Do we really get wiser with age?

The owl, the wise old scholar of the animal world. See more healthy aging pictures.
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­In many cultures, the owl represents wisdom. From an association with Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom, and appearances in Aesop's fables to more recent cameos in A.A. Milne's "Winnie the Pooh," the owl is a go-to symbol of sagacity. Even if you just want to know how many licks it takes to get to the Tootsie Roll center of a Tootsie Pop, you should ask an owl, though you risk losing your Tootsie Pop in the name of research.

But who can we turn to for wisdom in the human world? In studies in which participants were asked to nominate individuals that they thought wise, the average age for nominees was about 55 or 60 [source: Sternberg]. Nominees in one specific study included such old-timers as Gandhi, Confucius, Socrates, Queen Elizabeth, the Pope and Ann Landers [source: Sternberg]. Clearly, the public believes that with age comes wisdom.

Is age a prerequisite for wisdom, though? We all know a few elderly people who lack wisdom, while we may know few young people that have wisdom in spades. People certainly aren't always at peak brainpower in old age; after all, when wrinkles begin appearing on the face, it usually means that wrinkles have started disappearing on the brain. The brain shrinks slightly with age, and aging leads to a normal decline in cognitive function that may eventually bloom into dementias such as Alzheimer's disease.

While philosophers and religious traditions have provided readings on the nature of wisdom for centuries, the concept didn't become a subject of scientific study until 1950. That's when psychoanalyst Erik Erikson created an eight-stage theory of the human life cycle. In each stage, a person faces an internal struggle that develops different aspects of personality. For example, an infant's struggle is the battle between trust and mistrust; when infants feel they can trust those around them, they develop a sense of hope [source: Goleman]. In Erikson's last stage, old age, people grapple with the balance between their personal sense of integrity and defeat in the face of death and physical disintegration. If integrity wins out, then the result, according to Erikson, is wisdom.

Erikson's work paved the way for further psychological study of wisdom and its relation to age. However, Erikson didn't define what he meant by wisdom, and as you might imagine, such a big idea can be hard to reduce to a simple lab test. So what do we mean by wisdom, and just who possesses it? We'll take a look at some theories about whether we get wiser with age on the next page.

What Is Wisdom? Answers from the Berlin Wisdom Project

Passing on wisdom to a younger generation
Passing on wisdom to a younger generation
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Let's start off with some ideas of what wisdom entails. For such a little word, it's given a lot of people a hard time. While there's no one definition, some concepts appear again and again in studies examining the subject. The recurring qualities include:

  • intelligence and knowledge
  • an understanding of human nature (including the concepts of uncertainty and relativism between cultures)
  • emotional resiliency
  • humility
  • an ability to learn from experience
  • openness
  • superior judgment and problem-solving skills

All of these traits come together to form the magical superpower of wisdom that is used to navigate major life challenges in pursuit of the good life and the greater good for humankind. Wisdom, though, can differ slightly depending on cultural beliefs and can be shaped by social and environmental factors. Something like that should be easy as pie to study, right?

Of course, that's quite the laundry list of qualities, and as you can imagine, there's no easy way to measure something that lacks a proper definition. This difficulty is only compounded when you look at some of the more nebulous concepts, such as emotional resiliency, which are more difficult to measure than a quality like standard intelligence. Still, with wisdom representing such a pinnacle of personhood, many researchers believe that we have to keep working toward understanding how the state comes about.

Psychologists have attempted to create exams that assess wisdom on a quantitative scale; these tests usually involve either an autobiographical interview, in which a person relates a story in which he or she exhibited wisdom, or an interview in which the subject is given a set of complex scenarios or dilemmas and asked for an opinion. That opinion is then judged on how wise it is. Take this example: "A 14-year-old girl wants to move out of her home immediately -- what should be considered in this situation?" Someone who responded that a 14-year-old should never move out on her own would be considered unwise, while someone who considered differences between cultures or issues such as abuse in the home would be considered wise.

Whether researchers can accurately judge wisdom when they can't agree on a definition is arguable, and the tests measure different attributes. The example of the 14-year-old girl came from the Berlin Wisdom Project, a program that aimed to study the more definable output of a wise person, such as a speech or performance on a task [source: Hall]. While the Berlin Wisdom Project paved the way for wisdom studies, other researchers felt that the program focused too much on the measurable part of wisdom and not enough on the more intangible traits, such as emotional stability. This second view of wisdom acknowledges that while a vast background of knowledge and intelligence is a prerequisite of wisdom, wisdom goes beyond mere book learning to consider experiences.

Even though different camps are studying different traits, they have one thing in common: They want to know the effect of age on wisdom. On the next page, we'll take a look at what they've been finding.

Development of Wisdom

Maybe these youngsters don't need to hang on every word he says.
Maybe these youngsters don't need to hang on every word he says.
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The Berlin Wisdom Project, the group more interested in the intellectual and measurable components of wisdom, found in several studies that older people just aren't wiser [source: Hall]. Rather, there was a plateau of optimal wisdom performance that seemed to occur in middle and old age; a separate study suggested that wisdom starts to decline at age 75 [source: Hall]. These studies seem to account for the fading memories and decline in cognitive function that we sometimes associate with the elderly.

But when you add emotional factors back into the mix, the elderly seem to have a better shot at attaining wisdom. In a wisdom test that evaluated cognitive factors as well as emotional factors, a 67-year-old mother of seven who grew up poor and never finished high school scored well above average on the wisdom scale [source: Hall]. This seems to suggest that some sort of positive nature and emotional resiliency acquired with age and experience accounts for the development of wisdom.

Take, for example, a 2008 study, in which researchers from the University of Alberta and Duke University used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to peer inside the brains of people faced with an emotionally challenging image. The study group consisted of older and younger participants, and the older participants were more likely to view the images as less negative than their younger counterparts. In the older participants, brain scans revealed interaction between the parts of the brain that deal with emotion (the amygdala) and with emotion control (the anterior cingulate cortex) [source: University of Alberta].

Researchers believe that the older subjects' ability to control their emotional response and remain more positive in the face of an emotional challenge is a trait that comes with age. Interestingly, moral reasoning, which involves the same sort of balancing of emotions, has been linked with wisdom; those who exhibit higher levels of moral reasoning exhibit higher levels of wisdom-related performances [source: Staudinger].

That's not to say that younger people don't also exhibit wisdom, but they may not be able to contextualize it in the same way. In one study, people of all ages were asked about times they had exhibited wisdom and how it related to a lesson learned and some change in life. Adolescents were able to tell a story that involved wisdom, but they weren't able to link it to the bigger picture. Slightly older adults were able to find the lesson learned and glimpse the bigger picture, but only the older people could find the consequences or directions taken that the wisdom-related experience inspired [source: Bluck, Gluck]. For example, a teacher was able to point to a choice regarding classroom discipline that led to a new teaching philosophy, while young people's examples of handling conflicts with parents didn't relate to any larger life experiences, perhaps because they simply haven't had enough experiences yet.

It may be that people of all ages can be wise, but when a person's view of time changes, so too does wisdom. For example, a young person may exhibit wisdom in picking out a career, but that person does so with the sense of limitless future ahead of them. On the other hand, an elderly person, knowing that time is more limited, will exhibit a different kind of wisdom in making a decision, because he or she knows that time is ticking [source: Gluck et al.].

In the introduction, we mentioned Erik Erikson, whose life cycle approach kick-started this wisdom phenomenon. In the 1980s, Erikson updated his life cycle with the knowledge that had come to him in reaching the age of 87. Erikson decided that the lesson learned at each of the stages before that 8th cycle in some way added to the wisdom potential of old age [source: Goleman]. If an infant developed the sense of trust and hope, then he or she would become more likely to realize the value of interdependence. Realizing that may help one understand a sense of greater good that would be needed to achieve wisdom. With strong values like empathy, resilience and humility developed at each cycle, then the person had a better chance of beating down death with integrity.

That means it's never too early to start working toward wisdom; some articles that might boost yours can be found on the next page.

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  • Bluck, Susan and Judith Gluck. "Making Things Better and Learning a Lesson: Experiencing Wisdom Across the Lifespan." Journal of Personality. June 2004.
  • "Erik Erikson, 91, Psychoanalyst Who Reshaped Views of Human Growth, Dies." New York Times. May 13, 1994. (Oct. 6, 2008)
  • Gluck, Judith, Susan Bluck, Jacqueline Baron, Dan P. McAdams. "The wisdom of experience: Autobiographical narratives across adulthood." International Journal of Behavioral Development. 2005.
  • Goleman, Daniel. "Erikson, In His Own Old Age, Expands His View of Life." New York Times. June 14, 1988. (Oct. 6, 2008),%20age&st=cse
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  • Pasupathi, M. and U.M. Staudinger. "Do advanced moral reasoners also show wisdom? Linking moral reasoning and wisdom-related knowledge and judgment." International Journal of Behavioral Development. 2001.
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  • University of Alberta Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry. "Wisdom Comes With Age, At Least When It Comes to Emotions." ScienceDaily. June 16, 2008. (Oct. 6, 2008)
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