Can you cultivate wisdom in work situations?

Whether you see the benefit of cultivating wisdom in work situations depends on whether you believe that wisdom can be developed at all. Recent experimental research has shown that the important components of wisdom are indeed malleable. In a new book chapter, Igor Grossmann (2020) lists what is known about the malleability of wisdom. He also offers suggestions for how wisdom can be cultivated at work. 

Can wisdom be developed? 

Many books that touch on the subject of wisdom in one way or another are in great demand. Many people seem to have an interest in and a desire for wisdom. At the same time, many people see wisdom as something that some people just have and others don't and which is difficult to develop. In addition, wisdom seems rather abstract and mystical for many people, which of course also makes it difficult to think about how to develop it. 

There are also some differences in how people from different cultures think about the malleability of wisdom. People from Western, individualistic cultures tend to see it as not very malleable. People from more Eastern, collectivist cultures tend to see it as something more malleable. 

Scientists also differ in how they think about the malleability of wisdom. In a recent survey of 55 wisdom researchers, about a third were found to have a fairly essentialistic view of wisdom. In other words, they see it more as a quality or virtue than as a skill. Furthermore, the majority of scientists who consider wisdom to be malleable differ in what they understand by it: natural development in adulthood versus development through targeted practice / training. 

What is Wisdom? 

In order to investigate and determine to what extent wisdom can be developed and cultivated, we must first have a definition of wisdom. Fortunately, the psychology of wisdom has made some progress in this. Grossmann, Weststrate, et al. (2020) examined leading wisdom researchers to find out how they defined wisdom. On this basis they arrived at a common framework. Within this framework, wisdom is seen as consisting of a moral component and a social cognitive component. 

The moral component is about:

  1. the pursuit of a balance between one's own interests and others' interests
  2. the pursuit of truth
  3. an orientation towards shared humanity

The social-cognitive component is about:

  1. epistemic humility
  2. perspectivism (taking different perspectives into account)
  3. balancing and integrating different perspectives
  4. context adaptability (what you do pragmatically adapt to the situation in which you located)

Wisdom is not a stable characteristic

First, research shows that wisdom is not a stable characterisic. Research by Staudinger et al. (1997) showed that it varies quite strongly on situations (/ tasks). Research by Gl├╝ck et al. (2013) also showed a strong variation in wisdom within individuals who reflected on different situations. Even with a more trait-oriented definition of wisdom, Ardelt (2003) found a substantial difference in how people respond at one point and 10 months later. Diary research (Grossmann, et al., 2016) showed that the difference in wisdom of individuals in different situations and at different times was at least as great as the difference in wisdom between different individuals. Several other studies showed similar results. 

Situations with people you care about evoke more wisdom 

This diary research also showed that especially situations in which people think about problems related to dealing with people you care about evoke wisdom, while this is less the case for situations involving strangers and in which you are on your own. 

Distance makes wiser 

Research by Grossmann & Kross (2014) and Huynh et al. (2017) also showed that the perspective from which you look at problems influences your wisdom. In general, it turns out to be easier to reason wisely when looking at a problem from a distance, such as when advising a friend about a problem. It is more difficult to reason wisely when you are in the middle of the situation, when you are, as it were, immersed in it. 

Self-distancing helps 

Grossmann & Kross (2014) and several other studies further showed that looking at one's own problem from a third-person perspective makes it slightly easier to reason wisely. Various other ways of self-distancing also help. The figure below shows three forms of self-distancing:

Extra time makes wise people more social 

Grossmann et al. (2017) investigated the role of morality in a game situation. They found that wisdom was associated with morality (working together, doing something for the benefit of the team) when participants were given extra time to think. People who scored less highly on wisdom actually became less moral (social) when they were given extra time to think. 

Assessing wisdom 

Assessing people's wisdom is tricky for the above reasons. In different situations people act wisely to different degrees. If you want to learn something about the wisdom of a person, you have to take a closer look at several situations (read more). 

Is it trainable? 

The variability of wisdom suggests that it is trainable, but few good studies have been done to show that it is trainable. Approaches that could be followed in training include: 

  • Have participants reflect on and discuss examples of wisdom 
  • Have them reflect on examples of unwise reasoning and behavior in everyday situations (so they can learn what to avoid in order to be wise) 
  • Give them insight into how characteristics of situations affect wisdom 
  • Let them translate general insights into their own situation and life 
  • Teach them self-distancing techniques