Wisdom and feelings are deeply connected. Growing wiser means getting insight into your own thoughts, feelings, motivations and judgements. It’s not just a question of gaining knowledge or having answers (in fact, one of the wisest things that has ever been said is “I don’t know”).
According to social psychologists Tom Gilovich and Lee Ross – at Cornell and Stanford Universities respectively – wisdom is not just having acquired knowledge, but also having insight and good judgment. Such insights depend on a deep feeling for other another’s motivations, fears, hopes, and passions, as well as how they can get off-track. “To be wise, one must be psych-wise,” they write.
Daniel Goleman said similar things – though using different language – in his influential best seller Emotional Intelligence, in 1996.
Gilovich and Ross explain how blind we can be to our biases. We think our perceptions of the world are accurate and objective when they are clearly not. Being able to see past our own limitations, using empathy and insight to override judgement and self-interest, comes neither naturally nor easily, but it’s a hallmark of the wise.
For example, we are inclined to accuse others of having bad character just because they behave badly without considering other factors that could have influenced their behaviour. These biases make up a sort of ‘naive realism’, according to the authors, which can be detrimental to our relationships.
“Naive realism gives us the impression that we see things the way they are, not as filtered or constructed in light of our expectations, preferences, or overarching ideology,” they write. “It is then a short step to seeing alternative views as the product of hearts and minds that are somehow defective.”
Gilovich, T., Ross, L., (2016), The Wisest One in the Room: How To Harness Psychology’s Most Powerful Insights, Oneworld Publications, London