Are You Older and Wiser?

Apr 16, 2024

older adult woman reading a bookMost older people believe in the phrase “older and wiser”. Each of us can point to situations where we behaved better as older people than we did when we were young.

However, recently, researchers have examined the phrase and found that older people aren’t necessarily wiser. That conclusion makes sense, of course, but why do so many of us believe we are wiser?

How are Baby Boomers revolutionizing aging?


What is wisdom?

Merriam-Webster defines wisdom as “the quality of having experience, knowledge, and good judgment”.

Geriatric neuropsychologist Dr. Vivian Clayton says that wisdom has three components—knowledge, reflection, and compassion.

Historical Age and Wisdom

As recently as a century ago, elders were the front of wisdom because they had memories of what had and hadn’t worked in the past and because they were smart enough to have lived longer than anyone else.

They not only survived, they improved the survival of those around them.

Elders have lived through experiences no younger person has experienced. Psychologist Juan-Leone calls them “ultimate limit situations”. They include illness, aging, failure, oppression, loss, poverty and the risk of death in war. Because our generation has been through more of these situations, we have more wisdom.

He champions the role of older people in society, because we defy conventional wisdom and make more youthful members of society question their assumptions.

The Wisdom of Elders vs. Google

In Psychology Today, Dr. Alan Castel, Ph.D., advocates turning to the wisdom of elders instead of Google. The first is that older people have practical wisdom that is trustworthy, whereas the Internet (as we all learned this past year) is full of inaccurate information and false “facts”. The second is that getting information from an older family member facilitates bonding and reduces negative stereotypes about aging.

“(O)ur brains change not just by the accumulation of information we can get from the Internet, but also the social bonds we make, and our most precious (and growing) natural resource today may be the older wiser adult,” he writes.

Are older people wiser?

Opinion is divided.

Sociology Professor Dr. Monica Ardelt developed a wisdom quiz and administered it to discover that older people didn’t score any better than younger ones.

Psychologist Dr. Ursula Staudinger divides wisdom into general wisdom, the ability to give good advice, and personal wisdom, insight into your life’s failures and successes. She claims both types of wisdom decrease with age because we’re motivated by the thought of death to feel good about the course of our lives, instead of being motivated to change things.

On the other hand, a recent study showed that older people take longer to retrieve information stored in their brains, because we have so much more than younger people.

“Psychometric tests do not take account of the statistical skew of human experience, or the way knowledge increases with experience. As a consequence, when these tests are used to compare age groups, they paint a misleading picture of cognitive development,” the paper explains.

Older people are better at pattern recognition, according to Neuroscientist Dr. Elkhonon Goldberg, who says that pattern recognition can form the basis for wise behavior.

How to become a wise elder

Professor Adam Grant offers 5 ways to think like a wise person:

  1. Don’t wait until you’re older to develop wisdom by reflecting on lessons gained from experience.
  2. See the world in shades of gray, instead of black and white.
  3. Look beyond your personal desires to find the common good.
  4. Question everything. Challenge the status quo.
  5. Don’t judge. Evaluate.

Are you wise?

Take Ardelt’s wisdom quiz here.

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