While distanced self-reflection is an ancient technique, the new study provides evidence-based insight into how this method fosters wisdom in daily life. 

“Particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic, resolving social conflict is an important skill, but people often fail to reason wisely when conflict arises, so we designed a simple intervention to help them,” said lead author Igor Grossmann, professor of psychology at the University of Waterloo. “Our findings provide the first empirical evidence for the trainability of wisdom in daily life when working through challenging interactions.” 

Wisdom—or wise reasoning—is defined by the researchers to include intellectual humility, appreciation of different ways uncertain situations could unfold, consideration of and attempts to integrate diverse viewpoints.

For this study, the researchers conducted experiments with a total of 555 participants from English-speaking parts of North America to test a method for promoting wisdom in the context of daily real-world experiences.

In one experiment, participants were instructed to keep a month-long diary in which they reflected from a distanced third-person perspective on one daily interpersonal conflict experience. For instance, a participant wrote about themself in the third person by picturing themselves in the conflict and asking, “Why is [their own name] feeling or behaving this way?” Participants in the control groups used first-person reflection or were given no direction on how to reflect. Compared to these controls, the experiments using distance third-person reflection promoted wiser reasoning over time. 

“This increase in wise reasoning occurred because distanced self-reflection broadened people’s typically narrow self-focus,” said Grossmann. “The benefit of the practice was particularly pronounced in the participants’ ability to show intellectual humility and acknowledge others’ perspectives as a means toward conflict resolution. 

Illustrating an application of wise reasoning today, Grossmann points to the COVID-19 pandemic, covered by uncertainty, where there is often a conflict between protecting self-interests and civic duty toward vulnerable populations. “There is no universal answer here, as the recommendation may change depending on the specific context. According to philosophers, wise reasoning – recognizing limits of one’s knowledge, approaching the dilemma from multiple perspectives, trying to consider ways to resolve this dilemma via a compromise and considering both short and long-term consequences—may be one way to gain deeper insight into the fit of recommendations to a particular context.” 

The same characteristics were recently recommended by leading behavioural and social scientists in the World after Covid project, said Grossmann, a video database of scholarly reflections for pandemic survival and changes ahead.  

The paper, Training for Wisdom: The Distanced Self-Reflection Diary Method, was published in Psychological Science, and is co-authored by Grossmann with Anna Dorfman, Harrison Oakes, Abigail A. Scholer (University of Waterloo), Henri C. Santos (Geisinger Health System), and Kathleen D. Vohs (University of Minnesota).

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