Do We Get Wiser With Age? A Recent Study in Support
There’s a lovely story in Cicero’s essay “On Old Age” that is as modern as yesterday’s family court docket. The adult sons of a wealthy man, claiming their elderly father to be “weak-minded” and easily distracted from family finances, basically sued to get power of attorney and control his property. The case went to court, and in his defense, the old man read to the judges the play he was in the midst of writing. The play was Oedipus at Colonus, and the old man was Sophocles. After reading the play, Cicero writes, Sophocles “asked them if they would describe its author as weak-minded.” The magistrates immediately voted for acquittal.
The anecdote revives an age-old question: Do people grow wiser with age? There’s an interesting new paper from a group of psychologists based at the University of Michigan that reaches the same conclusion as Cicero (but with more data!): yes. I don’t think the research settles a long-standing scientific debate on this issue, but it adds some welcome experimental findings.
The basic take-home message of the paper, which appeared last week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is simple: compared to young and middle-aged people, older people show advanced skill in social reasoning. In particular, they display traits that accord nicely with some of the behaviors I discuss in Wisdom, namely an ability to consider multiple perspectives (which fits under my rubric of compassion), an ability to compromise (emotion regulation), and an ability to deal with uncertainty or the limitations of knowledge. (You can hear my discussion of the research on the nationalized syndicated radio show “The Takeaway” here).
I won’t bore readers with a recital of the complicated methodology here, except to say that the survey was large (it started out with nearly 250 subjects) and involved a task in which the subjects were asked to read and assess fictional news accounts of intergroup and interpersonal conflict in an unfamiliar foreign locale. These responses were analyzed by the authors, and then reassessed by a special panel of wisdom researchers. The Michigan psychologists (Igor Grossmann was first author, Richard E. Nisbett senior author) noted, “In line with some earlier experimental research showing that some older adults may give wiser responses than younger adults when the tasks involve social interaction, we believe that these conditions facilitated wisdom-related sociocognitive reasoning among older adults.” In short, older people used “higher-order” cognitive skills to analyze a conflict situation than their younger counterparts.
A few liner notes on this study:
–These results do not come out of the blue. Fredda Blanchard-Fields of Georgia Tech has published papers for more than a decade showing that older adults are better problem-solvers than young people when it comes to social conflict, and she too has located this skill in the cognitive part of the brain.
–The group headed by the late Paul Baltes at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin has long argued that wisdom does not—repeat, not—increase with age; they cite data from four separate studies to support that conclusion. In their PNAS paper, the Michigan researchers imply that the Berlin studies may reflect selection bias—that is, the subjects included in the studies did not truly represent a random sample, and therefore may have tilted the results in a particular direction. But Jacqueline Smith, who participated in many of the Berlin studies (and who reviewed this new wisdom paper prior to publication), is not convinced by the argument of her University of Michigan colleagues.
–Finally, a little scientific sociology: I wonder what the Baltes group thinks of their research being characterized as “folk psychology,” as the Michigan researchers do at the beginning of their article?
Bottom line: this new study does not definitively answer the question: Do we become wiser as we get older? But it adds some much-needed empirical ammo to the argument and, it is hoped, will inspire a new round of even more rigorous research. Indeed, the fact that the study was supported by grants from both the National Institute on Aging and the National Science Foundation suggests that wisdom studies are beginning to attract mainstream funding.