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Does Wisdom Come With Age?

“With wisdom comes age.” The ancient adage has seemingly existed since the dawn of human society. The correlation between wisdom and age as a basic concept appears in both early Greek and Chinese philosophy. The proverb is arguably most often attributed to a passage from the Book of Job: “Age should speak; advanced years should teach wisdom.”

Does Wisdom Come With Age?

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The wisdom/age dichotomy may have stood the test of time, but is it true? Starting as early as the 1950s, neuroscientists and psychologists began taking it upon themselves to revisit the idea using scientific methods. But first, what exactly is “wisdom?”

A 2014 New York Times article on the subject suggests that most psychologists define wisdom as “maintaining positive well-being and kindness in the face of challenges.” Back in the 1970s, geriatric neuropsychologist Vivian Clayton challenged a group of law students, law professors and retired judges to define the word “wisdom.” She came away with three common traits belonging to someone who may be considered to be “wise”: cognition, reflection and compassion.

Now, for the science. It’s been proven that cognitive functions tend to slow down with age – though, it’s also been proven that the slowdown is due to accumulated knowledge stored in the brain. As for reflection: with age undoubtedly comes experience. The more experiences you have to look back on and learn from, the more you theoretically understand. Subsequently, having that deeper understanding allows you to better empathize with others – commonly known as having “compassion.”

However, that’s only one set of traits defining wisdom, determined by one professional. Intelligence, humility, openness and honed problem-solving skills are just a handful of additional wisdom traits collected by Clayton’s peers. If a young person has those traits, are they scientifically considered to be “wise?”

Not quite, according to writer Molly Edmonds. “It may be that people of all ages can be wise, but when a person’s view of time changes, so too does wisdom. For example, a young person may exhibit wisdom in picking out a career, but that person does so with the sense of limitless future ahead of them,” she writes. It may be a bit of a generalization, but there is some truth in it. As for older folks? “An elderly person, knowing that time is more limited, will exhibit a different kind of wisdom in making a decision.”

In a 2013 study, a group of participants aged 60-82 and a second group of participants aged 18-29 were given a series of exams testing their economic and financial literacy in real-world situations, designed to study both groups’ decision-making skills in a high-stakes environment. What researchers surmised was that the older group was not only more patient with the challenges, but demonstrated a better overall understanding of finances and debt – most likely from experience. The younger group, on the other hand, were not only impatient but somewhat more fearful of risking financial losses.

So, does wisdom actually come with age? What do you think?