How wisdom is needed to solve complex problems

Traditionally, philosophers have studied wisdom. But within psychology, this subject has received relatively little attention until recently, especially when compared to a subject like intelligence. But this has changed in recent years. There has been more consensus on what we mean by wisdom, to what extent it occurs in humans and what it correlates with. Grossmann & Brienza (2018) describe in a new article how wisdom can make a unique contribution to solving the complex issues of our time.  

What is wisdom

Psychologists currently researching wisdom ('wise reasoning') generally describe it according to four characteristics: 1) intellectual modesty, 2) recognition of uncertainty, 3) considering different perspectives, and 4) trying to integrate of these perspectives. In the chart below, Grossmann & Brienza explain what is meant by these four attributes of wisdom.

Wisdom complements intelligence 

The authors explain how the social focus on increasing knowledge and intelligence in many areas has led to enormous developments and progress. But these forms of knowledge and intelligence are not enough to cope with certain types of problems in society and in our personal lives. Examples of such problems are conflicts between groups and individuals, sustainability issues, and inequality. Wisdom is needed to solve these kinds of problems, according to the authors. Their central proposition is that intelligence (/ knowledge) is not sufficient but must be supplemented with wisdom. 

How wisdom can help 

In their article they discuss empirical evidence to support this statement. In doing so, they walk through the following five domains: national happiness, leadership, sustainability, inequality and the public debate. Below I highlight some of their points: 

  1. National happiness: research has shown that intelligence does not correlate with subjective well-being, but wisdom does. New longitudinal US research has shown that wisdom is associated with positive emotions and life satisfaction. 
  2. Leadership: Using some examples, the authors explain how the four attributes of wisdom are important for modern leadership. They further point out that wisdom is not a stable personality trait of leaders. It turns out that the wisdom of individuals varies greatly across situations and over time. 
  3. Sustainability: many modern social issues are very complex in the sense that they involve all kinds of different interests and opinions and that uncertainty and change play a major role. The four characteristics of wisdom can help to arrive at a balanced and supported approach to such issues. 
  4. Inequality: The authors describe how the emphasis on economic goals has led to greater individualism in a country like the US. In addition, economic inequality in the US has increased sharply. Recent research has shown that there is a relationship between economic class and wisdom. People from lower economic classes generally show more wise behavior than people from higher classes. So the worrying observation is that the wealthier individuals (with more power) are slightly less likely to make wiser decisions. At the same time, it is interesting to see that people from lower backgrounds should not be defined only in terms of shortages. They not only lack something (money, power) but also have something extra (inclination to wisdom). 
  5. Public Debate: In the US and Europe, there are many concerns about debate coarsening, polarization and apathy. Recent research shows that wise reasoning can help bridge the opposition between opponents, lead to leniency and to a less strong political bias.

Paths to wisdom 

The authors describe several ways to promote wisdom. First they mention education. Wisdom is not a stable and fixed personal characteristic, which is a strong indication for the malleability and teachability of wisdom. Wisdom could become part of the curriculum of education and company training. A central skill in these courses and training could be to overcome the tendency to self-centeredness. One of the most effective ways to promote wisdom is by teaching people to look at their own perspective and importance from a distance. In addition, specific changes in the structures and contexts in which people function can evoke wisdom. Part of this could be nudges aimed at increasing wisdom. But also think of mentorships, checklists, procedures, mottos, and the like. 


I see the article by Grossmann and Brienza as a good starting point. It is not yet a detailed plan for the increasing wisdom but rather a well-reasoned invitation to get started and to do more research.