Wisdom is often described as a virtue, a valuable resource, or a desirable goal—in short, a good thing.
But what is wisdom? Common definitions of wisdom tend to describe it as: A deep understanding of existence, great insight into one’s own life, sound judgment, the ability to use experiences to grow, willingness and skill to take another person’s perspective, concern and compassion for all people, etc.
How can we put all these elements together?
That is what a recent paper by Glück and Weststrate has done. They have presented an integrative model of wise behavior. Published in Personality and Social Psychology Review, the main proposition of the model, which we shall discuss, is this:
“In challenging real-life situations, noncognitive wisdom components (an exploratory orientation, concern for others, and emotion regulation) moderate the effect of cognitive components (knowledge, metacognitive capacities, and self-reflection) on wise behavior.”
This is a lot to take in, so let us begin with a basic question: When do we need to behave wisely?
When we or people close to us are faced with a hard life decision, moral dilemma, or long-term problem.
Another important question: What characterizes wise behavior?
Wise behavior tends to…
- Resolve short-term or long-term issues (e.g., coping with a life-threatening illness).
- Provide support or contribute to a greater good (e.g., offering valuable guidance to family and friends).
- Do the right thing (e.g., behaving ethically at work, even if it means making less money).
How does wisdom help us achieve the above goals? Using three mechanisms. By allowing us to…
- Gain an objective understanding of the situation. The first thing wise individuals do when faced with a new challenge is to speak with a lot of people and collect information about the facts of the problem and its emotional and social aspects. More importantly, when speaking with others, they remain calm, respectful, and sympathetic.
- Discover solutions or ways of reaching solutions that maximize common interests. Wise individuals try to balance everyone’s concerns. If they happen to have a stake in the outcome, they take a step back to identify their biases and reduce the likelihood of giving self-serving advice.
- Suggest or implement the best solution. Wise individuals do not usually tell people what to do, but they do use their skills and experience to offer guidance and provide support. For instance, they offer encouragement in situations where finding the best solution necessitates trying out different paths, and thus requires patience and hope.
The integrative wisdom model
The authors’ proposed model of wisdom is depicted in Figure 1.
Source: Arash Emamzadeh (Glück & Weststrate, 2022)
On the left side (Rectangle 1), we have a “wisdom-requiring situation.” This is typically an emotionally challenging and cognitively complex real-life situation (e.g., a diagnosis of a chronic illness), which gives rise to an emotional/motivational state.
This motivational state is affected by three characteristics of the individual (the three ellipses at the bottom left):
- Exploratory orientation: The wise love knowledge, are open-minded and curious about life, and use experiences to grow. For example, they do not feel threatened by perspectives that differ from their own but consider them interesting and informative.
- Concern for others: The wise understand others’ emotions and care about their happiness/well-being. To illustrate, think of the likes of Gandhi, Mandela, or MLK, whose concern and care were not reserved for the selected few close friends or relatives but for the whole of humanity. Indeed, fairness, ethicality, empathic concern, and compassion are key components of wisdom.
- Emotion-regulation ability: The wise can regulate their feelings (i.e. recognize, understand, and modify their emotional experience) and the emotions of others, even in very challenging situations. These enlightened individuals (e.g., the Dalai Lama) know how to use different strategies, such as reappraisal or humor, to reduce negative emotions (e.g., fear, anger).
A person who has high levels of the three characteristics described above is more likely to maintain an open mind, remain calm, show care and compassion, and behave ethically (Rectangle 2). In comparison, the average person facing a challenging situation is more prone to get upset, look at a problem from one angle only, and behave selfishly.
People’s motivational and emotional states impact how much they make use of their cognitive capacities (see the three ellipses on the top right side of Figure 1):
- Wisdom-related knowledge: Having knowledge about life and oneself (e.g., one’s needs, strengths, weaknesses, biases). This knowledge is not always conscious but may involve practical intelligence and expertise.
- Metacognitive abilities: One, being aware and able to consider different views, interests, values, and goals in an open-minded way. Two, being humble. This humility comes from the awareness of the limits of what we can know about life and our power to control or predict it.
- Self-reflection: Having the capacity to reflect on our own thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. And to learn from mistakes, with the goal of identifying biases, preferences, and blind spots, so that biases do not influence our judgment.
As noted earlier, the right emotional and motivation states (Rectangle 2) are important because not everyone who has the cognitive capacity required for wisdom feels motivated to use it.
But the wise feel motivated to make full use of their cognitive abilities. Therefore, they often find a solution that satisfies everyone’s needs and optimizes the greater good (Rectangle 3), and act wisely (Rectangle 4).
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In summary, the Integrative Wisdom Model proposes the following:
In challenging situations, the “noncognitive trait components of wisdom (exploratory orientation, concern for others, and emotion regulation) enable individuals to remain in an open-minded, caring, and calm mindset.”
As a result, these individuals are “able to access and utilize their cognitive wisdom resources—broad and deep knowledge about life and themselves, metacognitive awareness of the limitations of knowledge and the relativity of perspectives, and self-reflection to reason and behave wisely in challenging situations.”