Sunday, July 13, 2014

Why are we wise about everything but ourselves?

Socrates said that "the only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing." Wisdom is a fascinating and challenging puzzle in psychology; one that we have attributed almost exclusively to the elderly and owls. 

In psychology, wisdom has been defined as a psychological resource comprised of: recognition of the limits of one's own knowledge, the search for compromise, consideration of other people's perspective, and the recognition of change and the multiple ways events can unfold. 

For the last several years,  Dr. Igor Grossmann of the University of Waterloo and Dr. Ethan Kross at the University of Michigan set out to understand how wisdom plays a role in the way we think about relationships and conflict. Specifically, they wondered whether we are more likely to be "wise" when thinking about other people's relationships than our own. 

To explore these questions, they conducted 3 experiments. In the first experiment, 104 undergraduate students who were in monogamous, heterosexual relationships came to the lab. Each participant was then randomly assigned to either the self or other condition. In the self condition, the participant was asked to "ponder" a situation in which their boyfriend/girlfriend had sex with one of their close friends. In the other condition, the participant was asked to ponder a situation in which their friend's boyfriend/girlfriend had sex with their close friend. The participants then answered a series of questions assessing their "wise reasoning" about the situation as well as write essays that reflected their thoughts about the scenario. 

They found that participants in the self condition were much less likely to engage in wise reasoning, as defined above, than those randomized to the other condition. In other words, participants demonstrated more wisdom when thinking about their friend getting cheated on than themselves. Put another way, we do not reason wisely when we are emotionally immersed in a situation. 

Now, that's all very interesting, except that it's not. Right? We know that we are less reasonable when it comes to matters of our own heart. What is very interesting is how these researchers continued to pursue the role of wisdom in reasoning about relationships. In particular, they wanted to know whether this disadvantage we seem to have when trying to reason about our own lives is "avoidable" in any way. 

In the second experiment, they recruited another group of 120 undergraduate students in monogamous, heterosexual relationships.  Participants were again randomized into the self or other conditions for the same scenario, but they were also randomized into "immersed" and "distanced" conditions during their reflection. In the immersed condition, participants were asked to think about the situation in the first person perspective. For example in the immersed-self condition, they were to think about how they would feel or behave in that situation, while in the immersed-other condition, they were asked to put themselves in their friend's shoes and think about how they would feel and behave. During their reflection task, they were asked to use pronouns like "I" and "me." In contrast, in the distanced condition, participants were asked to think about the situation from a third person perspective. For example in the distanced-self condition, they were asked to think about how they would feel in the given scenario from another's perspective using pronouns like "he/she" and "him/her," thus distancing themselves from their own emotional reaction to the scenario. 

Dr. Kross and Dr. Gross hypothesized that participants in the self-distanced condition may demonstrate wiser reasoning than participants in the immersed-self condition. Lo and behold, they hit the nail on the head. Of the four groups of participants, only the immersed-self group was disadvantaged in their wise reasoning, while there was no difference between the other three groups. 

Whoa! Seems like a pretty straightforward intervention we could all try to increase our ability to live wisely in the world. Basically, this 2nd study is evidence that practicing thinking about our problems and challenges with another's perspective will increase our ability to achieve wisdom. 

In the third study, they were interested in testing the age old adage, "with ages comes wisdom." Anecdotally, we can all point to ways that our predecessors have demonstrated more wisdom in challenging situations, but does the ability to reason wisely really develop with age? Does mere life experience increase the human capacity for perspective taking? In psychology, that's an empirical question. 

In the third study, they recruited 267 adults between the ages of 20-40 and 202 adults between the ages of 60-80. The participants completed the same tasks as in study 2, but their scenario involved betrayal between friends or family instead of a cheating boyfriend/girlfriend. They again found that people displayed more wise reasoning when thinking about their friends' and family's problems than their own. They also demonstrated more wise reasoning when assigned to a distancing condition. Their unexpected finding was that the younger and older age groups both struggled to engage in wise reasoning in the immersed-self condition. In other words there were no meaningful differences between the ways the younger and older adults reasoned about the assigned conflicts. 

Before you take this article and interpret it as evidence that your elders aren't wise, I think it's important to consider some limitations of these studies. Aside from being a small sample size, comprised of mostly undergraduate students, this is one example where I wonder whether the strong experimental conditions hinder more than help. What I mean is that all of the participants were assigned to think about the conflict in a particular way, when it may be the case that younger people naturally reason in a self-immersed manner, while older adults may be more likely to reason in a other-distanced manner, which may translate into fewer emotionally reactive behaviors and contribute to our social attribution of wisdom to the elderly. 

Taken together, these studies suggest that we are better at reasoning when we are able to take a distanced perspective, and that's something we can practice and implement in our day-to-day lives. When you're frustrated in traffic, think about what may be going on in the life and mind of the person who cut you off. Think about how others might be seeing you at the moment. More central to the tasks in these studies, when you are having relationship trouble, take the advice you would give your friend, not the advice you would give yourself. Remember that your wise reasoning is compromised in these emotional situations, and lean on your mind's ability to adopt a new new perspective. Either way, these studies open the door for an entire conversation on what wisdom is, how we define and measure it, and whether we can "train" it to better our lives. Stay tuned! 

Grossmann, I., & Kross, E. (2014). Exploring Solomon’s Paradox Self-Distancing Eliminates the Self-Other Asymmetry in Wise Reasoning About Close Relationships in Younger and Older Adults. Psychological science, 0956797614535400.

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