The importance of wisdom and how we can teach it

Intelligence is relatively important in both psychology and Western societies. Two Canadian psychologists have pointed out the importance of other aspects of our cognitive functioning that they consider to be just as important and have wrongly received less attention. One is Keith Stanovich who argues for much more attention to rationality. The other is Igor Grossmann who points out the great importance of wise reasoning. In two new articles that he co-wrote with colleagues, he explains what wise reasoning is, why it is so important and how we can teach it. 

The importance of wise reasoning for individuals, organizations and society 

Grossmann & Brienza (2018) explain that the development and application of intelligence has led to great scientific, medical and societal progress. At the same time, there is great complexity, threat, confusion and polarization in our societies. Intelligence is necessary, according to Grossmann & Brienza, but not sufficient to solve these last types of ill-defined problems. Intelligence is very suitable and important for solving well-defined problems, such as mathematical, physical, technical, or certain financial problems. However, social issues are often much less definable, often do not have an unambiguous answer and require not only intelligence but also wisdom. 

Four aspects of wisdom

The authors distinguish (following Grossman & Kross, 2014) four aspects of wisdom: 

  1. intellectual humility, 
  2. recognizing uncertainty and change, 
  3. trying to see the perspective of other people
  4. integrating different perspectives

In recent years, various ways have been developed to measure wise reasoning. This has enabled research that has shown:

  1. that wise reasoning is not associated with intelligence, 
  2. that wisdom, unlike intelligence, is associated with well-being, 
  3. that wisdom is associated with a more nuanced (balanced) view of social situations and with a more social attitude in dealing with other people. 

In the rest of the article, the authors show that wise reasoning is important not only for individuals but also for organizations and for dealing effectively with economic and other social issues. 

One role in which wisdom is especially important is that of leadership. As a leader of a country or large organization, it's easy to fall prey to the idea that you yourself are great and that you have an infallible vision of what needs to be done. However, leadership is per-eminently a matter of dealing with complexity, uncertainty and unpredictability, in which dealing with different perspectives and knowing how to integrate them is essential.

How do we teach wisdom? 

Huynh & Grossmann (2018) address the question of how wisdom can be taught. They note that there are no empirically validated wisdom curricula yet and provide the elements that could make up such a program. 

  • A first element could be to discuss and reflect on what wise people (Socrates, Mandela, etc.) have done. In doing so, it is essential to discuss their wise behavior in the light of the problems and dilemmas they faced. 
  • A second element is to pay attention to the role that context and culture play in how wise behavior is perceived and expressed. 
  • A third element is attention to individual differences and experiences and how they can influence the development and expression of wisdom. 
  • A fourth element could be the reinforcement of strategies that encourage wise reasoning. One effective strategy that is already quite well known is self-distancing, or distancing yourself from your own perspective by exploring a third person perspective. 

Teaching wisdom can influence not only students but also teachers. Good teaching requires that you take into account the perspective of those you teach. As such, teaching can have a wisdom-enhancing impact on teachers (since taking other perspectives into account is one aspect of wisdom). Also, fulfilling the role of interpreter can have a positive effect on your wisdom. By having to explain things, you can gain a greater awareness of the limits of your own understanding and knowledge and thus become more intellectually modest (also an aspect of wisdom). 


I find the subject of wisdom interesting. I have discussed both articles in a nutshell but also skipped quite a few aspects. If you are interested in the topic, I advise you to read the articles yourself. Furthermore, I think that much more can be said about how wisdom can be taught and applied than the authors do now. I hope to write more about this in one or more subsequent articles.