Wisdom is more of a state than a trait

Posted on September 5, 2016

We all know the kind of person who did really well at school and uni but can't seem to help themselves from forever making bad mistakes in real life. And then there are those characters who might not be surgeons or rocket scientists but have this uncanny ability to deal calmly and sagely with all the slings and arrows of life. We might say that the first kind of person, while intelligent, lacks wisdom; the second kind of character, by contrast, has wisdom in abundance.

The assumption in both cases is that wisdom is a stable trait – how much someone has is an essential part of their psychological profile and remains constant through their life.

Igor Grossman and his colleagues recruited 152 men and women in Germany (average age 27) to complete a daily diary for nine days. Each day they were emailed and asked to recall a specific negative experience from the previous day, to describe it in detail, including how they responded. Most of the recalled experiences were arguments or disputes of some kind. To look for signs of wisdom the researchers specifically asked the participants to say whether they showed intellectual humility (for example, realising that they couldn’t know for sure what the consequences of the incident would be) and self-transcendence (for example, seeing the situation from the perspective of different people).

The researchers found that there was considerable variation in how much wisdom people showed from one situation to the next. Yes, if they averaged a person’s wisdom across the nine-day study period, some people did tend to show more wisdom than others. But this difference between individuals in average wisdom was smaller than the fluctuations in wisdom typically shown by individuals from one situation to the next.

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Source material from British Psychological Society

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