The On Wisdom podcast features a social-cognitive scientist in Toronto and an educator in London discussing the latest empirical science regarding the nature of wisdom.
Igor Grossmann runs the Wisdom & Culture Lab at the University of Waterloo in Canada. Charles Cassidy runs the Evidence-Based Wisdom project in London, UK.
The podcast thrives on a diet of freewheeling conversation on wisdom and decision-making, and includes regular guests spots with leading behavioural scientists from the field of wisdom research and beyond.
Welcome to The On Wisdom Podcast.
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Episode 18: The End of the World is Nigh: Polarised Tribes, Passionate Words, and the Partisan Brain (with Jay Van Bavel)
How did politics get so damn polarised? Do we even care about accuracy at all anymore? And if our brains are wired for partisanship, might a brain-based model show us a way out of this unholy mess? New York University’s Jay Van Bavel joins Igor and Charles to discuss political polarisation, the partisan brain, the inexorable rise of superheroes in dark times, the misperceptions of polarisation levels, and how to reach out to other tribes. Igor highlights the partisanship-transcending benefits of a Watchmen-style alien invasion, Jay proposes the judicious use of ‘off-ramps’ when engaging with loved-ones from across the political divide, and Charles learns that even the abstract purity of Mathematics is not immune from the tentacles of partisanship when guns are involved. Welcome to Episode 18.
Our current productivity culture appears to peddle a false promise: If we can just get better organised, we really can do everything – no tough life choices or trade-offs need to be made! Guardian journalist and author Oliver Burkeman joins Igor and Charles to discuss the ironic effects of the pursuit of productivity, the inbox zero phenomenon, the futile denial of limitations, the Jevons paradox, Keynes’ concerns about a future society drowning in leisure time, Nietzsche’s suspicions regarding our beloved busyness, the social complexities of sending back a poorly made coffee, and the importance of living a life that is larger than politics. Igor wonders if the ‘slow-food’ philosophy can be extended to start a ‘slow-work’ movement in social and medical sciences to help address replication concerns, Oliver explains why he sat on the London underground loudly calling out the names of approaching stations to a carriage full of strangers, and Charles reveals how a ‘free-coffees-for-nice-customers’ policy can badly backfire, particularly if your customers are British. Welcome to Episode 17.
Do highly intelligent people actually take better decisions in their daily lives than everyone else? And if not, what’s missing from our picture of what it means to be ‘smart’? Can you be highly intelligent, yet flunk a rationality test? And rather than noise to be ignored, might our emotions help us make decisions that are actually more rational? David Robson joins Igor and Charles to discuss intelligence traps, Terman’s Termites, the Monte Carlo fallacy, Damasio’s Somatic Marker hypothesis, the competitive humility of the start-up culture, and the ‘brutal pessimism’ baked in to the dark history of the Intelligence test. Igor wrangles with the challenge of convincing leaders of the merits of intellectual humility in a culture obsessed with certainty, David advocates for widespread cognitive inoculations, and Charles learns that butterflies in the stomach after a date may mean love, but also may mean gastric flu. Welcome to Episode 16.
‘Wholeness quiets infinite phenomena?’ Does it, really?! Why do some people fall for pseudo-profound bullshit and others don’t? When we share fake news stories, is this because we’re motivated to think they’re real, or because we don’t bother to think at all? And why do scientists fight tooth-and-nail over the mechanisms involved, such as “System I vs. System II”, “Fast vs. Slow” and other frameworks? Gordon Pennycook joins Igor and Charles to discuss the critical distinction between a liar and a bullshitter, the cognitive reflection test, the random Deepak Chopra quote generator, the Ig Nobel prize, motivated reasoning, climate change beliefs, academic turf wars among dual process theorists, and how to stop yourself from compulsively retweeting fake news. Igor suggests that Gord only thought of studying bullshit after disbelief at one of Igor’s early talks, Gord reminds us that even the most enlightened social media platforms are in no hurry to help people STOP sharing news, and Charles unexpectedly finds common ground with the Chinese government. Welcome to Episode 15.
Is it wiser for a society to be ‘tight’ – strictly enforcing social rules, or ‘loose’ – in which social rule-breaking barely raise an eyebrow? What do social norms have to do with a sense of threat? And might wise leaders have worked out how to dynamically calibrate the tightness or looseness of their organisations as the situation demands? Michele Gelfand joins Igor and Charles to discuss the role of threat in ‘tight vs loose’ societies, the goldilocks principle, ‘real vs perceived’ threat’s in Trump’s America, autocratic recidivism, rum-fuelled meetings, transgressive hand puppets, and the case for recalibrating the internet. Igor reflects on the tight-loose contradictions at the beating heart of the Disney Corporation, Michele cautions against ‘flipping-off’ drivers in the honour culture of the southern states, and Charles makes peace with his inner spirit muppet, Kermit the frog. Welcome to Episode 14.
Can, or even should wisdom be taught at school? Would teaching about wisdom in the classroom even translate into wiser behaviour? And might learning about wise historical figures in school actually decrease the likelihood of students behaving more wisely? Igor and Charles tinker with the nuts and bolts of a speculative wisdom curriculum, discussing the stark limits of formal ethics classes, future technological tools to help identify when wise reasoning is necessary, and the counterproductive impact of presenting wise figures out of context. Igor commends Yoda for wisely encouraging Luke to share his failures, and alerts us to the dangers of turning sages into saints, while Charles struggles to acquire the wisdom necessary to know when wisdom is necessary. Welcome to Episode 13.
Life expectancy increased more in the 20th century than in the entire prior history of humanity combined. With many more of us now getting the opportunity to live into old age, what do we have to look forward to? Do our social and emotional lives degrade in step with our physical bodies as we age, or do we in fact get much happier as we get older? How does the sense of ‘time-left’ impact our wisdom, behaviour and priorities? Laura Carstensen joins Igor and Charles to discuss individual and societal aspects of human aging. We focus on the implications and opportunities of recent extraordinary gains in life expectancy, the socio-emotional selectivity theory, the positivity effect, the thorny issue of increasing retirement age, and the surprising role of time-horizons in how we choose to spend our time. Igor alerts us to the cultural differences and the positive impact old people have on a work team’s productivity, Laura reassures us that no-one ever wants to repeat their twenties, and Charles learns of the dangers of young people trying to think like old people as a route to happiness. Welcome to Episode 12.
Can we design our workplaces to generate wiser behaviour? Why do we work anyway, and would we still work if we didn’t get paid? Do employers even want their employees to develop wisdom? Barry Schwartz joins Igor and Charles to discuss how Aristotle’s Practical Wisdom applies in the 21st Century, the reasons why we work, idea technology, the unintended consequences of rules-based systems, and the moral dangers and limits of incentives. Igor proposes the idea of algorithm-based wise machines, Barry suggests companies hire for character rather than skill, and Charles learns why, in wiser work places, the cost of free-riders may well be a price worth paying. Welcome to Episode 11.
Is our capacity for wise behaviour determined not just by our psychology but also by our physiology? Is there such a thing as ‘good stress’, and how might our assessment of a situation reduce the chances of us ‘choking’? And can our own bodies actually be physically affected by other people’s emotions? Wendy Berry Mendes joins Igor and Charles to discuss the interaction between the psychological and physiological processes underpinning wise behaviour, exploring ‘challenge vs threat’ stress responses, vagal flexibility, affect contagion, and the physiology of social sensitivity and good judgement. Igor wants to know how to stay calm before dance competitions, Wendy shares tales of stressing out unsuspecting young mothers and their babies, and Charles learns of the hidden upsides to mind-body meltdowns. Welcome to Episode 10.
Can philosophers and psychologists work together to guide us towards living wisely? In pursuing the good life, can too much reflection be dangerous? Might philosophers have downplayed the importance of getting lost in experience? Valerie Tiberius joins Igor and Charles to discuss positive illusions, values integration, bearing our own reflective survey, and the perils of excessive introspection. Igor has questions about the rise of the empirically-informed movement in philosophy, Valerie suggests humility is critical to friendship, and Charles wants to know how hit-moral-philosophy-comedy ‘The Good Life’ ever got commissioned. Welcome to Episode 9.
One thing we all seem to agree on is that empathy is an unmitigated good. But what if we are wrong? Might some forms of empathy actually be dangerous for society, biasing preferences towards those that look like us, or even those we find attractive? And even when our closest companions are in pain, is ‘feeling what they feel’ really the best way to help? Are horrific acts of cruelty made palatable by dehumanising the victims, or is the truth actually much worse? And how can social media turn do-gooders into deliverers of unlimited vengeance? Paul Bloom takes Igor and Charles for a walk on the dark side, exploring the treacherous hidden terrain of empathy, harmless torturers, aggregate cruelty and third-party punishment. Igor calls for tech companies to start hiring moral philosophers, Paul raises moral objections to loving your own children, and Charles has his mind blown and heart crushed by a revelatory, yet even darker, interpretation of human cruelty. Welcome to Episode 8.
Why do we spend so much time telling stories – about ourselves, about each other, even about fictional characters? If storytelling isn’t simply about information exchange, what role does it really play in our lives? Why do older people feel compelled to share their hard-earned wisdom with younger people? And do the younger people actually get anything from these exchanges? Nic Weststrate joins Igor and Charles to pull apart the real reasons we share stories. We discuss exploratory and redemptive processing of life-shattering events, the complex motivations behind Holocaust survivors recounting of the Jewish refugees on the St. Louis ship at the U.S. shore, and the Stonewall riots as the mythical origin story of the Gay Liberation movement. Igor questions the role of the omnipresent Netflix storytelling machine. Nic suggests that greater tolerance around sexuality can rob people of their once revolutionary identities. Charles learns that, when our lives are broken, we may have to choose between the path to wisdom and the path to happiness. Welcome to Episode 7.
If a typical white family in the US has 100 dollars, how many dollars does a typical black US family have? Wrong! Why are we so bad at guessing levels of inequality in society? How much of a role does your class play in preventing wise decision-making? Are upper and middle-class people especially bad at taking wise decisions? Why does more education equate to less wise reasoning in interpersonal affairs? And just how good are we at spotting someone’s class from their shoes or even eyes? Michael Kraus joins Igor and Charles to tease economic fact from fiction, discussing accuracy of class signalling, implications of new marshmallow-based research, woeful underestimations of inequality, and the roots of our convenient blindness. Igor breaks down surprising research suggesting that we should both pay more attention to how working class people approach interpersonal clashes and be wary of disruptive hipster beards, Michael forces us to look at the dark underbelly of the American dream, and Charles has questions about Jay-Z and the validity of cockney impersonations as a measurement tool. Welcome to Episode 6.
Do ‘wise people’ even exist? Do we have ‘wise characters’ or is our behaviour more influenced by ‘wise situations’? And if so, what kinds of situations best support wise behaviour? Eranda Jayawickreme joins Igor and Charles to discuss the classic battle royale of the person-situation debate, whole trait theory and the ever-controversial Stanford Prison experiment. Igor outlines the actor-observer bias and suggests that westerners should be more sympathetic to grumpy waitstaff, Eranda considers the motivations behind blaming bad apples vs bad barrels and the implications for the justice system, and Charles learns that overestimating the robustness of his own virtue can lead to all manner of perilous situations. Welcome to Episode 5.
Are emotions simply bugs in the system that prevent us from taking wise decisions? Or do they play an essential role in guiding us towards the wisest path? In short, should we be like hyper-rational cool-headed Mr Spock, or more like the emotionally sensitive Master Yoda? How much can we even observe and guide our emotions as they unfold anyway? And are emotionally intelligent geniuses necessarily more moral than the rest of us? Stéphane Côté joins Igor and Charles to discuss the science of emotional intelligence, machivellian deviants, emotional super-readers, deep-acting vs surface-acting emotional management, and why you can’t hide your motivations from airport customs agents. Igor uncovers the mechanics of the jingle-jangle fallacy, Stéphane warns of the ‘danger zones’ highly empathic people enter when discussing the attractiveness of friends with their partners, and Charles finally understands why you shouldn’t sit opposite someone you don’t like in a team meeting. Welcome to Episode 4.
Why do we avoid thinking about our own death? How does contemplating our own mortality change our day-to-day behaviour? Why do drivers, when reminded of the fact that they will die, actually drive even faster? Whilst society typically hides death from us, might certain death reflection scenarios actually lead to the development of wisdom? Laura Blackie has considered these and many related questions, and joins Igor and Charles to discuss Terror Management Theory, Death Reflection, and the potential upsides of contemplating our own demise. Igor dismisses a death clock which tells him he won’t live as long as Charles, Laura outlines the possible prosocial benefits of imagining a painful and horrible death, and Charles admits to spending too much time thinking about whether his funeral will be well attended. Welcome to Episode 3.
Does wisdom really come with age? Or is this an outdated myth from a bygone era? How might wisdom develop in a brain that’s ageing? Or perhaps by ‘age’, are we really talking about ‘experience’? If so, do all experiences lead to wisdom, or only bad ones? If old people can be foolish, can young people ever be wise? And how on earth do you even gather reliable evidence across generations? Igor brings sad news of declining brain function to anyone over 25 and cautions against seeking out traumatic experiences as a strategy for developing wisdom, whilst Charles is forced to rethink his whole position on Jude Law. Welcome to Episode 2.
What’s the difference between someone who’s smart and someone who’s wise? If you can you be intelligent without being wise, can you be wise without also being intelligent? If wisdom’s so essential for taking good decisions, what’s driving our exclusive obsession with intelligence? And which is really more helpful in our daily lives? Igor describes some surprising fighter-plane-based scenarios when wisdom is as useless as intelligence and Charles explains how open-ended questioning in the classroom comes with its own unique set of risks. Welcome to Episode 1 of the On Wisdom podcast.
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