How Does Gender Influence Wisdom?

Psychologist Emily Treichler and psychiatrist Dilip Jeste discuss their research on men and women’s relative wisdom strengths.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | February 25, 2022

A new study published in Frontiers in Psychology charts out why men and women exhibit different levels and types of wisdom.

I recently spoke to Emily Treichler and Dilip Jeste, lead authors of the research from the University of California San Diego to understand the roots of these differences. Here is a summary of that conversation.

What traits does a person need to possess in order to be considered wise?

Wisdom has several components. The most important one is empathy and compassion, or understanding and helping others. Two other important components are control over one's emotions and self-reflection, like understanding and trying to improve one's own behavior.

Other components are: accepting uncertainty and diversity of perspectives, decisiveness, and advising others who seek guidance.

The last and most controversial component of wisdom is spirituality, which refers to a feeling of constant connectedness to an entity that is not seen or heard, whether you call it spirit or soul or god.

What inspired you to investigate the topic of wisdom and gender, how did you study it, and what did you find?

Wisdom was first conceptualized in ancient religions and philosophies, but empirical research began in the 1970s. Wisdom has been shown to be closely related to better mental health and perhaps greater longevity. Wise people tend to experience higher well-being, more life satisfaction, more optimism, and are better able to handle losses and other situations of adversity.

We were aware that people can differ in wisdom by subgroup, but that past research hadn't been clear about differences between women and men. We studied over 650 people, using two well-validated measures of wisdom (the San Diego Wisdom Scale or SD-WISE and the 3-Dimensional Wisdom Scale). We wanted to understand better what those differences might be.

We expected that women would score higher on compassion and other pro-social components of wisdom, as other studies have found. Similarly, we also predicted that men would score higher on decisiveness, as some other studies have reported. We did find those differences we hypothesized.

However, there were a few surprises. We found greater self-reflection in women and greater emotion regulation in men.

Why do these differences of gender exist in a seemingly androgynous quality such as wisdom?

This is an excellent question. Some wisdom experts argue that wisdom should be androgynous — i.e., it is not a trait belonging to a specific gender group. However, some gender differences could be rooted in our existing sociocultural expectations of women and men. And, as gender norms change and gender equity improves, we may see these differences diminish.

The differences we saw were primarily in subdomains on wisdom. There was no difference in total wisdom score for the SD-WISE between women and men, which supported our overall theory about "wisdom profiles," or the idea that wise people may differ from one another in having different strengths in wisdom subdomains. So we might think of wisdom overall as androgynous, but that women and men have some differences on the subdomains.

How does one's culture (and other factors) influence the development of their relative wisdom?

Wisdom is complex and culturally relevant, and yet groups in different countries across different time periods include many of the same components of wisdom. This suggests that the components of wisdom are likely to be partly biologically based, and important for cultivating a meaningful, happy, and healthy life.

In terms of gender specifically, some sociocultural factors may influence wisdom development. In most societies, women and men are treated differently from infancy and this impacts what they believe wisdom is and how they describe what a wise woman is versus what a wise man is. This may lead women and men to develop wisdom somewhat differently, both intentionally and unintentionally.

Some biological factors could also contribute — for example, hormone differences between women and men may be one contributor to the differences in compassion.

What impact do you hope your research has on individuals and the way they perceive wisdom?

We hope that people will think of wisdom as a part of their overall health and well-being, and that it is something that they can actively cultivate.

Randomized controlled trials have shown efficacy of specific psychosocial interventions to enhance components of wisdom like emotional regulation, empathy/compassion, and spirituality.

We suggest actively practicing wisdom skills such as:

  • Seeking to understand the perspectives of others with different backgrounds and viewpoints from your own
  • Developing compassion by helping others in your community and participating in causes that serve a larger good
  • And, practicing effective decision-making by slowing that process down and considering all the evidence

Do you have plans for follow-up research? Where would you like to see research on wisdom go in the future?

We have a number of interests, including understanding more about the longitudinal trajectory of wisdom and its development over the lifespan, expanding understanding about wisdom and gender to include nonbinary gender, and identifying and implementing wisdom interventions to improve well-being for a range of groups.

Overall, we hope that wisdom research is used to improve quality of life for people of all ages and backgrounds.