There’s an apparent paradox in modern life: Society as a whole is getting smarter, yet we aren’t any closer to figuring out how to all get along. “How is it possible that we have just as many, if not more, conflicts as before?” asks social psychologist Igor Grossmann at the University of Waterloo in Canada.
The answer is that raw intelligence doesn’t reduce conflict, he asserts. Wisdom does. Such wisdom—in effect, the ability to take the perspectives of others into account and aim for compromise—comes much more naturally to those who grow up poor or working class, according to a new study by Grossman and colleagues.
“This work represents the cutting edge in wisdom research,” says Eranda Jayawickreme, a social psychologist at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
To conduct the study, Grossmann and his graduate student Justin Brienza embarked on a two-part experiment. First, they asked 2145 people throughout the United States to take an online survey. Participants were asked to remember a recent conflict they had with someone, such as an argument with a spouse or a fight with a friend. They then answered 20 questions applicable to that or any conflict, including: “Did you ever consider a third-party perspective?” “How much did you try to understand the other person’s viewpoint?” and “Did you consider that you might be wrong?”
Grossmann and Brienza crunched the data and assigned the participants both a “wise reasoning” score based on the conflict answers and a “social class” score, then plotted the two scores against one another. They found that people with the lowest social class scores—those with less income, less education, and more worries about money—scored about twice as high on the wise reasoning scale as those in the highest social class. The income and education levels ranged from working class to upper middle class; neither the very wealthy nor the very poor were well represented in the study.
In the second part of the experiment, the duo recruited 200 people in and around Ann Arbor, Michigan, to take a standard IQ test and read three letters to the Dear Abby advice column. One letter, for example, asked about choosing sides in an argument between mutual friends. Each participant then discussed with an interviewer how they thought the situations outlined in the letters would play out. A panel of judges scored their responses according to various measures of wise reasoning. In the example above, thinking about how an outsider might view the conflict would earn points toward wisdom, whereas relying only on one’s own perspective would not.
As with the first part of the experiment, those in lower social classes consistently had higher wise-reasoning scores than those in higher social classes, the researchers reported today in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B. IQ scores, however, weren’t associated one way or another with wise reasoning.
The findings make sense, Jayawickreme says, as people who grow up in a working-class environment have to rely on shared, communal resources more than people in the middle class, and therefore hone social techniques that smooth out conflicts with their peers. Those in the middle class, in contrast, tend to focus on education, which improves their IQ scores, but they don’t put nearly as much effort into conflict resolution skills, Grossmann says.
If you want to foster wise reasoning in yourself, Grossmann advises, try to use third-person language when thinking about conflicts. Mentally address both yourself and your conflict partner by name, for example, as it forces you to see the situation as others would see it. And seek out situations where your own experiences and expectations aren’t in the spotlight, such as by attending a multicultural movie festival or by volunteering at a homeless shelter.
Eventually, Grossman wants to expand his study of wisdom to people at the extremes of social class. “I would not be surprised if the result is even more pronounced in the extremely wealthy, but we don’t have the data to speak to it yet,” he says. “I would love to interview Donald Trump.”