Wisdom Is Just a Temporary State of Mind

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Photo: W. Drew Senter, Longleaf Photography/Getty Images

Despite all the effort we put into staving off old age, getting older isn’t without its benefits. Some are smaller pleasures, like the discounts and the freedom to be crotchety in public if you so choose. Some are more significant: Research suggests, for example, that after age 50, people become steadily happier into their later years, peaking at age 85. And, of course, older typically means wiser.

But new research suggests that we may have been thinking about wisdom all wrong — that it’s not necessarily a long-term state we settle into, or a trait we hone over time, but a fleeting mind-set that comes and goes. A study recently published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science and highlighted by Christian Jarrett at BPS Research Digest argues that when someone shows wisdom, it’s not because they’re an inherently wise person; it’s because, at that moment, they happen to be thinking wisely. Maybe they’ll think the same way next time, but maybe they won’t.

Over a period of nine days, the 152 study volunteers wrote a digital diary entry each morning outlining one negative thing that had happened to them the day before, including “the circumstances of the incident, the time, location, presence of other people, and activities they were involved in.” After a period of guided reflection, they then wrote a separate entry describing how they felt about the incident — “their subjective construal of the experience, emotional intensity and complexity, and forgiveness” — as well as the degree to which they used “wise reasoning,” which the experiment defined as “intellectual humility, self-transcendence, and concern for different perspectives and compromise.”

When the researchers their participants’ responses over the length of the study period, they found that they rarely showed the same level of wise reasoning from day to day. “Yes, if they averaged a person’s wisdom across the nine-day study period, some people did tend to show more wisdom than others,” Jarrett explained. “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.”

In other words, as the study authors argued, it may be nearly impossible for psychologists to accurately gauge a person’s wisdom from a single example or a lone survey question; based on their model, they hypothesized that it’d take at least nine separate tests to form a complete picture. At least one thing held true, though: Across all the traits they measured, the only one that had any significant influence on a person’s average level of wisdom was age. Getting older does mean getting wiser — just not wiser all the time.