Raise your hand if you’re sick of hearing parents say to do something because they’re “older, wiser, and I said to.” We’ve got some good news for you. Just because they have a few years on you doesn’t make your mum, dad, or even grandparents any wiser.
Turns out, age doesn’t equate to wisdom – at least in terms of social psychological skills.
Don’t believe us? Just ask Yale University, who recently published their findings in Social Psychology. In six studies, researchers tested the ability of more than 1,000 volunteers to see how their social skills – how people react in certain situations – affect the way they “think, feel, and act” in social settings. They found one’s life experience doesn’t mean someone knows more about it. In fact, older folks did no better at understanding the nuances of human behavior than younger ones.
The 40-question test assesses people’s ability to read between the lines and understand the dynamics of a social situation. One question, for example, asks you to think about the relationship between wealth and happiness, while another considers whether beautiful people have superior qualities.
The authors then analyzed the highest scorers to see what they had in common: cognitive ability, curiosity, melancholy, and introversion. Introspection helps people to better understand others by understanding themselves, and sadness “encourages people to act in order to reduce their negative mood.”
In addition, "problem solving and decision making skills (cognitive ability), a willingness to play with ideas and engage in effortful cognition (cognitive curiosity), all predicted accuracy at inferring social psychological phenomena," the authors write.
The good news? These skills can be learned. Some people may simply be more adept at picking up on social cues, situations, and have more empathy for others, regardless of age, income, political views, or gender.
“Presumably one would need to take a social psychology course to accurately grasp social psychological phenomena,” reads the study. “The possibility exists, however, that some lay individuals can accurately infer social psychological phenomena without any background in psychology.”
Previous research also suggests people in lower social classes tend to be wiser. Wisdom, defined here as the ability to take the perspectives of others into account and aim for compromise, comes more naturally to those who grew up poorer. Those with less income, less education, and more worries about money scored about twice as high on a wisdom “scale” than those in higher social classes.
As a limitation of the study, researchers say it is unclear whether personal attributes lead to more wisdom over time or vice versa. They also note that it's "extremely difficult to develop measures of accuracy regarding individuals’ perceptions and judgments" and that it may not generalize across different cultures. Still, they hope further research might help us “anticipate mass panics, political movements, and societal and cultural changes”.
Want to see how you match up? Take the test for yourself.