Can life adversity enhance one’s wisdom over time? A recent paper published in the European Journal of Personality addressed this question, finding little evidence that adversity has a positive impact on wise reasoning over the course of one year.
“We were puzzled by the idea that experiencing adversity can make people wiser, as many philosophers and religions claim,” said study author Anna Dorfman (@AnnaDorfman2), an assistant professor of social and organizational psychology at Bar Ilan University.
“Also, some clinical studies and insights have suggested that people who live through an adverse experience ‘post traumatic growth’ or PTG. This means that they gain character growth, more meaning, wisdom, and spirituality after bad things happen to them. To us, it sounded a bit like wishful thinking. So we were wondering whether this is the case, and if there is some growth in wisdom following adversity, what is the psychological mechanism that can promote it.”
The Common Wisdom Model conceptualizes wisdom as “morally-grounded excellence in social-cognitive processing.” The central metacognitive components include context-adaptability, epistemic humility, integration of diverse viewpoints, and perspectivism; while its second foundation of moral aspirations encompasses balancing self-and other-oriented interests, the pursuit of truth, and an orientation toward shared humanity.
Some researchers have suggested that wisdom is gained through adversity. In this work, Dorfman and colleagues tested this proposition empirically over a one-year longitudinal study. Specifically, they pursued two research questions. First, whether self-distancing would moderate the effects of adversity on changes in wise reasoning. And second, whether wisdom is just as stable vs. variable over time across different types of adversity.
Self-immersed reflection – as in, reexperiencing an event through one’s own eyes and focusing on one’s personal emotional experiences – can be maladaptive in the context of adverse life experience, in that, it is associated with narrower thinking, negative emotions, distress, and depressive symptoms.
On the other hand, a self-distanced perspective, which would involve (figuratively) stepping back from the adverse experience, is associated with less negative emotional reactivity and greater adaptive reasoning about challenging experiences, including looking at events through a “bigger picture” lens.
The researchers suspected that inter- and intra- individual tendencies to engage in distanced self-reflection would be positively associated with wisdom related thought patterns. As well, they explored how different appraisals of adversity, such as “negative, challenging, predictable”, and types of adversity, including “social conflicts, economic setbacks, and health concerns” impacted wise reasoning.
This research was conducted in four waves, with approximately 2.5 months between each wave, and a total of 499 participants. For each wave, participants were prompted to describe the most significant adverse event during the prior two months, restructure it, reflect on it, and provide their stream-of-thoughts on the event. Next, they completed questionnaires assessing wise reasoning and behaviors, as well as the extent that they self-distanced (vs. self-immersed) from the adverse experience.
“The first take-home is evident from the title [of this work] – there is no PTG in wisdom following reflection on major adverse events,” Dorfman told PsyPost.
The researchers found no evidence for post-traumatic growth in wisdom for any category of adversity reported by participants.
“However, people who tend to take a more self-distant viewpoint on the events do not experience a decrease in wisdom,” showing sustained patterns of wisdom. Dorfman added, “And this is important, because recent research shows that following adverse events, resilience is not less (and maybe even more) important than growth.”
Thus, a self-distanced perspective on social conflicts can sustain wisdom over time. The authors speculate that this might stem from an association between self-distancing and mechanisms such as meaning-making or deliberative rumination.
“One thing that we still need to look at is baseline levels of wisdom, which we did not measure prior to our study. Another thing I would love to explore is longer-term changes. Our study lasted one year, and I’m wondering if maybe changes like growth in wisdom take a longer span,” the researcher said.
The study, “None the wiser: Year-long longitudinal study on effects of adversity on wisdom”, was authored by Anna Dorfman, David A. Moscovitch, William J. Chopik, and Igor Grossmann.