Wisdom is in the Eye of a Fly

What is wisdom? Is it the ability to make life choices that result in happiness and prosperity? Being able to avoid death on a daily basis? Or simply knowing the difference between the shower curtain and toilet paper?

(If you don’t know the answer to that last one, the correct response is, “Oh, so you’re the one.”)

If you listen to psychologists’ opinions on the topic, they’ll tell you wisdom has three facets: dialecticism (the ability to recognize that the world is in flux and the future is likely to change), intellectual humility (recognizing the limits of one’s own knowledge), and prosocial orientation (making choices that promotes the common good).

Most Americans – I would wager to say – suck at most all of these. But according to a new paper from Ethan Kross and Igor Grossmann of the University of Michigan, there may be hope. If you take a second to look at a situation from a dethatched “fly on the wall” perspective rather than immersing yourself in a view through your own two insignificant eyes, you’ll make wiser decisions.

Two experiments backed up their hypothesis. The first experiment asked college seniors and recent graduates who hadn’t yet found a job to think about how the current economic crisis would affect them. And apparently, perhaps due to their unemployment, $12 was enough to get them to participate. Those conducting the study asked them to think about it either in a dethatched perspective or as if the events were playing out in front of their eyes, and then to talk about their views.

After listening to their responses, the researches ranked and graded their responses, looking for dialectical thinking and intellectual humility. Sure enough, those who took a detached view were significantly more likely to recognize the limits of their own knowledge and that the future was likely to change.

It didn’t affect their mood, however. After thinking about the economic crisis, both groups reported being in a much gloomier mood.

Think the $12 was worth it now?

The second experiment took young adults who leaned extremely far to the left or right of the American political spectrum. They were then asked to think about how the upcoming Presidential election (of 2008) would affect them if their candidate were to lose. Half were asked to think about it as if they were living in Iceland for the four-year term while the other half was still here in the good old U.S. of A.

Again, the group detached in Iceland showed more of a tendency to think in terms of the future changing and a limited knowledge. What’s more, they leaned a little less far to the right or left after the exercise and were more likely to agree to join a bipartisan political discussion group.

Though, still only 8 out of 25 would be willing versus 3 out of 29. Either way, 11 out of 54 people willing to talk bipartisan politics is a pretty clear indicator of where the country stands at the moment.

But anyways, if you believe that wisdom comes from knowing the future is unsure no matter what and that you have a very limited knowledge of how that might happen, then you can make better decisions and become wiser by taking a step back and thinking about things from a detached view.

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About bigkingken

A science writer dedicated to proving that the Big Ten - or the Committee on Institutional Cooperation, if you will - is more than athletics.
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