Associate Professor of Psychology Igor Grossmann
On Wisdom and Real Decisions
Igor Grossmann is an Associate 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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
I have not seen a clearly specified psychologically-informed model explaining how (and what kind of) direct experiences would translate into wise reasoning.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.