On Wisdom, Personality Adjustment and Growth
Ursula M. Staudinger is Founding Director of The Columbia Aging Centre and a lifespan psychologist. As well as having developed the much-celebrated Berlin Wisdom Paradigm with Paul Baltes in the 1980s, she has more recently developed the Bremen Measure of Personal Wisdom.
Following her presentation at the Center for Practical Wisdom Research Forum 2017 in Chicago, she spoke with evidencebasedwisdom about her most recent work on the critical relationship between wisdom, personality adjustment and growth. She also discussed her distinction between general wisdom and personal wisdom, her research regarding the wisdom of interactive minds, and why stable societies reserve wisdom for the few.
Audio excerpts from this conversation can be heard in the EBW Podcast: Wisdom Reloaded.
Do you have a definition of wisdom that you find the most helpful in your work?
Yes indeed. We have defined wisdom as deep insight and sound judgement in the fundamental issues of life, which are characterised by high uncertainty, usually.
Beyond this definition of wisdom, we have devised five quality criteria, if you wish, to determine whether a certain judgement is wiser or less wise, because as you know with wisdom, there is no right or wrong, and so you have to have criteria along which judgement is wiser.
So to just give you three of the five, one is called ‘lifespan contextualism’, which means that wise judgement embeds this fundamental life problem in a timescale so it understands that it has a history, how it developed, and that it has short-term/long-term consequences, and it is also embedding the problem across different life domains. A difficult problem may arise, for instance, in the work domain. However, someone who has wise judgement realises that this has interconnections with your private life, your family life, with other areas in your life.
We have defined wisdom as deep insight and sound judgement in the fundamental issues of life, which are characterised by high uncertainty, usually.
Then there’s the dimension of ‘value relativism’, which is actually very crucial. It means that wise judgement has an understanding that people come to a problem with different value priorities, and that those value priorities come out of their history and their biography, and you bring your own values to a given problem situation. The wiser the judgement is, the better the person is able to balance these different values and priorities settings.
Finally the most difficult one of all is the realisation, and then the management of the uncertainties in life, which we don’t like as human beings at all, because we like to have control. We like to be able to plan, but life is the opposite. Life is full of surprises. It always goes other ways, and a wise judgement makes it possible to incorporate this uncertainty that is inherent in human life, and actually make the most out of it, by always being open to revising what you thought before, if new evidence, and maybe even contradictory evidence, comes up.
You spoke today in your talk about the difference between personal wisdom and general wisdom. That’s probably a distinction that members of the public might be unfamiliar with. Can you tell us a little bit about that distinction?
You can think and judge and reason about fundamental problems of life in general, as you observe them in other people or you read about them or you hear about them, or you can have this kind of deep judgement about your own life and the problems that are occurring in your own life.
You have through your work identified a number of procedures or interventions that actually increase wisdom-related performance. Would you be able to tell us a little about some of those?
One intervention study that we did, and that turned out to be highly successful, was to say ‘Wisdom is a handful. It’s really hard for one person to have it in one head. How about testing the idea that if we brought two heads together, they could come up with wiser judgement?’ That’s what we did in one study, which we called ‘Interactive minds.’
The design was that we invited people to our lab, and they were to bring a person with whom they confide about difficult life issues. Then, we brought these people to our procedure, to think aloud about difficult life problems. In one group, they did that together. They discussed the problem for half an hour. Then they were taken to separate rooms to actually give their final response.
The other group was separated when they came to the lab. They just thought individually about the difficult problem, and then gave their responses.
What we found was that the group that had a chance basically to brainstorm, if you wish, with this confidant about the difficult life problem before then going to a room and having some time to reflect about the brainstorm and then gave their answer – they had a highly improved performance over the people that thought about it alone, but also, over the people who after the brainstorm immediately had to give their answers.
So we took from this that, one setting which facilitates wisdom-related judgement is to expose yourself to a multitude of perspectives and different angles and then have some reflection time to weigh and cross-out and maybe revise your own thoughts, and then give your advice or your judgement on a difficult life situation.
So we took from this that, one setting which facilitates wisdom-related judgement is to expose yourself to a multitude of perspectives and different angles and then have some reflection time to weigh and cross-out and maybe revise your own thoughts, and then give your advice or your judgement on a difficult life situation. So that was highly efficient. Also, what we found is that, because we compared people across the adult age range, as we get older, we are better able to make use of this collective brainstorming if you wish.
It was interesting what you were saying today in your talk about the expectation that as we get older, you would expect that wisdom would come with age, but in fact sometimes there’s a narrowing of perspectives with increasing age. With self-knowledge we can become more certain about what we like or don’t like, and so we can tend towards being less open. Is there anything that can be done on a societal level to counteract this effect?
Actually, because this is such a crucial link to wisdom, I got really interested in ‘openness to new experience’ which is a personality characteristic which declines starting in midlife in our current times and societies. So we did an intervention study, which was actually a real-life programme that we were able to evaluate. The idea was to look at people who were volunteering who were all 55-plus.
Sometimes, they start volunteering and they encounter the volunteering setting, and they find that it doesn’t square with their expectations, they get frustrated, and they drop out rather quickly. It was actually a government programme that devised the curriculum. The intention was to empower volunteers to become more skilled at being a volunteer, rather than just assuming ‘because I have time and I’m older, I’m a good volunteer.’
It was a very short programme – nine days in total – and we were following the people who participated in the programme. We had a baseline assessment of ‘openness’, another assessment after the programme (which was three months later after the baseline assessment) and then another one twelve months later, so a total of fifteen months. We were able to compare it with the group on the waiting list for the programme – they were also volunteers but they had not yet participated.
What we found was that, after roughly six to seven months, the people who had participated and then continued to volunteer, they were on a very upward trend on ‘openness to new experience’, whereas the waiting group stayed flat and stable. We take this to say ‘One way to deal with an avoidance of novelty, if you wish, as we get older, is to provide the opportunities that make it likely that also in a new environment, you’ll be successful. And if you provide the skills to people that help them grow in confidence that they can be successful, then they do have positive experiences.’
We take this to say ‘One way to deal with an avoidance of novelty, if you wish, as we get older, is to provide the opportunities that make it likely that also in a new environment, you’ll be successful. And if you provide the skills to people that help them grow in confidence that they can be successful, then they do have positive experiences.’
It’s like a positive spiral, as compared to, first of all, not even providing the opportunities for novel experiences, and secondly just expecting everyone to deal with it themselves, leading to failures and negative emotions that people try and stay away from if they can. So I think there are some easy ways, even in the labour market, to counteract this closing in on openness.
So the assumption that older people would of course be wiser leads to the assumption that they would automatically be able to handle novel situations. In fact, you’re saying that older people still need skills training if they’re going to be successful at something they take on later?
Yes, and I mean a lot of volunteers I think were very surprised by what they encountered in the volunteering setting. They found that it wasn’t such that people were waiting there with open arms: ‘Oh finally you’ve come Mr Smith, with all your time and your experience.’ That’s not the way it is. Actually you need to take yourself back a lot, if you want to make a contribution.
You spoke today about two different types of response to life’s challenges – ‘adjustment’ and ‘growth.’ You were describing how the interaction between them perhaps gives us the most likely hope of moving in the direction of wisdom. Could you tell us a little bit about that?
Yes. Actually this is an insight from the personality literature, which has taught us over the last decades that, as we walk through life, we make progress on certain dimensions of our personality just by getting older – it’s quite wonderful! We become more agreeable. We become more conscientious. We become more emotionally balanced, have higher environmental mastery, become more self-acceptant and have more positive relationships with others.
At the same time, we become less open to new experience. We unfortunately lose purpose in life. We lose our incentive for further growth, and we lose out on autonomy.
So there are two streams. On the one hand, the one that improves with age, describes how we actually get better in the way we adjust in the community in that we are living in society. We are dealing with the tasks that are given to us and we are successful. We are mastering them. We maintain our wellbeing. We are good with others. This is very important – I always call it the social glue of society – because people who are conscientious, they are reliable. People who are agreeable are easy to deal with and they are not moody. So, it’s a very important piece in a community.
On the other hand, this decline in openness, this decline in purpose in life, the decline in the growth impetus, is a decline in our maturation towards growth and moving beyond ourselves – a bit grandiose, but that’s what growth is. That is actually what would lead us further towards wisdom. Currently what we observe is that, with age, this goes down rather than up.
From the most recent data analysis of our longitudinal data set, it seems that this movement towards adjustment provides an important launch pad for the potential for moving forward on growth. We found that one type of people did exactly that. They criss-crossed between moving forward on adjustment and moving forward on growth, and both profited towards, in the end in later life, being higher on wisdom.
We found that one type of people did exactly that. They criss-crossed between moving forward on adjustment and moving forward on growth, and both profited towards, in the end in later life, being higher on wisdom.
Meanwhile, the opposite group had more of an exclusive priority on adjustment, which is actually very much rewarded, because we may turn out to get a better salary. If we are more streamlined, if we are good to the boss, we maybe get a raise, whereas the person who questions the boss may not so easily get a raise, and so forth and so forth. So actually those people who prioritise adjustment and supress growth, they have the least chance of coming out with higher wisdom in late life.
So, as much as some level of adjustment is important to be able to have the degrees of freedom to think about growth, if you prioritise adjustment over growth, it is drying growth out, if you wish.
It’s an interesting contradiction to the kitchen-sink wisdom of ‘put a brave face on it – look at the silver lining.’ If we were to look at applying this research, how could you change society in a way that would perhaps nudge people away from always reaching for adjustment, and perhaps embracing the growth mentality more? Is there a way of turning that idea into something practical?
That is a tough one. First I would say, the fact that we find the most frequently observed movement is towards adjustment with age, suggests this is something which is, how should I say, functional for society, because these people are very valuable members and they make a contribution. So, you would not want to ‘nudge’, as you called it, too many people into too much growth, because what you then get is a lot of emancipated people who will call into question all the good ways that have been developed in a society. They will question whether that is really how we want to move forward and if that really is the best way to do things, and so forth, and so forth. If we have too many of those people in a society, it’s quite a revolutionary society in perpetuity, in a way.
Does that mean it’s unstable?
Yes. In the wisdom literature that goes back to the early days of humankind, you will find that wisdom is reserved for a few in a given society, and that has a good reason. I think it is very helpful for society to have a few wise people that can be turned to for advice and orientation at times of crisis, but then in between there is the safe ground of ‘adjustment’ guiding society, making it prosperous.
In the wisdom literature that goes back to the early days of humankind, you will find that wisdom is reserved for a few in a given society, and that has a good reason. I think it is very helpful for society to have a few wise people that can be turned to for advice and orientation at times of crisis, but then in between there is the safe ground of ‘adjustment’ guiding society, making it prosperous.
Then at a crucial turning point, it may be good to turn to the wise ones again, as compared to a society that is full of the wise, which may not find enough balance and steadiness.
So that makes a distinction between happiness and wisdom then. A society in which everyone was happy would be sustainable, but not a society in which everyone was wise?
It would be a society that would need to be prepared for constant change, which would be very exhausting.
The concept of wisdom has been around for millennia. The first empirical work on wisdom was your work on the development of the Berlin Wisdom Paradigm in the mid-eighties. Why is this renewed interest in wisdom happening now? Why not a hundreds years ago? Five hundred years ago? Is there something about the make-up of society today that is leading people to turn to wisdom, and perhaps engage with it more scientifically?
Yes indeed. There has been actually a very interesting philosophical analysis of that question. Around that time, it came out in the 70s and 80s, their analysis lead to the result that they thought it has to do with a greater pluralism in society.
Globalisation and the connection between different societies results in a merging of value systems, of opportunities, of how to lead your life. There are many options. With increasing living standards we have lots of options – which school to go to etc. For every single part of life we now have a lot of choice, which wasn’t the case in the past, and certainly not in the beginning of the twentieth century before the two world wars. It was much more streamlined and there was a much clearer pattern of what a good life was meant to be.
The analysis of the philosophers was that due to this pluralisation in options, more and more people looked for guidance and orientation, and wisdom through the millennia always had been turned to when there was a need for guidance and orientation. So it seems that in modern, postmodern and deconstructivist times, people more and more look for new guidance.
Globalisation and the connection between different societies results in a merging of value systems, of opportunities, of how to lead your life….. The analysis of the philosophers was that due to this pluralisation in options, more and more people looked for guidance and orientation, and wisdom through the millennia always had been turned to when there was a need for guidance and orientation. So it seems that in modern, postmodern and deconstructivist times, people more and more look for new guidance.
Of course one form of guidance that we can observe around the globe is fundamentalism. Some societies or groups in societies do away with the anxiety and the uncertainty by returning back to clear-cut, black-and-white and easy rules, but let’s hope that the majority is still trying to embrace the plurality and make it such that it is easier for individuals to find their path in the plurality.
Why not have a look at the following videos, papers and articles to learn more about Staudinger’s work?
Conversations on Wisdom: Uncut Interview with Ursula Staudinger – In this video from the Center for Practical Wisdom at the University of Chicago, Staudinger discusses her early work on developing the much-respected Berlin Wisdom Paradigm and the controversial conflict between wisdom and happiness.
Wisdom: A Metaheuristic (Pragmatic) to Orchestrate Mind and Virtue Toward Excellence (Baltes & Staudinger, 2000) – In this paper, Staudinger and Baltes present an overview of the development of The Berlin Wisdom Paradigm.
Improving Wisdom: Video Presentation – In this talk at the University of Chicago’s Wisdom Research Forum 2015, Staudinger talks about the future direction of wisdom research and the essential role neuroscience will have to play for the field to develop in the years ahead.
Huffington Post: Wisdom Isn’t What You Think It Is, And It Doesn’t Always Come With Age – In this interview for The Huffington Post, Staudinger highlights 10 essential and surprising findings from the field of wisdom research.
Nobel Prize Dialogue Seoul 2017: The Positive Plasticity of Human Ageing – In this video stream, Staudinger discusses the modifiability of human ageing and the importance of cognitive training for an ageing population. Staudinger’s keynote can be viewed a 4:00:00.
EBW Podcast: Wisdom Reloaded – In this EBW podcast featuring many of the world’s leading experts in the field of wisdom research, Staudinger discusses the critical interplay between adjustment and growth on the path to wisdom development across the lifespan.
Personal Wisdom: Validation and Age-Related Differences of a Performance Measure (Mickler & Staudinger, 2008) – In this paper, Staudinger and colleagues outline the development of a performance measure for personal wisdom.
EBW article ‘The Berlin Wisdom Paradigm: An Expert Knowledge System’ – This EBW post outlines Staudinger and Baltes’s work on the Berlin Wisdom Paradigm in more detail. You can also see an EBW Graphic titled The Berlin Wisdom Paradigm here.
Ursula M. Staudinger’s site – Visit Staudinger’s own site where you can find up-to-date information on her ongoing research.
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