Developing wisdom


A while back I became aware of a small body of research looking to whether we can develop wisdom, through intentional strategies, rather that simply waiting (hoping) that time and experience will imbue us with the necessary wisdom. Wisdom is a topic of interest because of its relationships with improved wellbeing and better quality relationships.

Given my interest in self-improvement and my ongoing search for things we can do to better ourselves, I find fascinating the idea that we can develop or harness wisdom, on the basis of a mental trick or shift.

The first article I looked at in this space is this one.

It is a paper by Igor Grossman and Ethan Kross. They conducted a series of experiments looking at how people think and reason about an upsetting personal scenario (infidelity or betrayal) and whether the perspective taken on the scenario influences how wisely someone thinks about it.


What do you mean by wisdom and reasoning?

I’m not wise about wisdom, so I will use the definitions and ideas presented in the article.

Wise reasoning was defined as having 4 characteristics:

  1. Recognition of the limits of one’s own knowledge (i.e. acknowledging that you might need more information to make a decision)
  2. Searching for a compromise (i.e. attempts to at least partly meet the needs of all relevant parties)
  3. Consideration of other people’s perspectives (i.e. extent to which you take the thoughts, feelings and experiences of others on board)
  4. Recognition of change/multiple ways that the event may unfold (i.e. able to see more than one outcome of the situation)

Previous research has suggested that we can reason more wisely about a situation when it is happening to someone else, versus when it is happening to us. This is because we find it difficult to transcend a problem when it directly involves us (e.g. we’ll be more impacted by our emotional reasoning).

Previous research has also suggested that when people can reduce the focus on themselves, and instead try to take the perspective of others, they reason more wisely (i.e. achieve the above list) than when they are stuck in a mode of concentrating on themselves.

It seems the more we can disconnect ourselves from the ‘I/me’ aspect of a situation, the more likely we are to be able to reason wisely about it.


What did they do in the study?

Igor and Grossman were interested in whether this effect of wiser reasoning about other people’s problems could be harnessed in some way to help people reason about their own problems.

They turned the 4 characteristics of wise reasoning (listed above) into a set of questions that they asked individuals who were thinking about a hypothetical scenario of infidelity (a partner cheating) or betrayal. Individuals were asked to take different perspectives on the hypothetical scenario.

  1. that the scenario was happening to them
  2. that the scenario was happening to a friend or family member

Individuals were then further divided by getting them to take either:

  1. a first person perspective (I/me)
  2. a third person perspective (he/she)

Sound confusing? That’s OK. I was (possibly still am) confused.

Essentially it comes down to the following.

Some people were asked to think about an upsetting event (e.g. infidelity) happening to them from the first person perspective (I have been cheated on, this is how I feel) – this was called the self immersed condition

Some people were asked to think about an upsetting event happening to a friend and put themselves in that person’s shoes and consider how they would feel (I would feel, I would think) – this was called the other immersed condition.

Some people were asked to think about an upsetting event happening to them but from a third-person perspective (i.e. refer to themselves as he/she when describing how they’d feel) – this was called the self-distanced condition.

Finally, some people were asked to think about an upsetting event happening to a friend, put themselves in that person’s shoes and consider how they would feel from a third-person perspective (he/she would feel, he/she would think) – this was called the other-distanced condition.

The researchers were really interested in the ‘self-distanced‘ group, as this group were asked to reason about something happening to them, BUT from a third-person perspective, removing the ‘I/me’ and replacing it with a ‘he/she/they’ perspective. For example, instead of saying ‘if I was cheated on, I would immediately break up with that person’, they would be asked to word it as ‘if he was cheated on, he would immediately break up with that person’.

If you want a comedic view on someone talking about themselves in the third person, try this


What did they find?

Consistent with previous research, individuals were able to reason more wisely about an upsetting thing happening to a friend, than they were about themselves. This makes intuitive sense to me. I consistently find that I can think more clearly and logically about someone else’s problem, than I can my own. Interestingly, this is one reason why I recommend counselling or therapy to people who are working through difficult problems in their own life, because you have the assistance of a third party to help you process, one who is not entwined within the problem itself.

The most interesting finding however was that individuals who were asked to reason about a problem of their own, but distance themselves from it by using a third person perspective, were able to reason more wisely about it. A relatively simple mental trick which the authors call ‘self-distancing’ was able to counteract at least some of the reduction in reasoning ability we have about problems affecting us.


Takeaway message

This study suggests that we can harness wisdom during difficult personal times by using ‘self-distancing’ – namely trying to remove the ‘I/me’ aspect of how we think about a problem.

Conceptually this is quite simple but you can imagine it being difficult in practice.

Say I was writing about something that had upset me. My natural tendency would be to write from the first-person perspective:

“Today I was talking to ……. and something they said really upset me………I’ve been trying to understand why they would say that and what they would hope to gain from it….”

Instead this study suggests that you may be able to process a difficult event more wisely by distancing the issue from you.

“Today Gareth was talking to……..and they said soemthing that really upset him……….He’s been trying to understand why they would say that and what they would hope to gain from it..”

I can already feel how weird it is to write from that perspective.

Another option is to imagine it happening to someone else, which similarly distances the issue from you.

“Today, my friend was talking to……..and that person said something that really upset my friend……..He’s been trying to understand why they would say that and what they would hope to gain from it.”

Again, that kinda feels weird if we are talking about an event that has happened to you.

My main takeaway from this study is that third-person perspectives are often more wise than first-person perspectives, so any way that you can obtain a third person perspective when dealing with a difficult problem is likely to be helpful, whether that is using a trick of language, or getting a friend or counsellor or trusted person to discuss the problem with. Locking ourselves away (physically or psychologically) with our problem may deny us the opportunity to develop more wise solutions.



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