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Open for Debate

How to Find Wisdom in a Divided Society

1 January 2018

[snippet id=”325″ label=”Igor and Alex”]

It is not a debate that political division in the U.S., UK and many other European countries is at an all-time high. In the U.S., disagreement on the topics of race, national security, and environmental regulations—just to name a few—have increased during the Obama administration, and have continued to grow to record levels during President Trump’s first year in office. To make matters worse, we live in an age where news outlets thrive on reporting contention, leaving us entrenched in a system where one would be hard-pressed to avoid exposure to political discord and polarization. It is times like this where someone might be inclined to ask themselves how they can try to learn and grow from current political events, to face this political division and walk away from it a little bit wiser. For those of us looking to keep an open-mind, empathize, and reconcile different perspectives, the answer is not likely an easy one. Fortunately, the past few decades of psychological research have offered some valuable insight on how we might begin to cultivate wisdom in the midst of the great political divide we are living in right now.

Although the term wisdom carries various definitions and connotations throughout its history, psychologists recently define wisdom  as the ability to reflect on social issues and express humility, acknowledge others’ perspectives, recognize uncertainty, and seek compromise. What makes political polarization such a challenge for wisdom is that political disagreements are often founded—or feel as if they are founded on—our fundamental core values, blocking off the need or even desire to consider others’ perspectives. This is a large stumbling block in the path to wise forms of thinking, preventing people from perspective-taking and compromising their opinions. One of the keys to finding wisdom lies in the ability to first recognize that we are often flawed and biased individuals, and to realize that we are often more invested in our opinions and perspectives than we probably realize. Only once we begin to recognize this in ourselves, can we start to have a constructive discussion with others who disagree with us. To reach this point, psychology offers some evidence-based strategies to help people approach divisive social issues in a wiser manner. Below we highlight a few strategies people can take:

The power of situation. One of the strategies that has received robust evidence-based support (also see here) involves creating a social environment in which one is more likely to focus on others as compared to an environment in which one is more likely to exclusively focus on the self. For instance, people are more likely to reason wisely about interpersonal transgressions such as infidelity or trust betrayal if these scenarios involve their friends rather than them personally. Similarly, people report a greater ability to reason wisely about situations when surrounded by friends and family members rather than situations in which they were surrounded by strangers or were alone. Using these insights, one strategy may be to shape one’s environment in situations when wisdom is needed. That is, when needing a boost in wisdom, ensure that the decisions are not made in isolation and ideally draw on recommendations provided by others.

Ego-decentering. Some recent work has also explored how to boost wisdom in contexts where opinions on social issues such as political topics become too personal. One strategy that has shown particular promise involves the use of mental techniques to promote visual, temporal, or linguistic distance from the self. Instead of placing one’s personal opinions and needs (one’s ego) in the center, these techniques promote a form of decentering, enabling the person to see the bigger picture. For instance, some research finds that when people use a “third-person” self-talk technique, reflecting on a serious social issue by using pronouns he/she and their own name, as opposed to a first-person perspective, using pronouns such as me/mine, resulted in reasoning more closely aligned with wisdom—e.g., greater open-mindedness and willingness to compromise.

Generative Motivations. Another intriguing strategy derives from the concept of generativity—i.e., a concern for teaching and guiding future generations. Although the validity of generative motivations’ relationship to wisdom is still being empirically investigated, initial work starts to explore conditions under which these concepts may be linked. For instance, some experiments we have conducted show that explaining politically polarizing issues to someone unfamiliar with the topic leads people to express greater generativity (i.e., willingness to teach less knowledgeable people), as well as greater likelihood of expressing humility and acknowledge multiple perspectives. Notably, generative motivations can be harmful and not lead to wise reasoning if the person is invested in their viewpoint. Therefore, the process of teaching and guiding others may be most beneficial for wisdom when done in a way that preserves the complexities and multiple perspectives that accompany divisive social topics.

Wisdom does not come easily. During times of high political division, it is often easier to simply ignore or silence those who disagree with us, surrounding ourselves with like-minded individuals. However, we need to recognize the importance of remaining humble. We need to challenge our own views and perspectives by considering what others are thinking, and reflect on why they think the way they do and seek out compromise. The strategies we outline here can help people implement wiser approaches to thinking about contentious political issues as well as in their lives. As we continue to pass the torch to future generations, the success and well-being of our society hinges on our ability to adopt a wiser approach today, learning to manage and deal with the jarring nature of political disagreement and dissent.

Public Domain Image Oriental Theatre (1969) courtesy of Historic American Buildings Survey images of Oregon


  1. Rohit Parikh

    Democracy is good but elections can be harmful. And American elections which last a very long time are very harmful. Trump for instance has already declared his candidacy for 2020, almost three years away. Many statements which Democrats are making are related more to the elections in November 2018 than to the well being of America.

    One consequence of elections is that the parties each create a picture of what the country will be like if they are elected and more and more, what the country will be like if the other party is elected.

    Such pictures, while having SOME connection with truth, also contain an enormous amount of distortion and if not outright lies, at least some exaggerations and misleading statements.

    Thus the country becomes more divided than it might have been in the absence of elections.

    I do not know if this problem has been noticed. Surely I am not the first one to point to it. But it is DIFFERENT from the problems raised by Condorcet in the 18th century and proved as theorems by Arrow and Sen in the 20th century.

  2. Robert M Ellis

    Very good and helpful points. But why is there no mention of a load of other established approaches: mindfulness, imaginative stimulus through the arts, psychotherapy including cognitive behavioural therapy, critical thinking skills? You seem to be casting your net rather narrowly.

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