Wisdom is more of a state than a trait


By Christian Jarrett

We all know the kind of person who did really well at school and uni but can’t seem to help themselves from forever making bad mistakes in real life. And then there are those characters who might not be surgeons or rocket scientists but have this uncanny ability to deal calmly and sagely with all the slings and arrows of life. We might say that the first kind of person, while intelligent, lacks wisdom; the second kind of character, by contrast, has wisdom in abundance. The assumption in both cases is that wisdom is a stable trait – how much someone has is an essential part of their psychological profile and remains constant through their life.

But a new study says this way of viewing wisdom is mistaken. The research in Social Psychological and Personality Science used a diary approach to gauge people’s wisdom in response to everyday problems, and the results showed that there is more variation in one person’s wisdom from one situation to the next, than there is variation in the average wisdom between people. Wisdom, it seems, is more of a state than a trait.

Igor Grossman and his colleagues recruited 152 men and women in Germany (average age 27) to complete a daily diary for nine days. Each day they were emailed and asked to recall a specific negative experience from the previous day, to describe it in detail, including how they responded. Most of the recalled experiences were arguments or disputes of some kind. To look for signs of wisdom the researchers specifically asked the participants to say whether they showed intellectual humility (for example, realising that they couldn’t know for sure what the consequences of the incident would be) and self-transcendence (for example, seeing the situation from the perspective of different people).

The researchers found that there was considerable variation in how much wisdom people showed from one situation to the next. Yes, if they averaged a person’s wisdom across the nine-day study period, some people did tend to show more wisdom than others. But this difference between individuals in average wisdom was smaller than the fluctuations in wisdom typically shown by individuals from one situation to the next.

What’s more, it was a person’s display of wisdom specific to a given situation, not their average or trait wisdom, that was more strongly associated with the psychological fall out they experienced from that situation. Put differently, handling a situation with greater wisdom than is normal for you is beneficial, for example in terms of experiencing less negative emotion, seeing the bigger picture and feeling more forgiving, whether your trait levels of wisdom are high or not. And conversely, being a generally wise person is little benefit for a specific situation if you happen to handle that situation unwisely (which was a common thing for people to do, regardless of their trait wisdom).

Another finding was that people generally tended to handle difficult situations with more wisdom when there were other people present, as compared to when they were on their own. The act of keeping the diary also seemed to lead to a general increase in wisdom levels (especially self-transcendence) as the study progressed, no doubt because the study prompted beneficial self reflection.

Of the various demographic measures that the researchers took, such as gender, education level and age, only age was related to average levels of wisdom shown across the study, with older people showing more wisdom.

The researchers said their results dovetail with “the recent shifts in views on malleability of other human characteristics that have long been regarded as fixed, such as intelligence, which are now seen as greatly influenced by sociocultural and motivational factors.” They also said their study suggests that the common practice in psychology, of measuring wisdom with a single questionnaire item, is likely to be flawed and unreliable. So too is the other usual practice of testing a person’s wisdom according to how they’d handle a particular situation. Because people’s wisdom varies so much from one situation to another, Grossman and his colleagues said you’d really need to test someone on at least nine separate occasions to get a handle on their trait levels of wisdom.

Wise Reasoning in the Face of Everyday Life Challenges

Christian Jarrett (@Psych_Writer) is Editor of BPS Research Digest.