The (Paradoxical) Wisdom of Solomon

King Solomon, the third leader of the Jewish Kingdom, is considered the paragon of wisdom and sage judgment. It’s said that during his long reign, people traveled great distances to seek his counsel. Yet it’s also true–and much less well known–that his personal life was a shambles of bad decisions and uncontrolled passions. He kept hundreds of pagan wives and concubines, and also loved money and boasted of his riches. He neglected to instruct his only son, who grew up to be an incompetent tyrant. All these sins and misjudgments contributed to the eventual demise of the kingdom.

University of Waterloo psychological scientist Igor Grossmann has been studying the nature of human wisdom, and he uses this story to illustrate what he calls Solomon’s paradox. It appears that people often reason more wisely about other people’s social problems than about their own, though it’s not clear why this would be, or what can be done to enhance wise reasoning in the personal realm. Grossmann has been trying to answer these questions, and he described some of his ongoing work this week at the first International Convention of Psychological Science in Amsterdam.

Grossmann defines wisdom as pragmatic reasoning that helps people navigate life’s challenges. Such wise reasoning requires transcending one’s egocentric point of view. This means recognizing the limits of one’s own knowledge, acknowledging others’ perspectives, and seeing circumstances in flux–all of which allow for more complex understanding of social situations. Grossmann wanted to explore the apparent asymmetry in wise reasoning. He also wanted to see if aging leads naturally to wiser reasoning–as is often assumed–and how wisdom might be enhanced in everyday experience.

He first wanted to establish that Solomon’s paradox is indeed a common habit of mind. He recruited volunteers who were in long-term romantic relationships, and asked some of them to —> Read More