By Masami Takahashi
Masami Takahashi, PhD is a Professor of Psychology and Gerontology at Northeastern Illinois University. His latest research interests include: late adulthood and psychological strengths (e.g., wisdom, spirituality, religiosity); potential factors of longevity in the Blue Zones (geographic areas where people live longer); and psychosocial profiles of former kamikaze pilots with implications in other suicide missions around the world. He is also the Producer and Director of the 2006 film Last Kamikaze: Testimonials from the WWII Suicide Pilots.
Given Dr. Takahashi’s research on wisdom and culture, we asked him to write on specific topics to share his insights on the nuances and roles that culture, language, and context play in our understanding of wisdom. He addresses these in his responses below and emphasizes the obligation we have to consider the variations in cultural conceptions when studying wisdom.
The Intersection of Wisdom and Culture
How might culture play a role in our understanding of wisdom?
Culture plays a significant role in defining any social concept. In fact, I first became interested in wisdom and culture because my notion of wisdom was so different from those of many Western scientists. Back in the 1990s, wisdom researchers defined wisdom primarily as a type of knowledge or expertise; wise people were mostly middle-aged and had lots of life experiences with human problems. Although there had already been a few studies looking into the meaning of wisdom (implicit theories), none of them up to that point included different cultural contexts, or samples from non-Western populations. So, we carried out research with people from the U.S., Australia, India, and Japan. Participants from different cultural and geographic backgrounds rated the similarity of the adjective wise to other related descriptors (i. e., aged, awakened, discreet, experienced, intuitive, and knowledgeable) that had been generated in a pilot study. The study also explored the preferences for these descriptors by asking participants to select and rank the three most desired adjectives as descriptors of their ideal selves. Although it is too simplistic to categorize the Americans and Australians as the ‘Westerners’ and the Indians and Japanese as the ‘Easterners’, we thought it was a good starting point to generate further discussions. Besides, we must acknowledge that there are some fundamental differences in their cultural values (e.g., Judeo-Christian vs. Vedic traditions).
The most interesting finding in the study was that the ‘Western’ sample understood wisdom as closely associated with the analytical features, such as a broad general knowledge base and expertise accumulated through life experience; and that they selected knowledgeable and wise as the two of the most preferred descriptors for an ideal self. On the other hand, the ‘Eastern’ sample associated wise (on the similarity scale) with the discreet characteristic, which requires not only having an extensive knowledge base, but also prudence or the exercising of sound judgment in practical and emotional situations. In other words, for Indians and Japanese participants, the term wise is conceptualized not solely as a cognitive ability, but also as a characteristic that facilitates the effective integration of multiple domains of psychological processing (e.g., cognition, emotion, intuition, etc.).
Another interesting finding was a relationship between being wise and aged. We found that wise and aged were closely associated in their meanings among both the ‘Eastern’ and ‘Western’ samples, yet they were, respectively, the most and the least preferred descriptors for an ideal self for all groups. Given the different cultural context of the East and West with respect to the societal perception of old age—ranging from relatively gerontophilic attitude in the East to gerontophobic attitude in the West— this consistent pattern across cultures is a bit perplexing. One possible interpretation is that there is a double standard of aging in contemporary societies regardless of historical and cultural tradition. That is, young adults in contemporary societies tend to perceive old age as an undesirable characteristic associated with decline. Such a bias towards aging was believed to be prevalent only in the West, but with rapid modernization the perception of old age may be changing in India and Japan as well. This speculation, however, requires further investigation, particularly on how people perceive the relationship between wisdom and chronological age, and what factors contribute to the changing perception of old age in other cultures.
Wisdom and Age
In addition to cultural context, have you found differences in wisdom across age groups?
In 2002, we carried out an empirical study based on our culturally inclusive developmental model of wisdom with middle-aged and older cohorts in the U.S. and Japan. In the absence of any previous cross-cultural study directly investigating wisdom quality, we used simple protocols that were readily available and readily translatable (e.g., Similarity subset of WAIS-R, Index of Self Actualization, etc.). In addition to the age differences in wisdom, a couple of noteworthy results were revealed. First, older adults generally performed better on these wisdom measures regardless of gender or their cultural background. Although the development of wisdom may be more influenced by the content of life events and social changes than chronological age per se, they are often intertwined because having lived longer generally implies more opportunities for psychological maturity through a variety of life experiences. Further, this finding supports previous study results involving only the Western population that have found that older adults outperformed younger cohorts and that older adults are ‘top performers’ of various wisdom tasks of Berlin wisdom paradigm.
Second, contrary to the conventional Western conceptualization that wisdom can be solely understood within an analytic cognitive framework, this study showed that both the analytic (i.e., knowledge, abstract reasoning) and synthetic (i.e., reflective understanding, empathy, and emotion regulation) dimensions are equally important in understanding the functioning of wisdom in late adulthood.
Third, in the 2002 data, both the synthetic and analytical wisdom components were positively correlated with life satisfaction, supporting the assumption that wisdom functions, especially those of the synthetic features, were believed to be self-discovering, self-expanding processes which often accompany an intrinsically rewarding and satisfying experience. This result was further corroborated by several older participants, who had experienced losses (e.g., loss of loved ones, physical impairment, income decline, etc.) through the years, and reported that they gradually gained an insight into the value of what they still had. This, in turn, intensified a sense of appreciation and satisfaction about self and life in general. Although some participants complained about their losses, those who had gone through this insightful, self-expanding process claimed that it was worthwhile for the peace of mind they had gained, despite painful experiences.
Language and Context
Language is a key component of culture and context. How might language affect how we understand wisdom when we conduct research?
Language certainly plays a role in how people understand wisdom. Although subtle, one interesting phenomena can be seen in how the meaning of wisdom changed in the Buddhist tradition. When Buddha became enlightened and began teaching around 600 B.C., he spoke a language similar to Pali, a language of commoners. As Buddha’s teaching spread beyond common people to elites and scholars, numerous manuscripts were produced in Sanskrit, a language that is more formal than Pali (Mizuno, 1982; Takasaki, 2000). In the beginning, wisdom was expressed as vid, a verb implying a type of religious or transcendental knowing. With an increasing popularity of Buddhism after his death, however, relevant manuscripts were re-interpreted and re-written numerous times. As a consequence, the meaning of wisdom as divine knowledge was transformed from a religious and mystical knowing of vid to a more practical and logical knowledge of jñā.
By the time Buddhism came to China around 1 A.D., two types of knowing, jñāna and prajñā, replaced the original conceptualization of wisdom of vid. These had been translated into Chinese where a combined word 智慧 became known as the wisdom of Buddhism. For this reason, the concept of wisdom came to be associated with less of an emphasis on inclusivity and personal experience involving cognition, emotion, and intuition, and more of an emphasis on exclusivity, privilege, and knowledge with accentuated analytical and practical properties. While this is complicated enough, it became more so when the concept became popular in contemporary Japan. There, wisdom is no longer expressed in the original Chinese characters with exclusive religious semantics, but now in new, simplified, and secularized characters to be more accessible and inclusive.
Moving Forward in Wisdom Research
We were grateful that you were able to participate in one of our Wisdom Research Forums last year at the University of Chicago. Would you describe your experience and share a few salient takeaways?
It was a wonderful opportunity for both students and researchers to attend the Wisdom Research Forum. I enjoyed listening to different approaches to understanding wisdom from the past three decades. Certainly I enjoyed it. I look forward to future meetings where we might begin to discuss cultural issues related to wisdom. Most of the studies presented at the conference came from existing ideas based out of the Max Planck Institute or Monika Ardelt's three dimensional wisdom model, but we unfortunately did not have enough time to talk about how indigenous people of the world perceive wisdom, or Native Americans, or ethic minorities in the United States that might vary in concepts. We do not know whether or not, or to what degree there are differences, but we have an obligation to study how wisdom might be conceptualized in various cultures. Cultural contexts must be incorporated in our study of wisdom.
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