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Getting Wise: How is Wisdom Really Acquired?

By on April 20, 2012One Comment

How to wise up?

In my book Overload! How Too Much Information Is Hazardous To Your Organization, I wrote that the three trickiest words in the English language may very well be “information,” “knowledge,” and “wisdom.”

To say that their meanings, as well as the concepts behind them, overlap is a gross understatement.

With respect to the word “wisdom,” I’ve long sought a better understanding of its meaning. The explanation David Goldes and I developed for wisdom over a decade ago was that it was “knowledge with human interpretation added.”

It has long been a stereotype of wisdom that it is something one accumulates as one gets older. A study two years ago by Igor Grossmann at the University of Waterloo suggested as much. He found that older Americans were wiser than younger ones. A new study by Grossmann, recently published in the journal Psychological Science, follows Grossmann’s investigations in this area in Asia, specifically Japan.

What Grossmann found in Japan is that younger people were almost as wise as their elders.

Grossmann contrasted tests performed on 186 Japanese and 225 Americans. The tests included reading a series of (fictional) newspaper articles, half of which described conflicts between different interest groups (local residents versus a large foreign corporation, for example). The remaining articles were make-believe advice columns where the questions concerned conflict amongst people (such as with one’s spouse, relative, friend, boss, etc.).

Each participant in the study was asked “What do you think will happen after that?” and “Why do you think it will happen this way?”

The responses were analyzed using the five crucial aspects of wise reasoning: namely, a willingness to seek opportunities to resolve conflict; a willingness to search for compromise; the recognition of the limits of personal knowledge; an awareness that more than one perspective on a problem can exist; and the appreciation of the fact that things may get worse before they get better.

Scoring ranged from one to three where one indicated that no consideration was given to the problem in the answer and three indicated a great deal of consideration.

Using a scale from 0 to 100, Dr. Grossmann and his team found that the average intergroup wisdom score at age 25 was 45 and at 75, it was 55. The interpersonal score was 46 at 25 and 50 at 75.

Reading Grossmann’s study didn’t help me refine my definition of wisdom but it was enlightening to see the difference in scores in two very different societies. While his numbers suggest that, at least in Japan, wisdom is not connected to age, it is only one study, albeit a very interesting one.

The fact that wisdom continues to be the source of scientific enquiry, however, does give me hope that we’ll improve our understanding of knowledge and wisdom in this age of Information Overload. As for me, I continue to optimistically assume that I get wiser each and every day, except on those trips I make to Japan every so often.

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex and author of Overload! How Too Much Information Is Hazardous To Your Organization.


One Comment »

  • steuart says:

    Hi Jonathon,

    For what it’s worth, my understanding of wisdom is that it is the correct or appropriate ‘application’ of knowledge.

    And a factor that may be at play in the differences between the Japanese and American age of wisdom could be that the Japanese live in such a densely populated country that they have had to become very good at interpersonal skills at an earlier age?

    Thansk for your regular posts – enjoying the insights.

    All the best!

    Steuart Snooks

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