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The Older-and-Wiser Hypothesis

A month back there was an article of the same title in the NY Times Magazine by Stephen Hall. It's interesting description of social scientists' efforts to define and quantify wisdom. Some highlights:

As an ancient concept and esteemed human value, wisdom has historically been studied in the realms of philosophy and religion...It is only in the last three decades that wisdom has received even glancing attention from social scientists.

...a general thread running through modern wisdom research is that wise people tend to be humble and "other-centered" as opposed to self-centered.

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; humility; and a knack for learning from lifetime experiences.

Clayton went off to consult the "literature" on wisdom, which almost mirrored the central canon of Western civilization. She rummaged through the Hebrew Bible for clues to wise behavior, analyzed the stories of Job and King Solomon, parsed the meaning of ancient proverbs. "What emerged from that analysis," she says, "was that wisdom meant a lot of different things. But it was always associated with knowledge, frequently applied to human social situations, involved judgment and reflection and was almost always embedded in a component of compassion." 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.

One instrument the Baltes group developed to measure wisdom was posing open-ended, hypothetical questions like the one about the 15-year-old girl who wanted to marry. (In their view, a reply garnering a low wisdom-related 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.") These vignettes located wisdom firmly in the universe of problem-solving around significant life events - from issues like choosing a career versus child-rearing to facing decisions about early retirement to dealing with a diagnosis of cancer. The Germans were among the first to reach what is now a widespread conclusion: There's not a lot of wisdom around.

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, which, according to the habit of psychological measures, is designated "3D-WS." 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.

...the implication is that people 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.

...there are strong hints that wisdom is associated with an earlier exposure to adversity or failure. That certainly seems to be the case with emotional regulation...

It's interesting that "an inflexible, authoritative response" is not considered to be associated with wisdom. Also that emotional stability, the ability to regulate negative emotions and to bounce back, etc. are important to wisdom.

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