Our Personal Values Influence Our Ideas about Wisdom
Imagine that you meet someone for the first time and are deeply impressed by the wise and insightful things they say. Then you find out that this person enthusiastically supports a political party that you’d never vote for. Would you still think they were wise?
My colleagues and I live and work in Carinthia, the southernmost province of Austria. In the fall of 2008, province governor Jörg Haider, a widely known right-wing politician, died in a car crash. As it happened, we were starting our first large study of wisdom at the time. Because we wanted to include people who were regarded as wise in our sample, we put announcements in newspapers and on radio and television, asking people if they knew a wise person.
Soon, we received calls nominating people who had been close to governor Haider as exemplars of wisdom. That was a surprise: we had never considered Haider or his political sidekicks, who were as well-known for corruption as for fomenting nationalism and xenophobia, as wise in any way. We had assumed that wise individuals were tolerant, peaceful, and concerned about the world at large.
This led us to wonder: were we just projecting our own worldviews into our ideas of wisdom? To use a more recent example, does a Trump supporter consider Donald Trump as just as wise as a Biden supporter may consider Joe Biden to be wise? Or are certain values, such as caring about the well-being of all people, an inextricable part of wisdom?
To answer this question, we conducted a series of studies asking people to answer a questionnaire that measured their values twice: once for themselves, and once as they imagined a wise person would respond. Would even people who described themselves as driven mostly by money and power think that wise people are motivated by benevolence and concern for others? In another study, we measured wisdom and values to see whether wiser people actually endorsed different values than people who were less wise.
The value questionnaires we used in our studies were designed by Shalom Schwartz, perhaps the foremost authority on values around the world. Those questionnaires tell us how important our participants consider values from four domains: openness to change (comprising the values of self-direction and stimulation), self-enhancement (how much people value power and achievement), conservation (values involving conformity, tradition, and security), and self-transcendence (the values of benevolence and universalism).
Based on our own and other researchers’ theoretical models of wisdom, we expected wisdom to be associated with self-transcendent values: benevolence (caring about the well-being of others one feels close to) and universalism (caring about humanity and the world at large). Would everybody, even people who did not particularly value benevolence and universalism themselves, agree that wisdom involved benevolence and universalism? Or were those just the typical values that psychologists associate with wisdom?
The results were somewhat in between. To some extent, people’s ideas about wise people’s values did mirror their own values. For example, conservative, right-wing participants did think that wise people cared less about universalism and more about power and tradition than liberal, left-wing participants thought they did.
At the same time, people did agree somewhat about the values that wise people hold. In fact, people’s ideas of wise persons’ values were much more similar to each other than their own values were. People who personally cared a lot about achievement, power, and security believed that wise people cared a lot less about achievement, power, and security than they did. People who cared very little about tradition, benevolence, and universalism believed that wise people cared more about tradition, benevolence, and universalism than they did. In the study in which we measured people’s wisdom and values, wiser participants indeed cared more about self-transcendence and self-direction—and less about power and security—than less wise participants did.
So do people consider someone as wise who does not share the values that are most important to them? Probably not. Our ideas of wisdom are shaped by what we personally value. But at the same time, we do think that wise people are “better” than we are. Independent of our own values, we believe that wise people care less about themselves—less about power, fame, money, and their personal security—than we do, and that they care more about the needs of other people and the world at large. That’s what we expect from a wise leader—and what the world needs in these times.
For Further Reading
Glück, J., Gussnig, B., & Schrottenbacher, S. M. (2020). Wisdom and value orientations: just a projection of our own beliefs? Journal of Personality, 88(4), 833-855. Open-access publication; https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/epdf/10.1111/jopy.12530.
Sternberg, R. J., Nusbaum, H., & Glück, J. (Eds.) (2019). Applying Wisdom to Contemporary World Problems. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
Judith Glück is professor of developmental psychology at University of Klagenfurt in Austria. Her main topic of research is wisdom.