Does wisdom come with age? by Cami Ciesielski


Commonly, a lot of negative stereotypes are associated with aging.  Being called grumpy, slow, and weak are often characteristics associated with becoming an older adult.  However, gaining wisdom is one of the few stereotypes that comes with aging, that gives a benefit to aging.  Most people do believe that as one ages it is likely that they will gain more wisdom.  This stereotype has been around since ancient times with lots of philosophical and religious books mentioning the idea (Korkki, 2014).  I have always thought of my parents and grandparents as people that have more wisdom than me.  I believed this to be true because I thought, like a lot of other people, that wisdom can only be gained from life experience. Along with this idea, it is a common belief that as one ages, more material gets stored in their brain, so they have the most information that can be processed and used.  Before doing research, I had the idea that as one ages, they will get wiser, but age is not the only factor that can develop wisdom.  I think traumatic life experiences, support systems, and career paths can affect someone’s wisdom.  It all depends how they react to the situation and how they learn from it.  But I was curious if this stereotype could be tested and what researchers find.

A study was conducted to compare wisdom between young and older adults.  Gordon and Jordan (2017) set up research that divided two groups of adults to judge adult speakers.  The young adult judges ages ranged from 20 to 40.  The older adults included ages 60 to 80.  The speakers ages ranged from 30 to 89 years old.  The participants listened to the speakers and then took questionnaires that asked about the speakers and their characteristics.  There was never the direct mention of wisdom.  Through the surveys, the researchers found that wisdom was judged in accordance with age and the older adults that were on the young spectrum that spoke received the highest scores (Gordon & Jordan, 2017).  There was also an influence that gender had on the outcome because older men received higher scores until people classify them as too old, which was about age 70.  Being younger had a worse effect on women’s scores as a speaker especially when judged by men.  They concluded that better wisdom ratings were consistently given to older aged women and men, when they were younger than 70 (Gordon & Jordan, 2017).  One limitation of this study is the bias of the raters but that is hard to control due to the plasticity and personal opinions.

This research of the next article wanted to find if people more commonly took advice from older adults compared to peers.  They did not measure anything with wisdom but rather in the findings found that participants often alluded to wisdom as reasoning behind their choice of choosing the older adult’s advice.  In this study, adolescents and adults completed a learning task that included choosing the correct set of data on the computer.  There was a correct answer but participants had to figure out the pattern to solve it.  They received advice from a peer and from an older adult.  The peer was the same gendered and about the same age to help fight those biases.  Both suggestions on which answer to pick was inaccurate.  45 participants took the test and in all cases both age groups preferred instruction from the older adult (Lourenco et al., 2015).  This was interesting because when they tested how well the participants related to the advice givers, only adolescence showed any bias.  Their preference was toward the peer advice giver (Lourenco et al., 2015).  Even though researchers have found that adolescents are strongly influenced by peers, this was not the case in this study.  The reasoning behind their findings was that the younger cohorts found wisdom in the adults and looked for their experiential knowledge because they believed it to be more reliable.

Wisdom is often brought up when taking about making decisions.  In this experiment, researchers tested decision making between young adults and older adults.  It was considered that in both stages of life, adults must make important decisions so the researchers wanted to know what affected the strategies for decisions they made.  It is just different stages in the lifelong development. The participants took two different types of computer tasks.  The participants were either between 60 to 84 or they were classified as young adults with the ages 18 to 23.  There were 28 of each cohort and they were volunteers from Texas who received a money compensation for their time participating.  The first test they took on the computer was choice-independent meaning that each question was separate from the last.  The composite score was a total of all the tests added together.  The results from this game showed that younger adults scored more points than older adults (Worthy, Gorlick, Pacheco, Schnyer, & Maddox, 2011).  The second test however was a sequence of question were the last answer depended on the first answer, thus it was categorized as a dependent-choice test.  The results of the test showed that the older adults earned more points (Worthy, 2011).   This was explained by the fact that older adults were more likely to hypothesis how the rewards were calculated.  The younger adults did better on the first test because they knew which individual choice would bring higher reward, but they used less long term strategy (Worthy, 2011).  This test supported that wisdom grows with age but it was very specific to decision making.  The limitations of this study in regards to wisdom is that decision making is not the only way that wisdom can be defined and the researchers only reasoned why the results came out like they did without surveying the participants about their thought behind the tests.

Ardelt (2009) took it upon herself to study the difference in wisdom between older adults and college students.  She conducted a survey with a cross-sectional influence using scantrons in 2009. Her sample was 477 undergraduate college students and 178 older adults.  It was not a completely valid representative sample because all samples were part of a social group or currently in college.  It compared the testing differences between college students, older adults who hold a college degree, and older adults who do not have a college degree.  The older adults were at least 51 years old.  For this study, she defined wisdom as a personality characteristic that included cognitive, reflective, and affective dimensions (Ardelt, 2009).  The cognitive wisdom was suggesting a desire for participant to acquire a deeper truth.  Reflective wisdom was defined as one who can overcome subjectivity.  If the participant showed compassion and love to others, then they would score high in affective wisdom.  She hypothesized that wisdom does not always increase with age (Ardelt, 2009).  Although, she did predict that older adults who have obtained college degrees would score higher than older adults who do not have any degrees from college as well as current college students.  After the results came back, she found that overall students and older adults scored very similar in wisdom testing.  However, she also found that older adults with a college degree had high scored in both the reflective and affective areas compared to those with no degree.  She thinks that wisdom is correlated to higher education but cannot be the sole explanation because otherwise college students who are directly involved in education programs would have the highest level of wisdom compared to others.  This study rejected the idea of humans gaining wisdom due to age (Ardelt, 2009).

From further investigation, the stereotype of aging and gaining wisdom is highly accepted by most individuals and is not necessarily wrong.  The research about taking advice from older adults over peers shows a real example of how people will often listen to older adults simply because of their age. Wisdom is very complex and can be gained in different ways.  But through the research, I found that it is not true that wisdom can only be gained through age and it is also true that not all older adults are wise. This can be explained by the multidimensionality of life.



Ardelt, M. (2010). Are Older Adults Wiser Than College Students? A Comparison of Two Age Cohorts. Journal of Adult Development, 17(4), 193-207. doi:10.1007/s10804-009-9088-5

Gordon, J. K. & Jordan, L. M. (2017). Older is wiser? It depends who you ask…and how you ask. Aging, Neuropsychology and Cognition: A Journal on Normal and Dysfunctional Development. 24(1), 94. doi:10.1080/13825585.2016.1171292

Korkki, P. (2014, March 12). The Science of Older and Wiser. The New York Times. pp. F1.

Lourenco, F. S., Decker, J. H., Pedersen, G. A., Dellarco, D.V., Casey, B.J., & Hartley, C.A.  (2015). Consider the Source: Adolescents and adults similarly follow older adult advice more than peer advice. PLoS ONE. 10(6), 1-16. doi:10.137/journal.pone.0128047

Worthy, D.A., Gorlick, M.A., Pacheco, J.L., Schnyer, D.M., & Maddox, W.T. (2011). With Age Comes Wisdom: Decision making in younger and older adults. Journal of Psychological Science. 22(11), 1375-1380. doi:10.1177/0956797611420301





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