Over the last few months Geoff Mulgan and I have been regularly talking around the topic of wisdom and how we need wiser as well as smarter societies. “Bridging the Wisdom Gap” summarises are thinking so far and ideas for what we would like to do next.
In a Nutshell
We propose that getting wiser personally and collectively is central to addressing critical challenges ranging from mental health to climate change.
1. There is a wisdom gap: Our technological powers have expanded dramatically as have the complexities of our societies. These increases place greater demands on us to make “wiser” choices personally and collectively. Yet our wisdom has not kept up as evidenced by, for example, the growing crises in the climate and mental health. In short, there appears to be a growing wisdom gap.
2. We could close the gap: There is a growing body of relevant work from a variety of disciplines ranging from neuroscience and evolutionary psychology to cultural history and sociology. However, we don’t currently value, research or cultivate wisdom systematically, practically and in the mainstream.
3. This is a high value area of research with immediate application to policy. A start could be made with systematic survey of relevant work, developing a framework and roadmap for future efforts, and finally, a few example applications to key areas e.g. institutional leadership on climate change or biodiversity preservation; or collective action to address racial and economic inequality.
Wisdom is Rarely Talked About
We talk of “smart” cities, not wise ones. Of all the qualities we seek in our leaders wisdom is rarely mentioned compared to power, strength or decisiveness.
In general, wisdom is not well-defined, nor is it commonly talked of outside of religious or spiritual circles and is not a mainstream issue – for example, a politician talking about wisdom would be odd.
This absence extends to research: wisdom is not an active field of study – and what discussions there are often turn out to be discussions of “intelligence” in disguise. Even in philosophy, wisdom is rarely mentioned despite it being a discipline whose very name means “loves of wisdom”.
: E.g. “Polling routinely reveals ‘strong’ and ‘decisive’ as amongst the most desirable, if not the most desirable, traits that political leaders should possess (Gallup, 2007, 2009).” Chapter 14, Great Expectations in The Routledge Companion to Leadership. 1st Edition, Routledge, 2016.
: For example, Landemore, Hélène, and Jon Elster, eds. 2012. Collective Wisdom: Principles and Mechanisms. Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press. As a general point, distinguishing intelligence and wisdom is not easy, especially as wisdom is often not well defined (nor, even, intelligence). Nevertheless we could allude to the difference: a group of people making a better assessment of the weight of a pig or the likelihood of a particular geology containing gold would be a sign of greater (collective) intelligence. A group of people with strongly differing opinions finding a way to constructively discuss and evolve their positions would be a sign of collective wisdom.
We have a wisdom “gap”
At the same time, our situation is one in which “wisdom” is sorely needed. Dramatic increase in our numbers, technological prowess and societal complexity all place greater demands on us to make good choices personally and collectively (and act on them). Yet, we are manifestly failing to make those good choices – in fact, the gap between what is required and what we are doing may be growing. Put simply, we are like five year olds suddenly handed machine guns (or bulldozers): our crude powers vastly outstrip our capacity to use them well.
The consequences of this gap are very real
And these are not abstract concerns: this gap is showing up visibly and urgently. At a collective level, in areas ranging from existential risks such as climate catastrophe and runaway AI to rising inequality, political discontent and simple anomie. At a personal level, as we struggle to make “wise” (long-term, deeply well) choices whether for the food we eat, the investments we make or the information we consume.
Being wiser is important but we don’t study or cultivate it
Furthermore, greater wisdom – getting wiser personally and collectively – could be a key part of handling the challenges posed by our growth in numbers, power and complexity. For example, a widespread awareness of our interconnectedness with others and nature would be transformative for action on climate change – when you identify with your environment you are less likely to destroy it! Discovering practical ways to cultivate reflection and emotional regulation would play a major role in developing well-being and addressing a variety of mental health issues. For example, with meditation we discover ways to derive joy in the here and now rather than depending on the gratification of consumption.
Yet we don’t examine, value, research or cultivate wisdom – or even have a strong sense of what it is! Furthermore, what limited work does exist tends to be abstract and disconnected from concrete, operational issues.
: We have intentionally eschewed a simple definition of wisdom. However, we anticipate key aspects of wisdom is the ability to make good choices and being able to act on good choices. See also http://lifeitself.us/2017/09/10/four-types-of-problem/ and https://lifeitself.us/collective-wisdom/
There is a growing body of relevant work
There is a growing body of relevant work that offers significant potential: the last few decades have seen major advances in a variety of relevant areas ranging across neuro-psychology, developmental science, phenomenology, culture and mindfulness. However, these are, as yet, rarely utilized or connected to a large systematic inquiry.
As a specific example, there is now a substantial body of work around mindfulness documenting links with mental health and wellbeing. At a societal level there is suggestive evidence of a link between wisdom and culture: with culture being a kind of “dark matter” that shows up when we look at which individuals or groups seem to be “wise” in the sense either that they make good “wise” choices and/or that they are able to act upon good choices (especially when doing that is valuable but hard e.g. paying higher taxes today to invest more in education that yields benefits in twenty years).
: Defining good and “wise” in this sense is itself a key part of this kind of research effort. However, to give a flavour in economic terminology this would include qualities like long-termism, externality minimizing (i.e. considering all the factors) etc.
: For example, see the fascinating comparative cultural work of Hackett Fischer: first, in examining different cultural sources and their persistence in the European settlement of America (Albion’s Seed) and secondly in comparing the United States and New Zealand (Fairness and Freedom). Putnam’s landmark Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy (1993) presents detailed evidence for the “dark matter” interaction of culture with political and institutional evolution. There is also the recent work of Henrich et al e.g. WEIRDest people in the world.
A research program for a wiser world
If we are to start closing the “wisdom gap” we need to start taking wisdom seriously societally, politically and “scientifically”. We can begin with research, initiating a preliminary research program on “wisdom” covering topics such as:
- What is “wisdom” personally and collectively (i.e. what is a wise culture)?
- How do we develop and cultivate wisdom? How do we get wiser?
- What concrete examples and evidence do we have of its importance (especially to addressing our personal and collective challenges)? This allows us to engage and communicate with policymakers and other stakeholders about the relevance of this exercise.
- What are concrete (and testable) proposals for being wiser and taking wiser action on “live” real-world issues?
Ultimately, we are seeking to “mainstream” this agenda and have a world where wisdom is valued, discussed and cultivated broadly in society. A world where wisdom would be a respectable and common-place in research, politics and the media.
We can start simply, e.g. with a survey of existing work and frame-working
We can begin with a systematic survey of relevant work across a variety of disciplines combined with the creation of a framework for organizing this material. This would lead into:
A) the development of a roadmap;
B) example applications of the wisdom approach in specific areas e.g. institutional leadership in climate change and biodiversity preservation, or collective action to address racial and economic inequality.