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Sunday, February 11, 2024

Older but wiser?

With age comes wisdom, but sometimes age comes alone.

Oscar Wilde

Like many baby boomers, I sometimes forget people's names and other important bits of information. Sometimes I can't find a word that's been in my vocabulary for decades. These lapses are often temporary but very annoying. It's a sign of age. (I am 77 years old.)

We often make fun of these incidents and consol ourselves with the knowledge that we may be old but we are much wiser than we were in our younger days. We have years and years of experience behind us and over the years we've learned a thing or two that we never understood when we were listening to the Beatles on the radio. We've lived through the Cuban Missile crisis, the war in Viet Nam, the assassination of two Kennedys and Martin Luther King, and a host of cultural changes. We've lived in several different countries and we've raised children. All of these experiences have made us wiser, or so we think.

But is it true? Are we really wiser than we were 50 years ago? I checked the internet to see if there was any data to support the claim and found two interesting articles. The first is an essay, Older and Wiser?, by Christine Overall in The Philosophers' Magazine and the second is an article in this month's Current Opinion in Psychology: (February, 2024) Wisdom and aging.

The answer is, maybe. It depends on how you define wisdom1 and it also depends on the person. As a general rule, it's not true that old people are wiser than younger people. It's certainly true that the general public doesn't think that wisdom comes automatically with age (OK, Boomer!). However, well-educated people are more likely to become wiser as they age if they have had lots of life experiences.

Here's how it's explained in the second article.
While everyone accumulates life experiences over time, however, not all of us become particularly wise. How people reflect on life experiences and what they take away from them may be more crucial for the development of wisdom than the experiences themselves. In an early conceptual account of how wisdom develops, Baltes and Smith [13] argued that the development of wisdom (defined as expertise in the fundamental issues of human life) is fostered by three broad factors: general person factors such as openness, intelligence, or creativity; expertise-specific factors such as life experience, mentorship, and motivation; and experiential contexts that facilitate learning about life such as parenthood, mentorship roles, or specific historical contexts. In other words, certain types of experiences are particularly likely to make us wiser, and person variables influence what we take away from those experiences.
This makes a lot of sense to me. It explains why some old people aren't very wise; it's because they aren't very intelligent and they have lived their entire lives in one particular environment. It accounts for Donald Trump.

Contrast this with a smart person who has had a rich and varied life. For example, imagine some intelligent person who was trained to work on nuclear submarines, was a peanut farmer, governor, president, diplomat, and construction worker. They are bound to be wise when they grow old.

I don't know whether I'm wise or whether my boomer friends are wise. I do know that most of us have experienced a lot of things that are foreign to younger people. We've been through the death of our parents and the birth of our grandchildren. We voted in enough elections to be able tell the difference between hype and reality. We've experienced enough real social change and failed attempts at social change to be realistic about the future. This probably explains why so many people think that older people become more conservative. That's not true, according to the data, but what is true is that when you get older you realize that radical solutions don't often work so you have to move slowly to make changes.

Ageism is a real thing these days. Like most other "-isms," it's a stereotype that can't be applied to everybody. Some people in their 70s and 80s really are wiser even if they forget words from time to time. Others aren't wiser. It's wise to learn the difference.

1. The article in Current Opinion in Psychology has an extensive discussion of the various forms of wisdom.


Anonymous said...

A very interesting read. By the way, I'm generation X.

Joe Felsenstein said...

I’m not sure Barbara McClintock is a good example. Her work on genes that move was done in the 1940s and 1950s. What happened in the 1970s and 1980s was discovery of transposons by others, so she got belated recognition.

Steve Watson said...

I hope I'm wiser than I was 40 or even 20 years ago. Certainly, I know better now than to make some of the choices I made in the past. And FWIW, about three years ago one of my classmates complimented me on how "self-aware" I was (in contrast to the way some other people my age might act among a bunch of 20 year olds?) So maybe.

Larry Moran said...

@Joe: I'm aware of the history. She was in her 70s when I met her and still an impressive woman. She was definitely wiser than she was in the 1950s. I'm told that she was still going strong when she accepted her Nobel Prize.

Larry Moran said...

@Joe: I suppose I could have used a famous 81 year old population geneticist from Seattle as an example. I'm told that he is still mentally alert in spite of the fact that he is older than Donald Trump. :-)

Joe Felsenstein said...

@Larry: My point was, that the photo caption implied that Barbara McClintock won her Nobel Prize at 81 for work done near that age. Not so. I agree she was quite sharp in her 80s. I too met her -- had dinner with her (though that was with about 7 other members of my department).

Donald Forsdyke said...

Wandering around libraries, pulling down volumes and making photocopies has never been easy for the elderly. The internet now gives us the literature online. We can, not only keep up with the literature that we find interesting, but we may remember past history and can chip in when others ("generation X"?) appear unware.

A recent example is causing consternation among embalmers in funeral homes. Sucking out blood vessels of cadavers in the pandemic era, they are seeing, not clotted blood, but long white fibrous strips. In the pre-antibiotic era when infectious diseases had full rein, this was a common observation. Robin Fahraeus solved it in his Ph.D. thesis and it was duly published in 1921.

Barbara Wilson said...

I am certainly wiser than I was in my 30's, or 40's, or 50's, even 60's. Unfortunately, that's a low bar.

judmarc said...

Perhaps the reason some folks think that wisdom comes with age is, to quote the late President Eisenhower, "Things are more like they are now than they ever were." We agree more with what we think now than what we thought 40 or 50 years ago; but I for one can't be certain which was more correct.