Conversations on Wisdom: Ursula M. Staudinger

Ursula M. Staudinger, PhD is a Robert N. Butler Professor of Sociomedical Sciences and Professor of Psychology. She is the director of the Columbia Aging Center at Columbia University. She is a lifespan psychologist and an internationally leading aging researcher. Her research interest lies in the plasticity of the aging process and its implications for demographic change. In light of a society of longer lives, Dr. Staudinger explores the potentials of aging and studies the interplay between productivity and aging as well as the development of life insight, life management, and wisdom over the life span. Her scientific research shows that the cognitive performance of adults can be increased and that positive personality development is possible well into old age.

In this interview, Dr. Staudinger discusses her continued work in aging, the foundations of her work in wisdom research with the Berlin Wisdom Paradigm, and temporarily setting aside well-being to make gains in wisdom.

Jean: What type of work do you do at the Columbia Aging Center?

Dr. Staudinger: I have come to Columbia to build up an interdisciplinary research center that deals with the study of aging and the positive plasticity of aging. I’m interested in the degree to which and how it is possible that we positively modify human aging and its various facets such as cognition, personality, social functioning, productivity, or physical functioning. The center also has a second component dealing with bringing findings as quickly as possible into the public sphere so that we can make a contribution to how we transform societies to be societies of longer lives.

Jean: How do you go about bringing your research into the public sector?

Dr. Staudinger: One of the areas we focus on is developing a better understanding of the connection between work environments and the aging process. On the translational side, my colleague Dr. Ruth Finkelstein has received funding for creating awards for companies who are in alignment with this work in human resource management and work organization to promote longer productive lives with the employees. She and the project team developed a set of criteria, based on research, conducive to supporting productivity and longer fulfilled work lives. Then she put out these awards for companies to demonstrate they meet these criteria or they are pursuing that pathway.

Another area of work is with images of aging in how we think about our own aging, how society thinks about different phases in life, and how this influences self-regulation. We study how such images influence behavior in the sense of a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we expect negative things to be happening with us, as we grow older, we can be pretty sure that they will be happening. On the applied translational side, my colleague Ruth Finkelstein has been running a project called Exceeding Expectations [a digital narrative following the daily lives of 20 amazing people over 81]. The project selects New Yorkers that have exceeded the average life expectancy of a typical New Yorker across different walks of life and interviews them. We partake in their lives for some time to develop narratives describing their aging that may help to create new images of aging so people can enrich their existing images and conceptions.

Jean: What motivated you to embark upon wisdom research?

Dr. Staudinger: We started to study wisdom in the 1980s. The prime motivation was to find a characteristic, ability, or skill that may improve, as we grow older. At that time in aging research, there was a strong emphasis on the decline model of aging. We were interested whether it is possible to find some characteristic that does not decline. Wisdom is one of the prototypical examples for that according to folklore and that is how we got to the study of wisdom. It seems that it is an ideal sample case of how different areas of psychological functioning need to work together and need to be integrated or orchestrated to produce a greater whole. How does experience and reasoning play together with our emotion regulation and with our motivational orientations to produce something that comes close to wisdom?

When we started to study wisdom we asked the question of the wisdom literature, which is as old as written records of humankind, to find out what had been the understanding of wisdom across historical time and across cultures. We discovered that there were amazing similarities across very diverse cultures and a long stretch of historical time. For instance, one of the universals was that it always became clear that wisdom had to do with a set of insights and judgments that were of superior quality. It always came through that wisdom was called upon when fundamental existential and uncertain dilemmas of life were concerned. Due to the fact that we are one species characterized by certain features, the basic dilemmas reappear. They have to do with the fact that we are sexual beings. We are vulnerable in our physical body. We are terminal on this planet. We are torn between being deeply dependent and wanting to be autonomous. So these are just some of the basic dilemmas that come up repeatedly and are characteristic for any writing about wisdom across time and culture. Another aspect that always came up is that wisdom is rather easy to be recognized and very hard to attain. The consensus is that people know when they see it, but they wouldn’t be able to produce it themselves very easily.

Jean: How do you define wisdom and by what criteria do you measure it? Can you briefly explain the Berlin Wisdom Paradigm?

Dr. Staudinger: Based on two different sources (the wisdom literature and the lifespan literature), we came up with our definition of wisdom. We define wisdom to be expert insight and judgment in the fundamental issues of life (pragmatics of life), and dealing with these existential dilemmas of the human species. However, this very general definition is not enough. If you want to study a performance, you need to have quality criteria to be able to say this kind of insight and judgment is better than another.

So we developed five criteria that were in sync with the wisdom literature and that would allow us to make this kind of quality judgment. To bring in a few examples, one of the criteria is lifespan contextualism. If someone, who has wise insight and judgment in life pragmatics is given a dilemma situation, the person would be able to illustrate how this situation is contextualized in different life domains. The problem itself may arise out of a family context, but the family context does not exist in isolation. It is connected with the work sphere, the leisure sphere, and with what I wish for myself as an individual person. Beyond the linkages between the life domains, we also need to contextualize on a time dimension. Any problem has a prior history in how it developed. When it comes to intervening and trying to solve the problem, we need to take into consideration short-term, mid-term, and long-term consequences, which actually may be quite different from each other. So you may, for instance, take into account negative short-term consequences but being sure that in the mid- or long-term, it will turn around and become positive. It may sound absurd at first to give advice that will immediately create a negative effect, but then this negative effect will turn around in the mid- and long-term. It is this kind of domain contextualization and timeline contextualization.

Another criterion is what we have called value relativism. This describes the fact that someone who has wise insight and judgment is able to identify the value system that plays an important role for the target character or the main person in the problem, how that value system influences the person’s perceptions, the person’s evaluations and actions, and takes this into account when trying to provide advice. Nevertheless, value relativism criterion does not mean that anything goes or the laissez-fair attitude, but rather that we acknowledge someone may have that value. If the value conflicts with the highest wisdom value -- which is to achieve a balance between the general, the greater good, and the individual good-- then a wise judgment would overrule the person’s value by this more general value orientation.

A third meta-criterion is awareness and management of the uncertainties in life. We have always found this is the toughest one. This criterion implies that wise judgment needs to acknowledge that human beings can never perfectly predict the future, explain the past, nor do we have all the information in the present to make the perfect judgment. Nevertheless, we cannot sit in the corner, get depressed, and not do anything. We have to get moving and manage this uncertainty. Someone who has wise judgment is able to produce best guesses based on the intuitions and the evidence that is available at a given point in time. At the same time, as these are best guesses, a wise judgment, a wise person would very readily check and monitor new evidence and intuitions coming up and revise oneself. This is very hard because we have to acknowledge that we are not in perfect control and have to make the best out of it.

Jean: Are there factors that we might be able to bolster to make gains in wisdom across the lifespan?

Dr. Staudinger: Certainly there are ways we can strengthen certain approaches to difficult life problems. Repetitive practice of perspective taking has been found to encourage people to step into the shoes of others and helps people to increase their level of value relativism.

Another aspect that we found that is really influential is emotional regulation. We find that it is crucial to be able to tolerate and even embrace negative emotions without being overwhelmed by them. It is highly functional to reframe and to do away with the negative emotion to get on with our life and come back to a positive balance in our well-being. However, for some insights to be gained, it is crucial to stick with the negative emotions and to learn from them rather than do away with them and reframe them. This links with an important distinction in types of positive development. It's the distinction between encouraging, supporting, and facilitating resilience in the sense of adjustment, mastery, and growth. [Working through adjustments towards mastery is one pathway for growth and development.]

The other pathway, which I have come to call the wisdom pathway, is not only about mastery and adjustment, it’s beyond that. It is about challenging the given, transcending the given, and going to the bottom of things. As hurtful as that might be at times but by going to the bottom of things you learn more.

These two pathways may crisscross as we walk through our lives, but very rarely are they completely aligned. Though they can be quite juxtaposed at times. That is our interpretation of why on average personal wisdom goes down with age. As Erik Erikson has told us, mastering this last psychosocial crisis of either finding integrity in your life or ending up in despair/death pushes us towards integration. In order to integrate, we tend to brush over and ignore some of the side pathways, failures, or more unpleasant things in our lives, which are not that important anymore because they are in the past. Why should we concern ourselves with them in the now and jeopardize our well-being in the present? That kind of attitude avoids learning from these failures, from these wrong goings and doings, and from these missed opportunities. That’s why I think we find this negative trend in personal wisdom in particular past age 55 or 60. So there are these two positive pathways: one towards mastery and adjustments and the other one towards wisdom.

Jean: If one has to set aside momentary well-being to gain wisdom, would you expect someone who scores high on a well-being measure to score well on a wisdom measure?

Dr. Staudinger: This has become a very interesting question. Would we expect someone who scores rather high on a wisdom measure (a performance-based wisdom measure) to also score above average on subjective well-being? My clear answer is no. That is exactly what I try to describe when I talk about the difference between adjustment and mastery on the one hand, and wisdom and growth on the other hand. While we are on these pathways, one of the sacrifices we make to being on the wisdom pathway is sacrificing some degrees of subjective well-being in order to reach another kind of well-being often called eudaimonia. This may be different once you have attained wisdom if that’s ever possible as a human being. Once we have attained the highest level, it may be different. I doubt however that we will capture this state of contentment and balance with classic measures of subjective well-being. However, that is an ongoing debate.

Ursula M. Staudinger, Ph.D.

Professor of Psychology, Columbia University