Interview with Igor Grossmann

Igor Grossmann was born in the Soviet Union, grew up in Ukraine and Germany, and studied in Germany and the USA. Currently, he is the director of the Wisdom and Culture Lab at the University of Waterloo, Canada. He is one of the leading researchers in the field of wisdom research (view his Google Scholar profile). His work focuses on demystifying wisdom and modeling of cultural change. He also co-hosts the On Wisdom Podcast and initiated In this interview we will talk about topics like what wisdom is, why there now appears to be an ever-greater call for wisdom, how individuals may reason and act more wisely, and how wisdom may be taught. 

For millennia philosophers, religious thinkers and writers have shared a great variety of ideas about wisdom. In recent decades, psychologists and other empirically oriented scientists have started to study wisdom more and more. You, of course, are one of them. Could you explain how you now define wisdom? 

I would prefer not to! There have been too many definitions by people who are much smarter and who have thought about wisdom much longer than me. I find it more useful to bring diverse existing perspectives together and breaking down/deconstructing complex terms philosophers, contemplative scholars and behavioral scientists came up with. If we do that and focus on the human and pragmatic (rather than divine or mystical), we can come up with a fairly consistent set of characteristics. These characteristics have not changed much since Aristotle introduced them as phronesis in Ancient Greece and various scholars around the same time or even earlier mentioned them in other parts of the world. 

What are those? First, practical wisdom needs the ability to regulate one’s thoughts and emotional processes. In psychology, these characteristics are described as meta-cognition or thinking about thinking (and feeling!). Metacognition is an executive process of a sort, which allows you to take a step back and consider the broader context of the situation, perspectives of other people, uncertainty you are surrounded by, attempt to balance diverse interests, recognize change and make better predictions for the future. In fact, myself and others have shown empirically that some of these characteristics are essential, not only for interpersonal cooperation and happiness, but also when one is interested in accurately forecasting the future
Second, most wisdom scholars today and back in the antiquity consider it essential for wisdom to be grounded in moral virtues. Just recognizing perspectives of others is not necessarily wise when one wants to use resulting knowledge solely for selfish reasons. Moral aspirations such as recognition of shared humanity, pursuit of truth, and cooperation are essential. The good news is that these two sets of characteristics work in tandem. Research by my group and others has shown that people typically consider moral aspirations more when engaging in meta-cognitive processes involving the bigger picture into account. 

Very interesting… It seems to me that the interest in the topic of wisdom is growing both in academia and outside. And some say that the world is in need of much more wisdom than it now shows. What are your thoughts on this? 

I would love to wholeheartedly agree with your sentiment, but I am also aware of my academic bubble—my research is related to the topic of wisdom so I tend to see it everywhere! Mindful of my likely bias, it may be helpful to look at the facts. Right now, the world is in a crisis, with every day bringing suffering and uncertainty. That’s one fact. Country leaders don’t really cooperate (much), with more affluent nations securing all available COVID vaccines for themselves, largely ignoring concerns of people in less privileged countries. And we see a rising spread of misinformation through social media, be it intentional or as unintentional consequences of maximizing profit from marketing ads online. If we put these three observations together, it appears the world is once again going down into a cycle of turmoil and rapid societal change. In such moments people often seek for ways to make sense of uncertainty, changes around them, and other struggles. That’s perhaps why wisdom-related topics, which squarely focus on uncertainty management and ways to balance different interests may be of interest to a broader audience today. At the same time, this could also be my wishful thinking. We see rise of selfishness and political incivility, which are antithetical to wisdom.

And if we turn to academia, selfishness is everywhere. It pays off to be selfish and do something unique and iconoclastic rather than jointly work on cumulative science. Even in wisdom science, right after we got to a point of having a consensus agreement on core fundamentals, some eminent scholars slipped back into pushing their pet theories to increase citation count rather than advancing the field, often taking their own way of thinking as a standard for the construct (I call it “I-am-standard” fallacy here). Therefore, I agree that the world is in need for wisdom (once again), but I am skeptical the world is ready to embrace the construct beyond mere lip service. Talking about wisdom is great, but practicing it is incredibly hard. 

Sounds like democracy. It works and it is valuable, but people don't automatically embrace it. They may be paying lip service to it and trying to use it for their own narrow benefit. So there seems to be a lot of work to be done in educating people about the meaning and application of wisdom. So, here's another substantive question about wisdom. What does research say about the stability of wisdom in situations? Does it look more like a personality trait or does it vary a lot over situations? 

I don’t think it’s an either-or question. Wisdom is neither just a personal characteristic nor is it purely socially constructed, an elusive process that solely emerges in the interaction between people. It is a bit of both. Research shows that wisdom is similarly stable to other aspects of personality over a long-term.

At the same time, there is quite dramatic variability from day to day, hour to hour events you encounter in your life, such that there is more variability in central features of wisdom within the same person as compared to different people on average. Moreover, even arguably the same issue may provoke different levels of wisdom depending on how you approach the issue. Imagine your partner tells you she has been unfaithful. How will you react? Now, imagine the same issue happening to a friend of yours. The thoughts coming to your head would likely differ quite a bit. That’s exactly what some of the research I have done shows: Somehow there is often more wisdom when it comes to you being an observer, a friend, as compared to dealing with an issue that is about you. 

How does wisdom develop and to what extent it can be developed at all? For instance, can a young child already be wise? Or can wisdom only be developed with age, for instance through the experience of hardships? 

That’s a complex set of questions. Answers to them depend on whether you consider life experience to be definitional for wisdom or just a possible precursor. There is little agreement about this point among philosophers and wisdom scientists. Thus, let’s focus on the common features: moral aspirations and meta-cognition. Both can arguably be present in some ways among children. But it is also evident that some of these processes can be cultivated, either by practicing and educating children to pay more attention to moral aspirations or via training. For instance, Skepticism in Ancient Greece as well as several streams of Buddhism emphasize deliberate training of meta-cognitive facilities to promote wiser reflection on one’s life (experiences). Now, whether suggestions in various contemplative and philosophical schools of thought in fact make a difference is an empirical question. Unfortunately, so far there has been only a handful of studies that examined training-based shifts in meta-cognitive processes associated with wisdom. And most of these studies have methodological problems, which recently motivated me to conduct a large-scale randomized control trial training study for wisdom. 

My team focused on one strategy – self-distancing. Self-distancing (or decentering, as it is called in mindfulness research) is a strategy where you look at yourself, your experiences, through a bird’s eye, third-person vantage point. Specifically, we asked one group of people to keep a daily diary for a month, writing it from a first-person perspective (“Today, I met with William. I felt good about our conversation”), whereas another group of people did a similar writing from a third-person perspective (“Today, Igor met with William. He felt good about their conversation”). As the results from this study show, such self-distancing can in fact promote some shifts toward more wise reasoning about one’s everyday issues on a different day. However, effects were quite modest. In other words, don’t expect suddenly becoming enlightened just by starting to talk or write in a third person! 

As for gains in wisdom by encountering hardships, good evidence is hard to come by, but what is out there suggests that this is a myth. When we recently tracked the same people’s wisdom over a year, and looked how experiencing major adversity may have impacted them, we found some stability and some decline in their wisdom, and virtually no evidence of an upward trajectory over time. 

Could you tell something about what is now known about how wisdom relates to some other constructs which are often studied by psychologists like intelligence, personality factors, well-being, rationality, and cognitive biases? 

For intelligence, it all depends on how you define intelligence. Some originators of the IQ concept such as Simon Binet had an idea about intelligence that is much closer to the idea of wisdom than the current mainstream IQ industry wants us to believe. If we look at IQ tests, the relationship to wisdom is positive, but very modest. You can be in the Mensa-club for uber-IQ performance, and still be a fool. Case in point: smarter people are not happier and do not necessarily have a more fulfilled life or have better relationships with other people. In contrast, wisdom is positively related to these well-being factors and in fact promotes greater well-being over time

When it comes to rationality, the story is similar to intelligence. How do we define it? Rationality can mean utility maximization in economics, or in plain English – self-interest. This type of rationality is inversely related to wisdom. However, if we define rationality as an ability to avoid bias, and be more open-minded, we would expect a positive relationship or even consider these elements to be part of the wisdom construct. And indeed, we see some positive relationships between one’s ability to avoid bias and wisdom. They are not strong, but that could be due to different measures used to assess bias/open-minded thinking and wisdom. 

Among personality factors, research shows some modest positive relationship to agreeableness and extraversion – personality components that concern being sensitive to social context. 

I’ve read that you have already written about how wisdom might be taught and cultivated. What do you know, so far, about how this can be done? 

We know very little. Generally, I am skeptical about what is out there in terms of claims about teaching or cultivating wisdom. These are claims by several scholars that wisdom can be taught and yet these scholars have not published a single peer-review vetted empirical study confirming their claims. By empirical study I do not mean observations along the lines: Let me ask a handful of students in one class to read Plato and students in another class to read a fiction novel and see who reported feeling wiser afterwards. There are some approaches along these lines, but I am dubious about the meaning of the results. First, self-reporting one’s wisdom in an abstract fashion is not ideal. What do I know about my general ability to be reflective, take others’ perspectives, or be compassionate? It all depends on the context! Second, without a randomized control trial, you will not know if students who liked Plato chose to be in the Plato class in the first place. Maybe, they were more interested in philosophy and were more prone to reflecting on the meaning of life. Maybe something else. But in general: we would not trust a vaccine trial study in which people could pick between different vaccine candidates or placebos from the get-go and reported on feeling they had COVID without getting a real test. And neither should we trust studies that report teaching people to be wise, without conducting rigorous science. 

Generally, education research has a dirty secret. It concerns so-called transfer effects. Almost all educational interventions that are successful are only successful in the narrow domain in which students are thought. Take a step to the side, to focus on a new (even if related) domain, and students fail to apply the learned concept miserably. This is especially pronounced for far removed domains. Of course, it is not surprising that learning is domain specific. What is surprising is that much of the wisdom scholarship ignores this insight, relying on abstract, domain-free measures. It is as if scholars deliberate close their eyes in the dark, instead of using a flashlight. 

In other words, there is plenty of opportunity to explore this question further and design robust ways to enhance people’s wisdom, relying on open scientific methods. As I mentioned earlier, we know that self-distancing training can work and has some early promising results concerning transferability. But these effects are modest, and much more needs to be done to understand when and how wisdom can be cultivated. Until we know more, writing on training of wisdom has to be considered with a great deal of humility. 

As you said before, talking about wisdom is great, but practicing it is incredibly hard and it appears we must be humble in what we know about how it can be taught. Yet, I think, many people aspire to act more wisely and to become wiser. Do you have any suggestions how people might take some first steps to make progress in that direction? And, perhaps also a suggestion for parents, teachers or managers who want to enable their children, students or employees to reason wisely? 

What I will say here are largely speculations and personal opinions. With this caveat, taking a step back and asking yourself “what would X do?” (replace X with the person you admire for their critical acumen) before challenging decisions may be one way to foster wisdom in daily life. This mental exercise will not make you like the person you admire, but it will help you gain self-distance as I discussed earlier. 

As for management education, communicating the value of what is reasonable rather than economically rational may be effective and likely necessary insight for the workplace. Most workplace decisions are not clear-cut and cannot be solved via a simple optimization algorithm. Not all parameters are known to rationally calculate which path will lead to the greatest gain. 

And for education in general, one appealing idea going back to Aristotle and many other thinkers is that most children generally are (or at least strive to be) morally good, such that moral education is not (just) about telling them what is right and what is wrong. Rather, it is about cultivating the moral habits through meta-cognitive exercises, to allow people recognize which virtue is more applicable in a given context, and how different moral positions can coexist. Not all situations call for being brave and being humble in the same way, and part of wisdom is to know when to apply certain moral virtues and how to balance them. In short, practice relevant meta-cognitive skills and show others that it is reasonable and in fact encouraged to admit you don’t know everything. Educators may find this last recommendation challenging. But if we are not willing to embrace our humility, why should students? Here, we also must realize that our cultures in Europe and North America often reward the opposite of such intellectual humility. A student projecting low confidence in their answer is likely to get a lower grade on an oral exam compared to student who is “faking it,” but doing so with high confidence. That’s something I see as a problem, as it is not conducive to development of wisdom.