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Monday, April 9, 2012

Do We Get Wiser As We Grow Older?

Populations are aging throughout the more developed world--low mortality means that a greater fraction of people born are reaching the older ages, and low fertility means that a greater fraction of the population is older. Does that mean that these societies will be increasingly wiser? Maybe. This week's Economist features research by Igor Grossmann at the University of Waterloo in Canada, that builds on his doctoral dissertation in Psychology at the University of Michigan. He and his colleagues have created scenarios to which subjects of different ages give responses that are then rated by a panel of experts in terms of how "wise" those responses are judged to be, based on a set of "wisdom" criteria. Grossmann's first study looked only at Americans and found that older people were generally wiser. The latest study, referred to by the Economist, but not yet available online, replicated the study in Japan and found that age differences were less obvious there than in the US sample. However, since the studies are cross-sectional, rather than longitudinal, we cannot really say that higher wisdom scores among older people in the US are a function of increasing wisdom. They could be due to cohort differences arising from educational attainment and/or changes in the educational systems or cultural/world view systems of the respective countries. 

What struck me, in particular, though, was the set of criteria used by the authors to define wisdom or, more specifically, "crucial aspects of wise reasoning":
willingness to seek opportunities to resolve conflict; willingness to search for compromise; recognition of the limits of personal knowledge; awareness that more than one perspective on a problem can exist; and appreciation of the fact that things may get worse before they get better.
If you compare this list with current political rhetoric in the US, you will see that there is not very much wise reasoning in today's political arena.

On a happier note, it is encouraging that these studies at least show that, on balance, we can expect an older population to be at least as good at wise reasoning as a younger population.


  1. Thanks for this post. When i saw this I thought about an article I had read about demographics, war, and Iran.

    Here is the link:

    His main idea is that since the leaders of Iran are convinced that their civilization is as good as dead they have no qualms about shedding a huge amount of blood in war and that this further is not irrational from their point of view.

  2. A wisdom in a Malay word is 'hikmah'. It originally from Arabic word which is 'hakama'.