‘Tis Better to Be Wise Than Intelligent

One of the uber-goals of psychology is to pinpoint the factors that influence well-being. A fair amount of work in this area has focused on intelligence, but the research has generally failed to uncover a significant link between intelligence and well-being. The key issue when it comes to these studies is always how to measure “intelligence” — everybody believes their construct is most accurate and will surely uncover a significant finding.

Right on cue, a new study on well-being takes a novel approach to intelligence in an attempt to avoid the pitfalls encountered by previous research. Psychologist Igor Grossmann and his team decided to focus on what they called “wise reasoning” rather than intelligence. Although two previous studies (both relatively inconclusive) also focused on wise reasoning, the studies attempted to measure wisdom by eliciting responses to brief scenarios that lacked social context (e.g. “A 14-year-old girl wants to move away from home right away…”). Grossmann and his team decided to do things differently.

We built on the idea that people acquire wisdom through experience and through successful mastery of various challenging life experiences (Pascual-Leone, 1990; Rowley & Slack, 2009; Stern- berg, 1998). Such experiences are heterogeneous in nature and may result in idiosyncratic ways of thinking about conflict. Therefore, and consistent with the process-oriented view of wisdom (Kramer, 2000; Sternberg, 1998), we conceptualized wisdom as a set of reasoning strategies that may be applicable and beneficial across a large number of social conflicts. In other words, we defined wisdom not through the availability of static knowledge about a particular conflict and its solution but rather through the use of dynamic reasoning strategies that can be applied in various domains.

Instead of regarding somebody as wise because they gave a 14-year-old good advice for her specific situation, the researchers would have only regarded somebody as wise if they advised the 14-year-old using sound strategies that could be applied across a variety of situations. Grossmann and his team eventually identified six strategies: 1) considering the perspectives of people involved in the conflict, 2) recognizing the likelihood of change, 3) recognizing multiple ways in which the conflict might unfold, 4) recognizing uncertainty and the limits of knowledge, 5) recognizing the importance of or searching for a compromise between opposing viewpoints, and 6) recognizing the importance of or predicting conflict resolution.

Were these six pillars of wise reasoning linked to well-being? Yup.

We assessed wisdom in terms of the degree to which people use various pragmatic schemas to deal with social conflicts. With a random sample of Americans, we found that wise reasoning is associated with greater life satisfaction, less negative affect, better social relationships, less depressive rumination, more positive versus negative words used in speech, and greater longevity.


Consistent with prior research, cognitive abilities such as crystallized intelligence, processing speed, and working memory showed no systematic relationship to well-being.

This is the kind of study that cries out for replication (it tests an abstract construct with a regionally homogenous sample), but it’s always good to get marginally closer to knowing how people should behave if we want the world to becomes a blissful utopia.

I think the study is also worth highlighting not for the findings per se, but because there’s a lot of social value in publicly defining wisdom as the use of specific cognitive strategies. Why can’t every eight-year-old learn that one way to define wisdom is the use of these six methods of reasoning? If we’re somehow able to yoke real strategies to the definition of wisdom (i.e. what a 3rd grader is told when they learn the word), it will plant these tactics in kids’ heads and they’ll eventually develop better social and emotional skills. We know these strategies are good and we already teach kids a word that describes them, what’s the downside to connecting the word and the strategies?
Grossmann, I., Na, J., Varnum, M.E., Kitayama, S., & Nisbett, R.E. (2012). A Route to Well-Being: Intelligence Versus Wise Reasoning. Journal of experimental psychology. General PMID: 22866683

One Response to ‘Tis Better to Be Wise Than Intelligent

  1. I’m very impressed with the method this study used to elicit wise reasoning. Studies on so-called emotional intelligence and practical intelligence typically use brief scenarios with insufficient context and ask people to pick from multiple choice answers. The latter are consensus scored, so if you pick the most frequently endorsed you are supposedly “intelligent” in an emotional or practical sense. A problem with this method besides the lack of context is that it measures conformity to social norms and not necessarily deep insights. The wise reasoning study seems to have developed a much more insightful measure as it looks at the quality of the reasoning processes and how broadly applicable they are. I think this is getting much closer to real wisdom as an ability to make good judgments, than the more superficial scenario testing methods which confound conformity with “intelligence”.

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