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WISDOM--THE OLDER BUT WISER HYPOTHESIS

Updated on October 22, 2009

Wisdom

I read an interesting article about wisdom in the Sunday NY Times Magazine May 6, 2007. The article is linked below. Here are some of the observations I gleaned from the article

Wisdom, long a subject for philosophers, is now being scrutinized by a cadre of scientific researchers. The trick lies not just in measuring something so fuzzy but also in defining it in the first place.

Erick Erickson suggested that wisdom arose during the eighth and final stage of psychosocial development, which he described as "ego integrity versus despair."...Unfortunately for researchers who follow, Erickson didn't bother to define wisdom.

Thirty years after embarking on the empirical study of wisdom, psychologists still don't agree on an answer.

Wisdom isn't necessarily a product of old age, although reaching an advanced age increases the odds of acquiring the kinds of life experience and emotional maturity that cultivate wisdom. If you think you're wise you probably aren't. As Gandhi, who topped a survey naming wise people, said, "It is unwise to be too sure of one's own wisdom."

Certain qualities associated with wisdom recur in the academic literature: a clear-eyed view of human nature and the human predicament; emotional resiliency and the ability to cope in the face of adversity; an openness to other possibilities; forgiveness and humility; and a knack for learning from lifetime experiences.

Wisdom researcher Vivian Clayton's parents possessed an uncanny ability to remain calm in the midst of crises, made good decisions and conveyed an almost palpable sense of emotional contentment, often in the face of considerable adversity or uncertainty...They were always getting bombed (WWII). So he would sit with his mother while the bombs were falling, and when it was over, she would say, "Now we can have a cup of tea!" He knew what to respond to quickly, and what you had to reflect on.

The essential importance of balance was embodied in the Hebrew word for wisdom, "chochmah," which ancient peoples understood to evoke the combination of both heart and mind in reaching a decision.

Clayton laid several important markers on the field at its inception. She realized that "neither were the old always wise, nor the young lacking in wisdom.".....while intelligence represented a nonsocial and impersonal domain of knowledge that might diminish in value over a lifetime, wisdom represented a social, interpersonal form of knowledge about human nature that resisted erosion and might increase with age.

THE BERLIN WISDOM PARADIGM, as it came to be called, was built in part on research using hypothetical vignettes to discern wise and unwise responses to life dilemmas. "A 15-year-old girl wants to get married right away," one vignette suggested. "What should she consider and do?"

A wise person, according to the Berlin group, would say something like: "Well on the surface, this seems like an easy problem. On average, marriage for 15-year-old girls is not a good thing. But there are situations where the average case does not fit. Perhaps in this instance special life circumstances are involved, such as the girl has a terminal illness.Or the girl has just lost her parents. And also this girl may live in another culture or historical period. Perhaps she was raised with a value system different from ours. In addition, one must think about adequate ways of talking with the girl and to consider her emotional state."

The reply may seem tentative and relativistic, but it reflects many aspects of wisdom as defined by the Berlin Wisdom Project...Boiled down to its essence, the Berlin Paradigm defined wisdom as "an expert knowledge system concerning the fundamental pragmatics of life.

[The discussion at this point reminded me of a saying by St. Thomas Aquinas sometimes cited by the smartest boss I ever had: "Seldom affirm. Never Deny. ALWAYS DISTINGUISH."]

"Wisdom in action," as the Berlin group put it, might manifest itself as good judgment, shrewd advice, psychological insight, emotional regulation and empathetic understanding; it could be found in familial interactions, in formal writing and in the relationship between a student and mentor or a doctor and patient.

In their view a response to the 15-year-old girl vignette garnering a low wisdom score would be an inflexible, authoritative, response like: "No, no way, marrying at age 15 would be utterly wrong. One has to tell the girl that marriage is not possible....No, this is just a crazy idea."

The Germans concluded that there's not a lot of wisdom around. Of the 700 people assessed, "we never found a single person who gained top scores across the board." They found no evidence that wisdom necessarily increases with age. Rather they identified a "plateau" of wisdom-related performance through much of middle and old age. A separate study by the group indicated that wisdom, on average, begins to diminish around age 75, probably hand in hand with cognitive decline.

HOW MIGHT EMOTION be important to wisdom? A 67-year-old woman who scored well above average on a wisdom scale developed by Monica Ardelt and despite considerable adversity, managed to maintain emotional equilibrium--"I don't sit around and dwell on bad things. I don't have time for it, really. There's so many good things you can do."

Clayton was interested in investigating measures of wisdom and looking at a trait that often goes by the name "resilience"---how some older people are able to deal with adversity and bounce back emotionally while others cannot.

In Ardelt's working definition, wisdom integrated three separate but interconnected ways of dealing with the world: cognitive, reflective and emotional. Hence a "three dimensional" wisdom scale. The cognitive aspect, for example, included the ability to understand human nature, perceive a situation clearly and make decisions despite ambiguity and uncertainty. The reflective sphere dealt with a person's ability to examine an event from multiple perspectives--to step outside oneself and understand another point of view. And the emotional aspect primarily involved feeling compassion toward others as well as an ability to remain positive in the face of adversity.

One of the individuals studied was an 86-year-old African American man who had experienced considerable adversity. He commented "I've had as much bad things to happen as good things, but I've never allowed any outside force to take possession of my being. That means , whenever I had a problem I went to something wholesome to solve it." One of the "wholesome" things that helped, he said, was bowling.

Wise people learn from previous negative experiences. They are able to step outside themselves and assess a troubling situation with calm reflection. They recast a crisis as a problem to be addressed, a puzzle to be addressed. They take action in situations they can control and accept the inablity to do so when matters are outside their control.

People who rated high in wisdom, Ardelt adds, were "very generous," both financially and emotionally; among those who rated low in wisdom,"there was this occupation with the self."

Older people seem to have figured out how to manage their emotions in a profoundly important way. Compared with younger people, they experience negative emotions less frequently, exercise better control over their emotions and rely on a complex and nuanced emotional thermostat that allows them to bounce back quickly from adverse moments.....Older people with a more positive attitude toward old age lived seven and a half years longer...The implication is that eiople who learn, or somehow train themselves, to modulate their emotions are better able to manage stress and bounce back from adversity. Although they can register the negative, they have somehow learned not to get bogged down in it....

William James observed "The art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook."

The notion of wisdom is sufficiently universal that it raises other questions: Where does it come from, and how does one acquire it? Surprisingly, a good deal of evidence, both anecdotal and empirical, suggests that the seeds of wisdom are planted earlier in life--certainly earlier than old age, often earlier than middle age and possibly even earlier than young adulthood. ...The Berlin Group reported tht the roots of wisdom can be traced, in some cases, to adolescence.

Vivian Clayton turned the conversation to bees. "You know, bees have been around for hundreds of millions of years, at least, as living creatures, and when you work a hive, and you hear how contented the bees are, you just have the sense that they have the pulse of the universe encoded in their genes. And I really think that the concept of wisdom is like that, too. Somehow, like the bees, we are programmed to understand when someone has been wise. But what wisdom is, and how one learns to be wise, is still a mystery."

[The above was borrowed and summarized from the New York Times Sunday Magazine article by Stephen S. Hall. In my opinion, the entire article is worth reading.]

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    • profile image

      RobSchneider 

      6 years ago

      I just discovered the article you are referring to today and was going to write a hub about it myself, but you said it all. Great hub and voted up.

      PS: Your article was #1 on Google when I googled "Berlin Wisdom Paradigm"

    • Melovy profile image

      Yvonne Spence 

      7 years ago from UK

      This is an interesting article. I’ve had a tendency to think I should grow wiser as I grow older, but in truth I’ve seen wisdom in the very old and in the very young, way younger than adolescence. My feeling is that wisdom is in each and every one of us, and it’s just that sometimes we forget how to access it.

    • learntosail profile image

      learntosail 

      8 years ago

      Cool article Ralph. The point about wise people being giving is quite valid in my view. Thanks again.

      John

    • profile image

      daytripeer 

      8 years ago

      I really enjoyed this hub Ralph; it is very interesting. I would say I am wise enough to know that I am not smart and smart enough to know I am not wise. I have a feeling you have developed a fair amount of wisdom. :-)

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