. In the end what you have to do, of course, is pick out the people who are coming out high on the scale and those that are coming out low on the scale, and then look at how these people are different. What characterises people who are really high on the scale, and what distinguishes them from people really low on the scale? Then you have some qualitative interviews, as I did when looking at how wise people cope with crises and obstacles in life and how not-so-wise people do it, and there is indeed a difference! That kind of gives you some confidence that you are getting at something. Now, is there measurement error? Sure. This is not perfect. This is not an objective yardstick we have – your height or weight – but that’s true for all psychological measures, not just the wisdom measures
The only element of what we are talking about that I thought applied specifically to wisdom more than any other trait was this problem of wise people being more humble. If you are being asked to rate essentially how wise you are, that’s a problem, but that wouldn’t necessarily apply to quite a lot of other traits. But all the social desirability issues I see would apply to many traits.
I’m not so sure about that either. I was just working with the resilience scales, you know, ‘I am able to bounce back when bad things happen’ or mastery, ‘I feel I am in control’. You can fool yourself in the same way. But, in the end, what matters? Does it matter that you think you are in control, or that you actually are in control?! The jury is still out on this. This is the same with objective and subjective health. It turns out that subjective health is a better predictor for survival and a lot of other things, than objective health.
I also heard recently that the fear of stress is a bigger killer than stress itself?
Right, right. Perceived stress. If you see a lot of stress, that might actually be worse than if you actually have the stress, and that goes of course with coping with stress and this kind of thing. So, all scales have this problem and I don’t see it as particularly different for the wisdom scale. This is why in the end we need, a kind of a mixed method approach, ideally. This is what Judith (Glück) was saying at the Wisdom Forum. Ideally you need to follow these people round and see what they’re doing.
That’s expensive, I guess, but that’s the gold standard.
But they did!
Yes. They identified people that were scoring highly on the wisdom measures and then spent a few days following these high scorers in their day-to-day lives.
Exactly, and that’s the fascinating part (click here to watch Judith Glück discuss this study at the University of Chicago’s Wisdom Research Forum in 2015).
Linking back to the earlier discussion about meditation, I’ve seen in your work that trauma, for example, is something that tends to give people a new perspective on life, and that can lead to a greater wisdom score. Have any practices been shown in the lab to lead to a sustained increase in peoples’ level of wisdom?
I go with meditation, quite frankly. I don’t think that’s the only thing. It would be interesting to check out yoga and other kinds of things, but this is what Pascual-Leone says exactly: You have those two pathways to wisdom – one is meditation, the others are these ultimate-limit situations, crises in life, but I think it also goes together. I would actually add, it’s not just the ultimate-limit situations, these really heavy crises in life. It’s everyday life, you know. Everyday life can help you to grow a little bit wiser if you know how to deal with those everyday irritations. That goes back to The Buddha. He says ‘Life is suffering’ because things happen that you don’t like, and things that you want do not happen. We are confronted with that constantly and I think one way that wise people are better able to handle these situations is by not being disturbed by it – not getting riled up if things happen that they don’t like, or if things do not happen that they would like to happen. They are better able to handle the ups and downs of life. But how do you learn that? And I think meditation really helps.
So a big study needs to be done on it, doesn’t it?
Yes. It would be really nice to do a big study on this. At one point, we were trying to get some funding for it and didn’t happen, and now I’m busy with other stuff, but eventually it would indeed be very nice to look at this. Does it help? Then again you can also say some people might be, personality-wise, better able to deal with these ups and downs of life. One of the things on personality, for example, that has been shown is ‘openness to experience’ has a relationship to wisdom, measured in different ways, in fact. But, and that’s my thing with personality, psychologists, at least some psychologists, still think that personality is what you’re born with and there’s nothing you can do about it. This is great for the people who are low on neuroticism and high on the other ones, but it’s not so great for people who have the opposite characteristics! And again, I think meditation probably gives the chance to change that, to become less neurotic, decrease neuroticism and increase agreeableness and conscientiousness and openness to experience, and so in these things, yes, I think it would be really interesting to do a long-term study on meditation. The problem is that, as you were saying, there is a selection bias. People with certain personality characteristics, or with a desire to grow, are drawn to meditation, so you need to do a kind of a wait list design so that you get the same kind of people.
I like this idea that it’s not only life-changing trauma that you can learn from, but rather any sort of little challenge. Traffic or burning your tongue gives you the opportunity to develop some sort of acceptance.
That’s exactly right.
And I suppose meditation trains you to do that.
Exactly. That’s the whole point.
It seems that it would work but it would be great to actually have the data.
Yes exactly. But that’s the premise of meditation. You spend some time with yourself, so you can deal with what happens during the time that you meditate. Then, when you go out into the world and something like this happens, you do not get out of balance, but you stay in this equanimity. Of course, it’s not easy to do at all. That’s why you need the training! Meditation as a regular thing.
I wanted to talk about the ‘Wisdom and Happiness’ debate. I read your ‘Self-reported Wisdom and Happiness’ paper. It seems to be quite a controversial topic. There is a perspective promoting an ‘Ignorance is bliss’ stance, which suggests that some level of self-delusion protects us from the reality of our own failings and can keep us happy and cheerful. Furthermore, that people who have an accurate assessment of their own failings can end up depressed. So how do you navigate that one?
So first of all, I do believe that there probably is something to ‘Ignorance is bliss’ for some people, at least if you can hold it up for some time. But how far does it get you? Sometimes life really intervenes, and you cannot be ignorant anymore. You might want to, but you can’t! And then that’s a problem for the ‘ignorance is bliss’ crowd. This is my debate with Ursula Staudinger (click here to watch Professor Ursula Staudinger outline her view on the relationship between wisdom and happiness). She thinks that clarity of mind will not necessarily lead to bliss because it will show you the positive and the negative side of life, so you cannot ignore the negative sides of life anymore. My argument is ‘No. Wisdom does more than that!’ It’s not just clarity of insight. It also gives you the tools to deal with the vicissitudes of life – just what we were talking about earlier, right? So, not only do I realise whatever just happened to me, that really riled me up, what got me really upset because somebody cut me off in traffic, my husband said something to me which I find ridiculous, but I realise it and then, If I’m wise, I can stop it and say, ‘There is no reason to react to this’ and I see that maybe the driver was in a hurry, there was a really good reason, or even if not maybe he is a jerk, but why should I get excited about that? Or my husband feels bad right now, so why should I take it on? So it’s not that it just becomes clearer, but also it is easier to deal with these things, you know? So you have both. In Buddhist teachings, you have these two things – awareness and equanimity. If you only have awareness, and that’s what Ursula Staudinger is basically saying, ‘You have more awareness, you see things clearer’ but if you don’t also develop equanimity, then you’re in trouble, because now you see things clearer and you might react even more to it, and get more upset, because now you don’t have the ignorance anymore! Therefore you also need the equanimity. You need to develop the equanimity, so that, whatever happens, you can approach with equanimity and that comes back to meditation. That’s what you practice in meditation – you can develop this equanimity. As I say, there might be other ways to develop this. Some people might have a personality make-up that makes them have more equanimity to start with, but I think to develop it, we need some kind of practice like meditation. Also, I think being deeply religious might have the same kind of effect, you know? Very deep prayer might have exactly the same effect, so you think ‘Okay. So this happened, but there is a reason for this, and I’ll leave it up to God. This is not for me to decide.’ It might have the same kind of outcome. But it’s both.
So I’m clear on what you’re saying…the simplest, or crudest route to happiness, if we can call it that for the moment, may well be ignorance, but if you step beyond that and you develop awareness. That’s good because you can see positives but also the negatives, but then to go beyond that, to be able to really manage it, you need to be able to develop equanimity towards the good and bad as well, so that’s kind of the final stage?
Well, I think awareness and equanimity should go together, because if you only have the awareness but not the equanimity, it might really throw you for a loop. You see something you don’t like and you get really depressed, or if you do like it, it’s really great, and you have this up and down situation. With ‘Ignorance is bliss’, the problem is that this only works so far. What if something happens that you cannot ignore anymore. Then, this strategy doesn’t work.
Then awareness is thrust upon you, but you haven’t developed equanimity.
Exactly, and of course, there is old age, which gets me back to my topic. I’ve interviewed people, older adults and they’ve said, ‘My life was great, you know? The whole time it was great, but now, not so much. I don’t like it’. What Glen Elder was saying was that actually experiencing some crisis earlier in life, and successfully mastering this crisis, might be like a training ground for old age, because old age clearly comes with crises. Unless you drop dead suddenly, old age will come with crises, so it’s good to have some practice in overcoming crises. If people have developed wisdom earlier in life, then it should be easier to overcome these crises that often come with old age.
Which are inevitable – they can’t be avoided.
They cannot be avoided. Friends die, a spouse might die. Mental capacity declines. Physical capacity declines and then, of course, the ultimate crisis – the nearing of death.
Well this brings us onto ‘dying well’, which I’d really appreciate if you could tell me a little bit more about. It was not an idea that I had come across before I started reading your papers. I’d heard of the idea of ‘ageing well’, but what do you mean when you talk about ‘dying well’?
Well ‘dying well’ for me means that, first of all, you can face death with equanimity, without being afraid, in a very open way. Interestingly, older people, even though they are closer to death, on average are less afraid of death than younger people. They kind of accept it. It’s normative, but there is indeed variation. We made a study where I looked at subjective well-being among older hospice patients and nursing home residents, and compared this to older adults who lived in the community. What you see is that, for those who are relatively high on wisdom, there is no difference in terms of their subjective well-being, no matter if they live in the community or if they live in a nursing home or are hospice patients. On average, of course, those who live in the community tend to have higher subjective well-being scores than those who are in a nursing home or diagnosed with a terminal illness and are in a hospice. This is not surprising, right. Being in a nursing home is tough, quite frankly, you’re facing death – being a hospice patient means you have a diagnosis of less than 6 months to live. So it’s not surprising that their subjective wellbeing tends to be lower.
You would expect it to be.
Right. But what was surprising was that, for those with relatively high wisdom scores, there’s no difference!
So their wisdom is enabling them to accept death
Exactly. So they are able to accept their end, with equanimity, whereas other people are like ‘Why me?’
‘Why me?!’ Well it happens to everyone!
‘How could this happen?’ right? Well you know, we are all mortal, right?
That’s interesting because everyone is going to die, and wisdom seems to be this framework that enables us to accept that, to accept something that is going to happen to all of us. Does this mean that society in some way is failing to prepare people for the inevitable?
I think so. This was one of the things I saw when I interviewed people in the hospice care centre and visited with people at home who were at hospice. It seems that in the past, 50 years ago or 75 years ago, something like this, death and dying were much more normal. People died at home. Children and younger adults were exposed to that. ‘Okay, so there is a time when people die…’ and often they could visit those people, right ‘…and this is what it looks like!’ Now, we are not used to this anymore. Death is relegated to places where we don’t see the dying and sometimes it is really hard for people to look death into the eye for their loved ones, I think because it reminds people of their own death. We haven’t prepared people for this. I envision something like ‘Lamaze for the dying’ like the ‘Lamaze birthing classes’ for the partner. ‘These are the stages. This is how it works. This is how you go through’. Wouldn’t it be nice to have something like this for family members? If people get diagnosed with a terminal illness or something, you can go ‘Okay so this is what you can expect. That’s normal. There’s nothing to be afraid of.’ I’ve volunteered at hospices and I went through the training classes. First of all, you need to be okay that people don’t look so great when they’re dying, right! There was this one lady I was visiting who was a member of my study and she was in the hospice care centre. After I was done interviewing her she said ‘ So, when are you coming back?’ So I said ‘Well, I will be around to interview some other people so sure, I can come by and visit you.’ So I went every couple of days. I would just poke my head in, sit with her, say ‘How are you doing?’ I got to meet her family at one point, and they were a loving family, I mean absolutely. She had three daughters. They were a loving family. Her walls were full of ‘We love you, Mom!’ and ‘Wish-you-well’ cards, the whole thing. At the very end, the nurse told me, ‘They didn’t come anymore in the last week’. When I asked why, the nurse said, ‘Well because she didn’t look so great’. They wanted to remember her how she was, and not how she was at the very end. I think this is sad, right? What a pressure! Now you have to look good at the very end?! I’ve visited with people and I’ve seen other relatives sometimes sitting there, and they don’t know what to do. They really don’t know. It’s kind of an awkward situation. Rather than thinking ‘this is fine’ and, you know, holding their hands, stroking their arm, or doing what is appropriate, they just feel so uncomfortable in the presence of someone who is dying. They don’t know what to do. We really have lost the relationship here. This is where we try to run away – ignorance is bliss. As long as I don’t think about it, it won’t happen. Then when it does happen, everyone is shocked. How could this happen?
I suppose that’s the ultimate example of the fact that society generally isn’t as mixed as it once was across the generations. You don’t have grandparents living with the children at home so quite often people are surprised about every stage of life as it happens to them. In the past, young children would have seen their parents and grandparents facing trials they were having so they would have been a bit better prepared for what maybe lay ahead.
Exactly. That’s exactly right. The other thing that also used to happen was that dying wasn’t such a prolonged process. People died relatively quickly. After they got some kind of a terminal illness, they would not hang around forever. Now it’s often a prolonged process and it’s not pretty, and people don’t want to be reminded of that.
Over the next five years or so, what do you think is going to be the most fruitful area of wisdom research to be looking at? Is it something along the longitudinal meditation study kind of field?
I hope that there will be a longitudinal study launched where we can actually look at predictors of wisdom later on and how wisdom affects outcomes later in life. I think that would be the most fruitful to do. It would be good if a couple of people would come together to do that.
What are you working on at the moment?
I work on quite a number of different things. One is looking at personality predictors of wisdom and looking at the different personality facets of wisdom. Another thing we want to launch is about ‘How is wisdom related to prejudice in college students?’ I am a sociologist after all so I want to push it a little in the social realm. You would think that wisdom would be negatively related to prejudice but nobody has ever studied this, so we want to take a look at this. I also have a data set that I inherited from Lucinda Orwoll, who collected it in the 1990s. It has wisdom nominees and creative nominees and a control group of people, younger and older adults, and it also has items from the adjective checklist, and I am using items from the checklist to come up with the three-dimensional wisdom measure and it seems to correlate nicely with the nominees. I can look at the correlation between ageing well and things like this. So, that’s another thing.
So there’s quite a lot on your plate! The last question I had I suppose ties in to your sociologist background: It’s sort of a magic wand situation. What single practical change in society could lead to the greatest increase in wisdom?
That is a hard question. It’s actually an interesting question because it’s a question about top-down or bottom-up. We’ve tried top-down and it doesn’t seem to work too well; the former Soviet Union, making everyone equal, and that doesn’t seem to work too well. So I think a bottom-up approach works better. On the other hand, it works better if indeed there is the ability to develop, to have the societal conditions to develop. If you have a dictatorship, that’s always tricky, right? Democracy clearly helps when people have the freedom to develop the way they want. On the other hand, and here’s where the societal comes in, meditation seems to really further wisdom and helps to develop wisdom, but we are so busy typically and don’t have time. At the same time we are now bombarded by all kinds of distractions – the internet, on our phones, everywhere. It’s everywhere! So we need to have a society that appreciates this and becomes more mindful, quite frankly. That maybe requires a society where we have more time. This is how I’d use my magic wand. When I grew up and I was in my late teens in high school, we were kind of promised that the leisure society was coming, because with all those computers and robots that are taking over our work, there isn’t going to be enough work for us to do. There’s only enough work for us to do half-time. Everybody can be employed but maybe they can only be employed half-time. Well wouldn’t this be great? Everybody has a 20-hours per week job and they have enough money so they can actually live on that, right? Then you’d have all this time for your personal development. You would have time to raise your children so that you don’t plop them in front of the computer or the TV or the smartphone. We can be more social again, right? We can meet each other, meditate together, whatever, right? So yes, I think that would be how I’d use my magic wand; that we have more time, so that we basically distribute work more evenly and also that we distribute the efficiency gains that the robots give to us more equally in some ways.
So rather than just packing more work into these efficiency gains we’ve made, just keep that time for ourselves?
Yes. Well right now what we have is that, the people who have work, work harder than ever, and then there are a lot of people who are unemployed and that’s not the best situation.
So it would be better if it was spread out, so everyone was working two-and-a-half days a week. That sounds good. I like that. I’ll have to try and find you a magic wand.
Why not have a look at the following papers and articles to read more about Ardelt’s research?
The Wisdom Scorecard – Test yourself on the 39-item Three-dimensional Wisdom Scale
Wisdom as Expert Knowledge System: A Critical Review of a Contemporary Operationalization of an Ancient Concept (Ardelt, 2004) – Ardelt’s 2004 paper introducing the Three-dimensional Wisdom Scale
Wisdom and Life Satisfaction in Old Age (Ardelt, 1997) – In this paper, Ardelt challenged traditional beliefs regarding what leads to successful ageing. Through use of an early form of the three-dimensional wisdom scale, she shows that levels of wisdom have a stronger influence on life satisfaction than objective circumstances.
Self-Reported Wisdom and Happiness: An Empirical Investigation (Bergsma & Ardelt, 2011) – Read more in-depth detail on the ‘Wisdom vs Happiness’ debate.
Conversations on Wisdom University of Chicago – Video interview with Wisdom Researcher Monika Ardelt – Here Ardelt outlines her much-celebrated three-dimensional wisdom scale
Evidence-based Wisdom Post: 3-DIMENSIONAL WISDOM: Can wisdom be measured? – In this recent post, some of the challenges associated with measuring wisdom are considered and the development of the 3DWS is discussed in further detail.
Society for the Study of Human Development – Monika Ardelt is Executive Secretary of The Society for the Study of Human Development. The SSHD is a professional society formed by a group of scholars from multiple disciples (e.g., medicine, biology, psychology, sociology, economics, and history). The central focus of SSHD is to provide an organization that moves beyond age-segmented scholarly organisations to take an integrative, interdisciplinary approach to ages/stages across the life span, generational and ecological contexts of human development, and research and applications to human development policies and programs. SSHD currently includes over 200 members.
If you have any thoughts about the interview, do get in touch. You can contact me via the about page or find me on twitter @EBasedwisdom.
The most intriguing question of all in the field of wisdom research surely has to be: ‘Can we intentionally develop wisdom?’ This animation outlines 3 surprising short-term wisdom-enhancing strategies developed in the research laboratory. And the long-term? Research suggests there are a number of potential paths to developing wisdom over the life course…
If you have any thoughts about the EBW Animations Series, please get in touch. You can contact me via the about page or find me on twitter @EBasedwisdom.
Can wisdom really be measured? This animation looks at how scientists wrangle with wisdom in the laboratory, as well as some of the challenges inherent in ‘scoring’ for wisdom. Which wisdom scales have been shown to be the most robust and what potential benefits follow from being able to successfully identify wise individuals?
If you have any thoughts about the EBW Animations Series, please get in touch. You can contact me via the about page or find me on twitter @EBasedwisdom.
Before wisdom can be studied, it has to be defined. This animation looks at the three dominant models of wisdom to emerge from the first 30 years of research: The Berlin Wisdom Paradigm, Sternberg’s Balance Theory of Wisdom and The Three-Dimensional Wisdom Scale. And can a 2013 analysis of 24 definitions reveal just 6 essential sub-components of wisdom?
If you have any thoughts about the EBW Animations Series, please get in touch. You can contact me via the about page or find me on twitter @EBasedwisdom.
The Evidence-based Wisdom Screencast Series is a collection of short conversations discussing 10 of the major ideas and themes emerging from the field of Wisdom Research. You can either hear them by clicking on the individual links below, or click here to listen to the playlist on youtube.
A quick overview of the series, covering the birth of wisdom research and the broad range of topics involved in the field
This discussion covers the myth of the aged sage, the relationship between age and wisdom, the role of experience and reflection and the potential threat ageing can pose to the growth of wisdom. Click here to read the related blog post ‘The Myth of the Aged Sage’.
This conversation covers the 6 essential components to emerge from a literature review of the most popular wisdom frameworks, including self-knowledge, multiple-perspective taking and even a sense of humour. Click here to read related papers detailing the studies.
This discussion covers the three models of wisdom that have come to dominate the field over the last 30 years: The Berlin Wisdom Paradigm, Sternberg’s Balance Theory of Wisdom and Ardelt’s Three-dimensional Wisdom Scale. Click here to read related papers about these models of wisdom
This talk covers the challenges of measuring wisdom and how researchers have worked round these obstacles to develop a number of reliable and consistent wisdom scales. Click here to read research into how the scales compare under the microscope.
This discussion looks at three activities which have been shown to increase the wisdom of people’s responses under laboratory conditions and also discusses the distinction between short and long-term interventions. Click here to read more about the assessment of short-term wisdom-enhancing interventions.
This conversation considers the personality traits which have been shown to consistently be present in individuals who score highly on measures of wisdom and in particular the importance of the characteristic of openness to new experiences and a progressive, judicial cognitive style.
This discussion looks at research on what is shared and what is different when it comes to Western and Eastern models of wisdom. Click here to read an article on the differences in the development of wisdom in American and Japanese populations.
This conversation considers the neuroscience of wise behaviour, in particular the theory that the newest and most ancient regions of the brain work in harmony to find the optimal solution for the individual and society. Click here to read more about the neurobiology of wisdom.
This discussion considers the surprising role of humour in wisdom, the importance of perspective-shifting in both humour and wisdom and the use of humour as a coping strategy in the field of terror management. Click here to watch a talk by Jeffrey Webster outlining the central role of humour in wisdom.
The final conversation in the series considers whether wisdom makes people more or less happy, the importance of facing and learning from negative experiences and the critical role that curiosity may play in both our wisdom and happiness. Click here to read related papers detailing the studies.
If you have any thoughts about the EBW Screencast Series, please get in touch. You can contact me via the about page or find me on twitter @EBasedwisdom.
The Wisdom Profiles Series is a collection of new 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 first interview of the series, Emeritus Professor Bruce Lloyd talks about wisdom in business and the importance of positive conversations.
Bruce Lloyd is an Emeritus Professor of Strategic Management at London South Bank University. He spent over 20 years in industry and finance before joining the academic world 20 years ago. Whilst his background is in Chemical engineering, he has more recently worked extensively in Knowledge management and Business Education. He was the UK co-ordinator for The Millennium Project from 1999-2005 and has published over 200 articles on a wide-range of strategy and futures-related issues, including leadership, organisational performance, knowledge management and wisdom. He is also on the Advisory Board of the online wisdom resource The Wisdom Page.
How did you become interested in wisdom?
My background was science and engineering so I had heard of the pyramid – data, information, knowledge and wisdom. I was very puzzled why, in this area of knowledge management, almost nobody talked about wisdom. I thought that was a bit strange since it was the ultimate pinnacle of the triangle. Then in the late 1990s, we had the run-up to the millennium and in that period there was an enormous emphasis on looking at the future. I did a project for The World Futures Society called ‘Messages for the New Millennium’ and the idea was to distil out a thousand wisdom sayings that were important to try to pass on to future generations. It forced me to think more about what wisdom was all about, which I found fascinating because it’s a very philosophical, meaningful and practical area to reflect on.
I then put together a paper called ‘Power, Responsibility and Wisdom’ in which we tried to rethink the relationships between data-information-knowledge and wisdom. Actually there is no mechanistic movement from one to the other as if it was a scientific progression. You don’t just wind a handle and distil one in to the other. There are some quantum jumps. Information is what gives context to data. Doing something with information is knowledge. Doing something good with the information, something positive, is the wise use of that information. Of itself information is values-free. It is only when you use it that your values determine whether you are going to use if for good or evil. Wisdom is a way of repackaging values statements about relationships between people, relationships within groups, and societies and the individual’s relationships with the universe. It’s not about just technical information. If we look at many areas of leadership today, wisdom is very relevant because the key element of leadership is values, not power. Rather, leadership is about how you usepower and in whose interest. Statements of wisdom essentially have values in them. They have values that are related to what works in terms of the long-term relationship of the individual and the wider world.
How do you define wisdom?
Wisdom is reliable, useful, information about what makes relationships and society work, in everyone’s interest, in the long term.
Do you have a favourite statement regarding the nature of wisdom?
One that I’ve put in some of my talks is ‘In the end, the most important factor in improving the quality of your decision-making is the quality of your conversations’. Strategy textbooks give the impression that organisations and strategy are a mechanistic process, but they’re not. They’re a very fuzzy, but not necessarily a very complicated, human process that, underneath it all, is driven by values, one way or another – to work or to self-destruct. A key issue, which doesn’t get researched, is that both personal violence and political violence is a reflection of the breakdown of the ability to hold these positive conversations. But what makes a conversation work? Mutual respect, listening and an ability to take into account the interests of the other person. Strangely enough, we don’t take enough notice early on with the development of children to help them develop the ability to have constructive conversations. The implication is that they know it all, or they don’t need to develop it, but in fact for the vast majority of people, their skills in this area are horrifying. Also, if you neglect the importance of values, conversational skills can be used in very strange ways, resulting in arrogance and other things that are potentially very damaging.
So I always started my strategy courses by getting the students to pair off and have an argument, and then afterwards to have a discussion about what had gone on. We need to encourage people to say: ‘These things we agree on. These things we disagree on. Why do we disagree on these? What would happen if you were on the other side?’ In South Africa at the end of Apartheid and in Northern Ireland at the end of The Troubles, there was an enormous emphasis on trying to get the parties to have constructive conversations. How else are these problems going to be resolved? If you said how do you apply wisdom to the debate in America about abortion, then the first thing that you have to do is to encourage the people that have different views on this to improve the quality of their conversations about what it is they’re agreeing about, and what it is they’re disagreeing about and why. Now, if you run into fundamentalism, you’ve got a bit of a problem. One essential element of this approach is that we’re assuming that we don’t have absolute answers. If you then come across somebody who says ‘I don’t care what you say. It’s in the Bible or the Koran’; how do you deal with it? All I can say is: With difficulty. You need a lot of energy, a lot of patience, a lot of wise application to deal with that, but it’s not impossible. If people have changed the mind of Dr Ian Paisley, anything must be possible. People can change, but you have to work from where they’re coming from. Otherwise you just get in a shouting match, or worse still a shooting match.
Can individuals/groups become wiser? If so, how?
I think this is very related to values. Can we become better people? Probably we all think we can. In fact, people who think that they’re perfect are a problem! So we can all become wiser. We can all develop our values and that starts very early on. There is no evidence that I’ve come across that it’s in the genes. There’s a lot of evidence to suggest that it can be influenced by your early life and that people can change later on in life. You can become a better person and you can become a worse person. Largely, I don’t think many people are living their lives in neutral. I think it’s very interesting that peer-group support systems can have a very considerable influence. If you want to be a better person, get together with other people that are trying to do the same thing. If you want to be a worse person, join a gang.
I’ve just reviewed a book on emotional resilience and emotional intelligence. Implicitly, both of those areas are very closely linked, in my view, to values but the authors don’t discuss that area explicitly. And because they don’t discuss it explicitly, they don’t really start discussing ‘what’s the difference between a wise person and an emotionally intelligent person?’ The difference, as I see it, is that there is a significant risk that the agenda of the emotional intelligence industry becomes one designed primarily to help you become emotionally intelligent so that you can get your way more often. That’s not helping you to become wiser! It’s not really what a values driven agenda would be about.
Can wisdom be taught/learnt or can it only be acquired through direct experience?
There’s not a lot of evidence, I think, that you can teach wisdom or values, but it must be that they’re learnt. So you can manage the learning environment. You can’t give somebody a lecture, and transfer information about the values that they ought to have and then expect them to change just because they have heard the information, but in the way you give the lecture, you can demonstrate values that they will take on board. So the process and the content go together.
There are a lot of people that say that children learn about emotions from their parents and they learn wisdom from their grandparents. The pressure on parents, personally in their own lives and the bringing up of children, is horrendous. Their grandparents have passed through that and have a much more philosophical reflection on life and generally have more time to think about these issues. This is especially tricky for parents if they haven’t got the conversational skills we mentioned earlier. They’re usually under enormous pressure and often just in survival mode.
One of the other relevant factors is the decline of the liberal arts and the classics. I did Science but the classics and literature are actually a very embedded source of wisdom about what works in relationships, societies that worked and others that didn’t. The current thinking seems to be that they should be put in a separate box somewhere, rather like Philosophy. They say that Philosophy departments are shutting all over the country because they’re not in demand. Actually Philosophy is very relevant, partly because it is essentially the search for wisdom. However, Philosophers don’t talk, or write about it, in that way and, by and large, they make the issues unnecessarily complicated and, hence they are not perceived to be relevant.
Are there any negative aspects of becoming wiser?
In general the answer would be no. The only reservation I might have is whether wise people are more tolerant of the things that they shouldn’t be tolerant of. But the argument should be that, if they really are wise, they are aware of these issues, and that should mean they’re not pushed beyond limits of what would be wise in the specific circumstances.
Do you think wisdom can be measured?
You could in my view find a way to assess the validity of statements of wisdom. For example, you could give people ten statements of wisdom and ask them what order they would put them in. You could investigate if there are cultural differences. Actually I don’t believe there are significant global differences in what various societies perceive to be wise behaviour, because that behaviour is what helps individuals work most effectively within their respective society.
You could also measure the extent to which people’s behaviour is wise. You could specify ‘what are the characteristics of wise behaviour in this set of circumstances, and how far does the behaviour of these individuals match this definition, or collective definitions, of wise behaviour?’ There are no perfect answers, just useful, workable hypotheses about what works. It is all a bit fuzzy, but it can be done, and it doesn’t get the attention it deserves.
After being neglected for so long by serious academics, why do you think that wisdom has recently started to receive more attention?
Perhaps some people felt, as I did, that the mechanistic approach to leadership and various related areas was lacking. Other people were thinking more about the future of humanity. One point that is relevant here is that we get obsessed with GDP as a measure of societal success. However, that is a quantity measure with very dubious components. It’s not a quality measure. Just like we’ve got obsessed with leadership being about power as a quantity measure – people at the top of organisations have big decisions to make, therefore they must be leaders. No! People who are leaders are people who take good decisions, not just large decisions. What we need to be concerned with in society is measuring the quality of things. We’re now trying to work out new quality of life indices, because the old model of economic growth is actually not sustainable; it’s not very meaningful and it’s not very helpful. In fact, it’s potentially disastrous for people working in our current system since it causes lots of stress and other problems, and generally people find it very unsatisfying. It’s a race against time over whether we really take these alternative ideas on board before the old model collapses. For example, what is it that makes people happiest? Helping other people, having a good conversation with other people, relationships. An obsession with material possessions is actually quite low down on any list.
In your experience, are business leaders open to the idea of conducting business ‘wisely’?
Often in companies, words are not consistent with behaviour. This is something we suffer from these days called ‘Organisational hypocrisy.’ To some extent companies have organised their bureaucracy so that they find a way of blaming other people for things that go wrong. But, in the end, people at the top should take responsibility for the culture. To some extent they have done this traditionally in Japan where, in the old days if a company had not done what is should have done, the chief executive would commit suicide at the annual general meeting. I am not suggesting we go to that extreme, but a few more resignations over the banking crisis would have helped. Those are the things that are also associated with, if you like, the traditional cult of leadership. If there was more a sense of collective responsibility, then it’s not so focused on one individual. Everybody from the top down should take a major salary cut if they’ve messed up.
The people at the top often don’t walk the talk of their values, with their escalating salaries, bonuses and payoffs. You can see how that creates all sorts of problems, sooner or later. The argument that I would put forward is that if you want organisations to be sustainable over the long term, the wise package that we’re talking about is much more likely to achieve long term sustainable results than the ego-driven self-interested, highly competitive approaches. An example of this is the bonus culture in The City in the mid-2000s. It was one of the major factors leading to the financial crisis, because it encouraged people to pursue their own agenda by pushing the boundaries of what was legitimate. The people at the top either knew it was going on and what was going to happen so they should be in trouble; or they didn’t know what was going to happen, but they should have known. Either way most of them should have been sacked. How do you manage that sort of competitive system so that it doesn’t evolve like that? It’s not a matter of moving in the direction of some other extreme. It’s a matter of really understanding these sorts of issues and how they can distort behaviour in unsustainable and unhelpful ways. The agenda of competitiveness is important, but we can provide greater guidance over in whose interest employees are taking decisions in the name of being competitive.
You have mentioned before in your work that collective ownership structures, as used by companies such as John Lewis, can end up stifling innovation. How does that work?
There is a paradox about innovation and the competitive system. There is little doubt in my mind that the competitive system encourages more innovation than the cooperative system. A cooperative system tends to have a lot of vested interests that tend to protect the status quo. If you look at many of the successful innovators, they’re not driven by just making money. In fact if you look at the entrepreneurs that are just driven by making money, they end up by cutting corners and many of them end up becoming crooks, because that’s the nature of their innovation – pushing the boundaries in those areas that are just concerned with making more and more money. That’s exactly what happens in the financial sector, since where do you find meaning and values in a system that is essentially just playing games with money? There was meaning in the past, when the bank manager was there to help you, but that concept of professionalism has been undermined. The underlying concept of professionalism is that you put the customers’ interests first. The professions don’t really want to know about this now because they have become so commercially focused.
Can businesses, governed primarily by economic interests, ever really be wise?
In the past, many businesses were not driven primarily by profit. This generally was for two reasons. One was religion. A lot of the successful companies that were formed decades ago were Quaker companies. They were pursuing the idea of inclusive stakeholders, long before anybody else was doing it. That was very critical for their long-term success. The other factor was that the concept of professionalism came from people who weren’t primarily motivated by just making more money (which, in essence, is what GDP is measuring). In other words, they perceived they had financial security. Unfortunately, the core message of our society today, in order to generate consumerism, appears to be to generate as much insecurity as possible in order to pressurise us to consume more and more. However, these early business leaders were in a culture and a peer group that accepted that their material level was not something that they needed to compete on. What enlightened companies do is take the stance: ‘We want to deliver good products and services to customers, and be able to manage our financial affairs properly, and in the long run, this is what’s going to make us the most money. But if we set out just to maximise the money we make, especially over the short term, we shouldn’t be surprised if things end up distorted in an ultimately self-defeating way.’
Another consideration is that, in the past, companies often operated in small communities that relied on repeat business. If you started screwing a customer, everybody soon knew about it and you were soon out of business. The concept of community, honesty and wise behaviour in business is not new, because people in the past knew what was in their long-term interest. They’re now beginning to bring the idea of the importance of ‘business relationships’ back, at least that is what many are trying to do. Of course, in this process, it is important that these relationships don’t become too close that they start encouraging abuses of power, even actually becoming corrupt.
Which single practical change do you think would lead to the greatest increase in the levels of wisdom in the business community and more generally in society?
There’s no magic bullet. In strategy I would always say, first try to define the problem, and then recognise that there are a hundred and one different things that will help move us in the direction of solving the problem. But the media likes to say ‘Wind farms aren’t going to solve our energy problem.’ We shouldn’t talk like that! The key question is ‘Do they help us move in the right direction, in a cost-effective way?’ Not ‘Will they solve the problem?’ So the language that people use, especially in the media, is often incredibly polluting in a divisive way over the way we think about problems and consider their solutions.
Also, taking a broad society-level view, in a competitive environment, one of the things that happens is not everybody can be at the top. That comes back to a very important element of the agenda that casts a shadow over our society: ‘What do we mean by success?’ If by success we mean that you’ve got to the top of a major corporation, or you’ve become Prime Minister, then only a few people can succeed. If success is to be a wiser person, then there is no limit to how many people can succeed. Everybody can be wiser. Actually if everybody is wanting to be wise, people will help each other to become wise. Conversely, if you’re trying to be Prime Minister, and everybody’s trying to be Prime Minister, the one thing you will do is be unhelpful to everybody else who is trying to be Prime Minister. Essentially this is an unsustainable model. A better model for society is a society where success is something that everybody can achieve and where it is in everyone’s interest to help others in that process. These ideas were well developed years ago in a perceptive book The Social Limits to Growth by the late Fred Hirsh.
More specifically, if I wanted to say what is the one thing that would help everybody be wiser in the long term, it is simply to approve our ability to have positive conversations. That gives us the best chance of making a better – that is wiser – world for everybody.
Finally, it would be greatly beneficial all round if we could just spend more time exploring the meaning and relevance of wisdom in an attempt to help us all become just a little wiser.
Why not have a look at the following papers and articles to read more about Bruce Lloyd’s research?
Lloyd, Bruce (2004) “The Wisdom of the World: 1000 Messages for the New Millennium”World Future Society – An extensive catalogue of essential wisdom sayings from history compiled by Bruce Lloyd for the World Future Society’s ‘Wisdom of the World’ project.
If you have any thoughts about the interview, please get in touch. You can contact me via email or follow me on Twitter.
Wisdom research tends to generate academic papers which can be somewhat heavy on technical language. This is inevitable wherever the scientific method is diligently applied. However, it’s also helpful to have the discipline explained in a more direct, human way from time to time. With this in mind, here are 5 essential talks from pioneers in this emerging field, sharing their perspectives on the rapidly developing science of wisdom.
Conversations on Wisdom – Monika Ardelt, Sociologist
Monika Ardelt, a Sociology professor from the University of Florida, is a leader in the field of Wisdom research. Here she outlines her much-celebrated three-dimensional wisdom scale (click here to read the recent post outlining the 3DWS or here to read her first paper on the same topic) and discusses the possibilities and pitfalls of social media as a tool for the development of wisdom. The interview was conducted as part of a new documentary film entitled ‘The Science of Wisdom’.
What is Wisdom? – John Vervaeke, Cognitive Scientist
John Vervaeke, a professor of Cognitive Science at the University of Toronto, outlines his cognitive model of wisdom. Which cognitive processes are taking place in the brain when we are being wise? This brief talk condenses a lot of big ideas into an all too brief 11 minutes. These ideas are fleshed out in more detail over 60 minutes in his talk ‘The Cognitive Science of Wisdom: Wisdom as Rationally Self-Transcending Rationality that Enhances Relevance Realization”, which you can watch by clicking here.
Improving Wisdom – Ursula Staudinger, Psychologist
Ursula Staudinger is Director of The Columbia Ageing Centre and a lifespan Psychologist. As well as having developed the much-celebrated Berlin Wisdom Paradigm with Paul Baltes in the 1990s, she has recently developed a new scale of wisdom measurement called The Bremen Measure of Personal Wisdom, which you can read about by clicking here. In this talk at the University of Chicago’s Wisdom Research forum, she talks about the future direction of wisdom research and the essential role neuroscience will have to play for the field to develop in the years ahead.
Wisdom and Successful Ageing– Dilip V Jeste, Neuroscientist
Dr. Dilip V. Jeste is Director of The Stein Institute for Research on Ageing at the University of California and a Neuropsychiatrist. He has published a number of papers detailing the neural activity associated with wise behaviours (click here and here to read more). In this talk he discusses common elements of wisdom throughout history, common elements of modern definitions of wisdom and further develops his perspectives on the neurobiology of wisdom and its implications for ageing.
Neuroenlightenment – John Vervaeke, Cognitive Scientist
Another talk from Professor Vervaeke of The University of Toronto. Here, he looks to the future, suggesting that modern technologies may in fact play a key role in enhancing wisdom. He further suggests that this enhanced wisdom may help us use technologies to build wisely, not foolishly, for the future.
Whilst such diverse perspectives afford a rich, multi-faceted understanding of wisdom, there is also a benefit in increased alignment within the field. In the words of Professor Ursula Staudinger at this year’s Wisdom Research Forum in Chicago ‘It is not by chance for instance that cognitive psychology and cognitive neuroscience have made so much progress in recent years. It’s because they have come to an agreement and they are studying phenomena using the same paradigms… I deeply believe in a need to join forces to make progress and it can only come from cumulative efforts.’
Wise words indeed.
Why not have a look at the following papers to read more about these branches of wisdom research?
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