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Does wisdom really come with age? It may depend on the culture

Aug. 31, 2012
Courtesy of the Association for Psychological Science
and World Science staff

“Wis­dom comes with win­ters,” Os­car Wilde once said. And it’s cer­tainly com­fort­ing to think that ag­ing ben­e­fits the mind, if not the body. But do we really get wis­er as time passes?

There are many way to de­fine what ex­actly wis­dom is, but past re­search sug­gests hav­ing wis­dom means you are al­so good at re­solv­ing con­flict. But con­flict is­n’t han­dled the same way across cul­tures. Amer­i­cans have been shown to em­pha­size in­di­vid­ual­ity and solve con­flict in a di­rect way, such as by us­ing di­rect per­sua­sion. In con­trast, the Jap­a­nese put great­er em­pha­sis on so­cial co­he­sion, and tend to set­tle con­flict more indi­rectly, us­ing avoid­ance strate­gies or re­ly­ing on media­t­ion through an­oth­er per­son.

In a study forth­com­ing in the re­search jour­nal Psy­cho­log­i­cal Sci­ence, Igor Gross­mann of the Uni­vers­ity of Wa­ter­loo, Can­a­da and col­leagues in­ves­t­i­gated how con­flict res­o­lu­tion and, by ex­ten­sion, wis­dom dif­fer be­tween Jap­a­nese and Amer­i­can cul­tures.

The re­search­ers hy­poth­e­sized that Jap­a­nese, who tend to be so­cialized to val­ue interper­sonal har­mo­ny, would be bet­ter at re­solv­ing con­flict and show more wis­dom ear­li­er in life. Amer­i­cans, on the oth­er hand, ex­pe­ri­ence more con­flict over time and this might re­sult in con­tin­ued learn­ing about con­flict res­o­lu­tion across the life­span and great­er wis­dom lat­er in life.

Jap­a­nese par­ti­ci­pants and Amer­i­can par­ti­ci­pants, rang­ing in age from 25 to 75, were asked to read news­pa­per ar­ti­cles that de­scribed a con­flict be­tween two groups and re­spond to sev­er­al ques­tions, in­clud­ing “What do you think will hap­pen af­ter that?” and “Why do you think it will hap­pen this way?” Next, they read sto­ries about con­flict be­tween in­di­vid­uals – in­clud­ing sib­lings, friends, and spouses – and an­swered the same ques­tions.

The re­search­ers meas­ured the ex­tent to which re­sponses il­lus­trat­ed six pre­vi­ously es­tab­lished char­ac­ter­is­tics of wise rea­son­ing: (1) con­sid­er­ing the per­spec­tives of oth­ers, (2) rec­og­niz­ing the like­li­hood of change, (3) rec­og­niz­ing mul­ti­ple pos­si­bil­i­ties, (4) rec­og­niz­ing the lim­its of one’s own knowl­edge, (5) at­tempt­ing to com­pro­mise, and (6) pre­dict­ing the res­o­lu­tion of the con­flict.

As expected, the re­search­ers said, young and mid­dle-aged Jap­a­nese par­ti­ci­pants showed high­er wis­dom scores than same-aged Amer­i­cans for con­flicts be­tween groups. For con­flicts be­tween peo­ple, old­er Jap­a­nese still scored high­er than old­er Amer­i­cans, though this cul­tur­al dif­ference was much smaller than the dif­ference ob­served be­tween the young­er adults.

While old­er age was as­so­ci­at­ed with high­er wis­dom scores for the Amer­i­can par­ti­ci­pants, there was no such rela­t­ion­ship for the Jap­a­nese par­ti­ci­pants.

These find­ings un­der­score the point that cul­ture con­tin­ues to be im­por­tant for hu­man de­vel­op­ment, even in­to old age, Gross­mann and col­leagues said. While wis­dom may come with win­ters for Amer­i­cans, the same may not be true for oth­er cul­tures.

“Cross-cul­tur­al re­search­ers have been very good at sit­u­at­ing their re­sults in a cul­tur­al con­text, but don’t of­ten con­sid­er how life­span de­vel­op­ment may con­trib­ute to cul­tur­al dif­ferences (or lack there­of),” said Gross­mann. This study is one of the few ex­ten­sive cross-cul­tur­al stud­ies in psy­chol­o­gy that in­cludes peo­ple of dif­ferent ages and dif­ferent socio-economic back­grounds, he added.

This re­search al­so sug­gests some abil­i­ties – such as those in­volved in re­solv­ing so­cial con­flicts – re­main in­tact in­to old age. Gross­mann hopes the study may act as an an­ti­dote to “ageism” stereo­types in both West­ern and East Asian so­ci­eties.


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“Wisdom comes with winters,” Oscar Wilde once said. And it’s certainly comforting to think that aging benefits the mind, if not the body. But do we really get wiser as time passes? There are many way to define what exactly wisdom is, but past research suggests having wisdom means you are also good at resolving conflict. But conflict isn’t handled the same way across cultures. Americans have been shown to emphasize individuality and solve conflict in a direct manner, such as by using direct persuasion. In contrast, the Japanese place a greater emphasis on social cohesion, and tend to settle conflict more indirectly, using avoidance strategies or relying on mediation through another person. In a study forthcoming in the research journal Psychological Science, Igor Grossmann of the University of Waterloo, Canada and colleagues investigated how conflict resolution and, by extension, wisdom differ between Japanese and American cultures. The researchers hypothesized that Japanese, who tend to be socialized to value interpersonal harmony, would be better at resolving conflict and show more wisdom earlier in life. Americans, on the other hand, experience more conflict over time and this might result in continued learning about conflict resolution across the lifespan and greater wisdom later in life. Japanese participants and American participants, ranging in age from 25 to 75, were asked to read newspaper articles that described a conflict between two groups and respond to several questions, including “What do you think will happen after that?” and “Why do you think it will happen this way?” Next, they read stories about conflict between individuals – including siblings, friends, and spouses – and answered the same questions. The researchers measured the extent to which participants’ responses illustrated six previously established characteristics of wise reasoning: (1) considering the perspectives of others, (2) recognizing the likelihood of change, (3) recognizing multiple possibilities, (4) recognizing the limits of one’s own knowledge, (5) attempting to compromise, and (6) predicting the resolution of the conflict. As predicted, the researchers said, young and middle-aged Japanese participants showed higher wisdom scores than same-aged Americans for conflicts between groups. For conflicts between people, older Japanese still scored higher than older Americans, though this cultural difference was much smaller than the difference observed between the younger adults. Interestingly, while older age was associated with higher wisdom scores for the American participants, there was no such relationship for the Japanese participants. These findings underscore the point that culture continues to be important for human development, even into old age, Grossman and colleagues said. While wisdom may come with winters for Americans, the same may not be true for other cultures. “Cross-cultural researchers have been very good at situating their results in a cultural context, but don’t often consider how lifespan development may contribute to cultural differences (or lack thereof),” said Grossmann. This study is one of the few extensive cross-cultural studies in psychology that includes people of different ages and different socio-economic backgrounds, he added. This research also suggests some abilities – such as those involved in resolving social conflicts – remain intact into old age. Grossmann hopes the study may act as an antidote to “ageism” stereotypes in both Western and East Asian societies.