Waterloo Scientists Debate If Older People are Really Smarter
It is one of the oldest beliefs throughout the history of mankind; that with age, comes greater wisdom. For most cases this is true, particularly in learning a skill such as playing an instrument or constructing a house. But does knowing how to perform a skill more efficiently really make that person smarter, or have more wisdom? This then begs the question, what exactly is wisdom? There are many definitions, but one which stands out above all is that having wisdom means that one is good at resolving conflict. A new study from the University of Waterloo, Canada has found that acquiring greater conflict resolution depends on your culture, and more precisely, where you’re from.
Conflict is a natural part of life. We do not live in a utopia where everybody gets along, and people's actions never impinge on another person. It is a tough world out there with man vs. man, man vs. society, society vs. society, man vs. nature, and society vs. nature.
Yet, there are some cultures where conflict is largely avoided to make room for greater social cohesion. Such a culture exists in countries like Japan. Conflicts are dealt with in a more indirect manner in order to minimize confrontation. Japanese individuals tend to be socialized to value interpersonal harmony, and are indoctrinated as such from a young age.
On the other end of the spectrum is a country like the United States. Americans are taught to emphasize individuality and to take on conflict head on, often through direct persuasion. Once in a while these confrontations can get ugly, or perhaps violent, but this is what Americans are bred to do. It is then logical that over time, Americans will hone and perfect their conflict-resolution skills (what the researchers deem "wisdom") through their many years of experiencing conflicts.
The researchers conclude that due to the difference in culture, Americans have greater wisdom later in life, and Japanese have greater wisdom earlier in life. To prove this, participants of both cultures, age 25-75, were given newspaper articles describing conflicts between two groups, and then asked several questions about the article. Questions ranged from "What do you think will happen after that?" and "Why do you think it will happen this way?"
This exercise then repeated, except instead of conflict between two groups, the articles were about conflicts between individuals such as siblings, friends, and spouses.
The study was conducted by psychological scientist, Igor Grossman and his colleagues. They measured the responses to see how they 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
6. Predicting the resolution of the conflict
The results showed that while older age was associated with higher wisdom scores for the American participants, there was no such relationship for the Japanese participants. Therefore, wisdom does not always come with age.
Being that this study was conducted in Canada, it is curious that Canadians were not included. I guess whether or not older Canadians are smarter than their younger counterparts is still up in the air.
This study has been published in the journal, Psychological Science
Einstein Image credit: http://th.physik.uni-frankfurt.de/~jr/physpiceinstein.html