Interview with Judith Glück

Judith Glück is a professor of developmental psychology at the University of Klagenfurt in Austria. She is one of the leading scholars in the emerging field of wisdom science. She started studying this topic 20 years ago where she worked with wisdom science pioneer Paul Baltes at the Max Planck Institute in Berlin. Her research has focused on how laypeople view wisdom, how wisdom develops, how it can be measured, on situational determinants of wisdom, and on the relationship between wisdom and values and intuitions. Together with her longtime collaborator Susan Bluck she introduced the MORE Life experience model of wisdom. In this interview I ask here about a variety of topics such as what wisdom science is, what wisdom itself is, why wisdom may now be more needed than ever in the world, and how wisdom science may contribute to progress in the world.

Hi Judith, I think I read somewhere that people have written about wisdom practically since the invention of writing some 5000 years ago. Of course, the writings of ancient philosophers like Laoze, Confucius, Plato, and Aristotle, to name just a few, remain very well-known and inspire people to this day. Now, since  a few decades, the science of wisdom has been emerging. Could you explain what the scientific approach to wisdom entails and what it could add to what all such great thinkers of the past have come up with?

When psychologists take up concepts from philosophy, one important change is that they try to study those concepts empirically. In other words, we try to study wisdom by measuring it, like we measure, say, intelligence or extraversion, and using those measures to test hypotheses about wisdom. For example, psychologists have studied how wisdom is related to age or to other psychological variables (such as intelligence or extraversion). We are trying to look at how wisdom develops over time and how it can be fostered through psychological interventions. Measuring wisdom is a challenge in itself – we have been having controversies about how to best assess wisdom ever since empirical wisdom research started. But I think we’re making some progress.

Other studies have not measured wisdom, but looked at how people in different cultures define wisdom and what they associate with it. These studies are important because they serve as a kind of validity indicator for our theoretical models of wisdom (and those of philosophers) and because we need to keep in mind that most of our empirical wisdom research takes place in Western, rich, democratic, secular countries. People in other cultures may have quite a different understanding of wisdom, where it comes from, and how it manifests itself.

I believe the psychological approach can complement philosophical thinking in some important ways. Our empirical studies can actually test philosophers’ ideas about wisdom. Interestingly, while ancient philosophers talked about wisdom a lot, wisdom seems to have become a somewhat marginal topic in philosophy. Philosophers like Stephen Grimm or Sharon Ryan have argued that wisdom is knowing what a good life is and how to live it. But we don’t know (and they don’t claim to know) what a good life actually means. This is an example for where empirical research can possibly help. We have a lot of research on how different living conditions, types of work, social relationships, leisure activities, personality characteristics, etc. influence people’s well-being. We also know that people are very different. A good life means different things for different people (we actually did an interesting study on how wiser and less wise people define a “good life”).

On the other hand, psychological research sometimes has a tendency to replace sound theoretical thinking with fancy empirical methods, such as complicated statistical models. With a complex construct like wisdom, it is very important to have a sound theory. Here, philosophers can be very helpful to psychologists.

Yes, I get that. By the way, when reading what philosophers write about wisdom, it is easy to feel both inspired and confused. There is such a wide variety of perspectives and points of view! I guess that is a reflection of how complex the concept of wisdom is. Yet, it seems to me to be important from a scientific perspective to have some degree of common understanding of what wisdom is. Is there already some common understanding emerging within the science of wisdom of what wisdom is? If yes, how would you explain what wisdom is?

I am a bit ambivalent about the idea of a common understanding. On the one hand, I completely agree with you that there are as many philosophical perspectives on wisdom as there are philosophers writing about it. On the other hand, in the first phase of my career in this field, there was only one model that dominated the field. Anyone who wrote a paper about wisdom would get reviews from the proponents of that field, and it was very difficult to get other ideas published. Since then, the field has opened up a lot, and now we are in a situation where we have many different conceptions and measures, but findings and ideas are beginning to converge in a good way.

At the same time, some wisdom researchers have begun to call more unity in the field and for everyone to use the same basic conception. I don’t think that this would move the field forward. I think we are profiting tremendously from the different approaches and perspectives in the field. Even though I personally am more convinced by some approaches than others, I think wisdom psychology as a whole is thriving because of the divergent thinking and creativity of many different people with different ideas. Wisdom is just a very complex construct. I don’t think any of the models we currently have is really describing it in all its complexity.

That said, I’m happy to explain what I think wisdom is. One reason why wisdom is so complex is that it cuts across psychological domains that are typically treated as separate. Wisdom involves cognitive components as well as noncognitive components. The different components all come together to create wisdom, especially in real life situations, where wisdom is most needed when situations are difficult and emotions are strong.

The cognitive components include broad and deep knowledge about life, people, and oneself, a broad repertoire of strategies for thinking about and dealing with difficult situations, and, perhaps most importantly, meta-level knowledge about the limitations of one’s own knowledge, the variability and relativity of people’s views and perspectives, and the important influence of contexts and situations on human behavior. The non-cognitive components include what I would call self-transcendence (a basic concern for the welfare of others and the common good, not just for one’s own benefit), emotional sensitivity and regulation (the willingness to consider one’s own and others’ emotions as important and meaningful information and the ability to regulate them as a situation requires), and openness (curiosity about new perspectives and experiences, a willingness to reflect critically on oneself, and a high level of tolerance for views that differ from one’s own). In a difficult real-life situation, all these components are needed for acting wisely. A person lacking the cognitive capacities for wisdom just doesn’t have the knowledge needed to find a wise solution to a complex problem. A person lacking the non-cognitive qualities may have the knowledge, but will be unable to utilize it because they are emotionally overwhelmed by the situation or just focused on the outcome for themselves.

You mention the need for wisdom in real life situations, which can be difficult and in which emotions can be strong. I can surely see how this works in day to day situations for all of us. What are your thoughts on the relevance of wisdom on a macro level? I mean, talk about difficult and emotional! Climate change, covid crisis, populism, polarization within and between countries…

I think it’s a very important question whether and how we can transfer our insights about individual wisdom to the macro level. For example, we have proposed a model of how individuals acquire wisdom by reflecting on personal life challenges. People are likely to learn and grow from an experience if they (1) are open to different perspectives on the situation, (2) pay attention to their own and others’ emotions but are also able to regulate them as a situation requires, (3) are willing and able to understand the situation in its complexity and reflect on their own role in what happened, and (4) know when to take control of a situation and when to just accept a situation.

Humanity is going through some severe collective life challenges, including, as you said, climate change, global inequality, the COVID-19 pandemic, and so on, and theoretically, we could collectively learn and grow from these crises much as individuals can: by considering all the different interests and perspectives involved, understanding our role in bringing these events about and changing our behavior accordingly, and taking action where it is possible. Both individually and collectively, wise solutions are always aimed at maximizing a common good – balancing gains and losses for everyone involved. Unfortunately, however, we are seeing a lot of definitely unwise ways of dealing with these crises: populists proposing simple, one-sided, unsustainable solutions (or completely ignoring the problems), sensation-seeking and polarizing media, people losing faith in science and subscribing to conspiracy theories (even as we see tremendous successes such as the speedy development of effective COVID vaccines!) … Wise approaches to the challenges of our times are certainly imaginable, but they do not seem to be particularly popular.

Take climate change as the example that is perhaps most threatening of all our current problems. We have known for a long time what is happening, and we know perfectly well what should be done about it. Taking a wise approach would require global cooperation and a willingness to relinquish some of the extreme privileges that people in some parts of the world have been enjoying for a long time. I don’t quite see how this can happen on a collective scale anytime soon. At the same time, more and more individuals are taking action in their own lives. More and more people eat less meat, fly less, become more considerate consumers, and engage themselves for larger causes. I don’t think such individual activities will be sufficient, however; we will need changes to our economic and political systems as well.

I believe that as researchers, we do have an obligation to think about how our work can help change the world for the better. I know that other wisdom researchers, such as Igor Grossmann and Robert J. Sternberg, share this sentiment, and I hope we can do more in the future to promote wisdom on all levels. Bob Sternberg has written a lot about how educational systems should start thinking more about how to teach wisdom and less about how to teach knowledge, which everyone can access from their phones nowadays. Igor Grossmann has demonstrated how wisdom is not just a quality of a few individuals, but strongly influenced by situational context. I think it’s very important to think about whether our political, economic, and educational systems are likely to foster or perhaps impede wisdom in our leaders. 


Anonymous said…
Dear Judith: In your 2022 paper - The Wisdom Researchers and the Elephant - you identified reflexivity as a cognitive element, whereas in this 2021 interview, you seem to identify reflection as a non cognitive element. Can you help me understand this shift?
Judith Glück said…
Hi Anonymous,
Thank you for this highly observant question! In writing the "elephant paper", we've been moving reflection/reflectivity back and forth between the cognitive and noncognitive elements... Reflection, in my view, is the cognitive process of, well- (self-)reflecting, whereas reflectivity is the non-cognitive aspect of being motivated to reflect. The way we eventually parsed it was to (more or less) include reflectivity in the noncognitive "desire to understand" component, as the willingness to look at things in depth, and to include reflection, as the cognitive process, as a cognitive component. As we say in the paper, all those things are related both conceptually and empirically, but it just fit best this way. Hope that clarifies things!

All the best,