The Older-and-Wiser Hypothesis

The Older-and-Wiser Hypothesis
Published: May 6, 2007

In 1950, the psychoanalyst Erik H. Erikson, in a famous treatise on the phases of life development, identified wisdom as a likely, but not inevitable, byproduct of growing older. Wisdom arose, he suggested, during the eighth and final stage of psychosocial development, which he described as “ego integrity versus despair.” If an individual had achieved enough “ego integrity” over the course of a lifetime, then the imminent approach of infirmity and death would be accompanied by the virtue of wisdom. Unfortunately for researchers who followed, Erikson didn’t bother to define wisdom.

As an ancient concept and esteemed human value, wisdom has historically been studied in the realms of philosophy and religion. The idea has been around at least since the Sumerians first etched bits of practical advice — “We are doomed to die; let us spend” — on clay tablets more than 5,000 years ago. But as a trait that might be captured by quantitative measures, it has been more like the woolly mammoth of ideas — big, shaggy and elusive. It is only in the last three decades that wisdom has received even glancing attention from social scientists. Erikson’s observations left the door open for the formal study of wisdom, and a few brave psychologists rushed in where others feared to tread.

In some respects, they have not moved far beyond the very first question about wisdom: What is it? And it won’t give anything away to reveal that 30 years after embarking on the empirical study of wisdom, psychologists still don’t agree on an answer. But it is also true that the journey in many ways may be as enlightening as the destination.

From the outset, it’s easier to define what wisdom isn’t. First of all, it isn’t necessarily or intrinsically a product of old age, although reaching an advanced age increases the odds of acquiring the kinds of life experiences and emotional maturity that cultivate wisdom, which is why aspects of wisdom are increasingly attracting the attention of gerontological psychologists. Second, if you think you’re wise, you’re probably not. As Gandhi (who topped the leader board a few years ago in a survey in which college students were asked to name wise people) put it, “It is unwise to be too sure of one’s own wisdom.” Indeed, a general thread running through modern wisdom research is that wise people tend to be humble and “other-centered” as opposed to self-centered.

“Wisdom is really hard to study — really hard,” says Robert J. Sternberg, a former president of the American Psychological Association who edited “Wisdom: Its Nature, Origins and Development,” one of the first academic books on the subject, in 1990, and also edited, with Jennifer Jordan, “A Handbook of Wisdom” in 2005. “People tend to pooh-pooh wisdom because, well, you know, what’s that? And how could you possibly define it? Isn’t it culturally relative?” And yet Sternberg, who is the dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at Tufts University, says he believes the cultivation of wisdom — even though the concept is “big, important and messy” — is essential to the future of society.

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. And yet as psychologists have noted, there is a yin-yang to the idea that makes it difficult to pin down. Wisdom is founded upon knowledge, but part of the physics of wisdom is shaped by uncertainty. Action is important, but so is judicious inaction. Emotion is central to wisdom, yet detachment is essential.

If you think all those attributes sound fuzzy, vague and absolutely refractory to quantification, you’ve got a lot of company in the academic community. But there is a delicious paradox at the heart of the study of wisdom. As difficult as it is to define, the mere contemplation of a definition is an irresistible exercise that says a lot about who we aspire to become over the course of a lifetime and what we value as a society. And little pieces of that evolving definition of wisdom — especially the ability to cope with adversity and the regulation of emotion with age — have begun to attract researchers with brain-scanning machines and serious chops in neuroscience.

“It’s very intriguing, and it’s becoming a big issue in our field,” says Suzanne Kunkel, director of the Scripps Gerontology Center at Miami University in Ohio. She noted that the number of formal talks about wisdom and the aging process has increased significantly at professional meetings. “Part of me is a little skeptical,” she says, reflecting the compelling ambivalence the subject elicits, “and part of me thinks there’s something there.”

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