It often seems that helping friends analyze and work through their problems is a lot easier than working through our own troubles. While we may be able to look at others’ problems with wise objectivity, we tend to view our own issues through a skewed, emotional lens.
A new Canadian study, however, suggests that not everyone struggles to reason wisely with their own problems. The findings, published in the journal Psychological Science, show that people who are motivated to develop the best in themselves and others don’t show this bias — in fact, they tend to take the same wise approach to their own problems as they do for others.
“Our findings suggest that people who value virtuous motives may be able to reason wisely for themselves, and overcome personal biases observed in previous research,” said psychological scientist Alex Huynh of the University of Waterloo in Ontario.
“This is in part due to their ability to recognize that their perspectives may not be enough to fully understand a situation, a concept referred to as intellectual humility.”
Previous studies on this topic have typically focused on how situations can affect a person’s level of wise reasoning, but the new study shows that personal motivations may also play a role.
“To our knowledge, this is the first research that empirically ties this conceptualization of virtue with wisdom, a connection that philosophers have been making for over two millennia,” says Huynh. “These findings open up new avenues for future research to investigate how to increase a person’s level of wisdom.”
To investigate the link between personal ideals and reasoning, Huynh and University of Waterloo coauthors Harrison Oakes, Garrett R. Shay, and Dr. Ian McGregor recruited 267 university students to participate in this study.
The students reported how motivated they were to pursue virtue by rating their agreement with statements like “I would like to contribute to others or the surrounding world” and “I would like to do what I believe in.”
Then, they were randomly assigned to think about either a personal problem or a close friend’s problem, imagine that the conflict was still unresolved, and describe how they thought and felt about the situation.
Finally, they rated how useful different wise reasoning strategies (e.g. searching for compromise, adopting an outsider’s perspective) would be in dealing with that particular problem.
As expected, participants who were thinking about a friend’s problem believed wiser strategies were more useful than did the participants who were thinking about their own personal issues.
However, the motivation to pursue virtue seemed to close this gap — participants who thought about personal problems rated wise-reasoning strategies as more valuable as their motivation to pursue virtue increased.
Further analysis revealed two specific aspects of wise reasoning that mattered most: considering other people’s perspectives and intellectual humility. People who valued virtue may show wise reasoning because they recognize that understanding the full scope of their problem requires going beyond their personal perspective.
A second online study with 356 participants produced similar findings.
“Everyone is susceptible to becoming too invested in their own perspectives, but this doesn’t have to be the case for everybody. As these findings suggest, your own personality and motivational orientation can influence your ability to approach your personal problems in a calmer, wiser manner,” Huynh said.
The researchers plan to investigate this link in additional experiments, examining whether training people to value virtuous motives — i.e., to focus on their personal ideals and contributing to others — enhances their ability to use wise reasoning strategies.
Source: University of Waterloo