How to Become Wiser

research Jan 21, 2020

By Dr. Robert Biswas-Diener

Imagine this simple scenario: Your friend comes to you and asks your advice on an issue. Your friend doesn’t provide much by way of details but says, “a fifteen-year-old girl wants to get married and move out of her parents’ house. What would you recommend?” Again, you don’t have any additional information. What would you advise? This is precisely the type of situation that psychologists from Berlin have used for years to assess the concept of wisdom. The researchers reasoned—correctly in my opinion—that people’s answers will vary in sophistication. Some folks will offer thoughtful insights while others will offer poor advice. The difference between the two types of recommendations is a measure of the wisdom of the respective people participating in the study. 

So, you’re probably curious to know what a wise response to this scenario looks like; perhaps you are eager to see how your own reaction stacks up. The least sophisticated responses included those that reflected simplistic black-and-white thinking. These included knee-jerk statements such as “It is obviously a mistake for such a young person to try to make it on her own” or “Fifteen is too young to get married.” By contrast, responses that tried to understand the fifteen-year-old’s situation were deemed to be wiser. These included acknowledgments that “every circumstance is different” or that “in some cultures, people marry relatively early.” The wisest responses are often mixed, such as one that is sensitive to the potential problems of a young person taking on important life responsibilities,  but also open to certain situations in which it might be advisable. 

Wisdom is a topic that has fascinated scholars since antiquity. Philosophers and theologians alike have devoted countless pages to defining wisdom. I hope it’s not too disrespectful to the likes of Plato and Aristotle if I mention that most of what they write is on the boring side. Exhibit A: Plato writes, “Let us suppose that wisdom is such as we are now defining, and that she has absolute sway over us; then each action will be done according the arts or sciences, and no one professing to be a pilot when he is not, or a physician or general or anyone else who is pretending to know matters of which he is ignorant, will deceive or elude us.” It’s a long sentence, and something of a snooze-fest. To boil down this complex topic to its minimum viable product let me suggest that the great thinkers of the past more or less agreed that wisdom was special. It was a different animal than its conceptual cousins “intelligence” and “knowledge.” In short, wisdom appears to be special because it brings together knowledge and action. It is, in other words, “practical knowledge,” or that which is intended to be used. By contrast, regular old knowledge, such as knowing the date that Neil Armstrong first walked on the moon or being able to explain photosynthesis is mostly not usable. These types of facts are good for impressing people at a dinner party or winning a television game show, but not for much more than that. 

Wisdom is more “knowing how to” rather than “knowing what.” Understanding how to keep a marriage together or how to advocate on behalf of a family member who is in the hospital. That’s wisdom. The good news is that wisdom is something that has caught the attention of modern scientists. They have researched the topic for decades and discovered many interesting findings. Did they discover that fake pilots and imposter physicians shall not deceive us? Not so much. They did, however, discover some interesting facts about age and about how wisdom is developed (spoiler alert: you can learn it!). 

Stereotypes Of Wisdom

The stereotype of the “wise man” was probably the first-ever meme. Long before kitten photos, or Boromir’s warning that “one does not simply walk into Morder,” became handy memes for humor and politics, there was the image of a cross-legged guru sitting alone high on the mountain. This image has become so iconic that the New Yorker magazine has a whole line of cartoons devoted to the premise of a person climbing up to have an audience with the sage. In one cartoon, the person asks “how do I get down?” and in another the guru, staring at a smartphone, holds up a finger in the universal “I’ll be with you in just a sec” gesture. 

What’s interesting about this meme is what it reflects about our popular notions of wisdom. Most notably, the guru is on the older side. It’s never a pimple faced teenager, or even a newly married professional. It’s a guy with gray hair and a long gray beard. A Rip Van Winkle type who, instead of sleeping his life away, has somehow accumulated a wheelbarrow full of wisdom. The stereotype of the wise elderly is so ubiquitous, in fact, that there is a common adage, “with age comes wisdom.” The suggestion is that wisdom is acquired, but only very slowly; one second, then minute, and then hour at a time. In sharp contrast to this idea, researchers find—time and again—that age is not correlated with wisdom. 25-year-olds can be wise or foolish, as can those who are 55 or 75. Scholars do seem to agree that children and teenagers are not particularly wise. I can offer clear proof of this: I once heard a thumping sound on my back porch and discovered that it was my teenage son and his buddy jumping off the roof, just for fun. So, somewhere between thinking that jumping off the roof is a good idea and knowing that it is not is where wisdom begins. 

Researchers have also identified a few characteristics of wisdom. They have clunky, academic names such as “lifespan contextualism.” It’s as if modern scholars hired Plato to be their writing coach. If you unwrap all the jargon, however, there are some pretty good gifts inside. Some of the important features of wisdom are recognizing the limits of one’s own knowledge. Knowing that you don’t know everything and, in some cases, knowing that things might not even be knowable. That is, wise people can cope with a bit of uncertainty. Should a fifteen-year-old get married? Probably not in most circumstances, but probably in some circumstances? How can we know for certain which circumstances are which? We can’t. And wise people accept this. 

Wise people also seem to understand that values, morals, and prescriptions for how to live have a bit of relativity. This can be an unsettling concept because it suggests that people can just act however they want without consequence. Nothing could be further from the truth. Instead, the idea that morality is relative suggests that there are some broad guidelines—people shouldn’t steal other people’s stuff, for example—but these guidelines may not apply equally to every situation. For instance, imagine a city flattened by an earthquake. The citizens arrive at one of the few stores still standing and demand the water, medicine, or food necessary to survive. The shopkeeper refuses and tells the crowd that “Because of the laws of supply and demand, the goods are now four times their normal price.” The people cannot afford to pay the price, and outside aid will not come in time to save them. A wise person might acknowledge that, in this rare circumstance, stealing the food and other items is acceptable, because the value of human life in this particular case outweighs the value of the goods. 

Researchers also discovered that wisdom can be learned. That’s right, there are a few techniques you can employ to boost your wisdom quotient. Fortunately, all of them are quicker to accomplish than living for decades and easier to achieve than climbing to the top of a mountain. We will focus on one of these here.

Wisdom Can Be Learned 

It seems odd that there might be simple techniques that could enhance wisdom. If these techniques exist, why haven’t they been taught in school, or handed out at pamphlets to people who win the lottery, or posted at bars? Why did Socrates write, “….nor does any man who is wise seek after wisdom?” Perhaps the answer lies in the common belief that wisdom is accumulated through experience. Perhaps because people don’t know the research of Ursula Staudinger. Dr. Ursula Staudinger has spent decades researching wisdom. She has published hundreds of chapters and articles. Her work has been cited more than 16 thousand times. She has held teaching positions at elite universities, including Stanford. In short, she’s smarter than you or me, and she’s tested some interesting methods to boost wisdom.

One of these might best be described as the “two heads are better than one” technique. Scholars have long known about the so-called “wisdom of crowds.” That is, the phenomenon in which a group of people are more accurate than a single person. The classic example is from research by Sir Francis Galton. Galton was a cousin of Charles Darwin, and something of a research genius. He had the idea of understanding genetic influences on behavior by studying twins. He also invented correlation, the questionnaire, fingerprinting, the weather map, and was the first person to study the topic of genius. Among his most famous studies was one conducted at a fair, in which he enjoined the gathered crowd to guess the weight of an ox. He compared the average answers to those of single answers offered by experts such as farmers and ox owners. Galton discovered that the average of the crowd answer was spot on, and certainly better than the expert estimates. His conclusion was that crowds are “wiser” than individuals. 


In this same spirit, the Ursula Staudinger research team brought participants into the lab and had them consider tough scenarios. In one condition, they had people consider the scenarios, such as a 15-year-old getting married, in isolation before coming up with a recommendation. In another condition, they had people retreat in pairs to discuss the situation before offering advice. Just as Galton could predict weather, he also could have predicted the results of this study: discussing the issue with another person led to wiser recommendations. 

Now, here’s where I think it gets really cool: Staudinger and her colleagues also tested a variation of this intervention. In the second trial, the research team had their study participants hold an imaginary conversation about the scenario. This condition, called “internal dialogue” asked people to retreat by themselves to consider the difficult scenarios. They were further instructed to consider the types of input they would imagine they might receive from people whose advice they value. Interestingly, simply imagining a conversation with wise counselors increased people’s wisdom as much as the actual conversations did. This suggests that the next time you are faced with a predicament—should I take the new job, should I let my son teenage son go to the party, should I ignore this email—you would do well to mull over your options with a cast of imaginary characters. Your mother perhaps, or your best friend, or a college mentor. Picture what they might say. This very process of reflection mirrors wisdom itself: it acknowledges that one person is limited, and that many points of view can be valid. It encourages you to consider a wider range of options. 

A Word To The Wise

As we wrap up, I can guess what you are thinking. If this simple mental technique can improve the sophistication of personal decisions then why did you never teach it to your son? You might also be thinking “Hey! Wasn’t your son with his friend? Weren’t there two of them? Shouldn’t that have made them wiser?” The truth is, for the two-heads-are-better-than-one technique to work, at least one of the heads has to recognize the potential problems of jumping off the roof of a house. At least one of the people giving input must be like Boromir, from Lord of the Rings, cautioning, “it is folly!” And here, finally, we end with a piece of sage advice about wisdom. Surround yourself with wise people. Take their council and learn from it. Not only will it likely lead to better decisions and more success, but you—in turn—will be able to pass down wisdom to others in the future.

About the Author 

Dr. Robert Biswas-Diener is widely known as the “Indiana Jones of Positive Psychology” because his research on happiness and other positive topics has taken him to such far-flung destinations as Greenland, Kenya, India and Israel. Robert works as a researcher, coach, and coach trainer at Positive Acorn. He lives in Portland, Oregon (USA) and rock climbs whenever possible.

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