‘Use your feelings, Obi-Wan, and find him you will’

Who is wiser, Yoda or Mr. Spock?

That sounds like a juvenile fanzine question, but it is actually the subject of a fascinating new paper by Igor Grossmann, Harrison Oakes, and Henri C. Santos. The answer, to cut to the chase: Yoda.

Grossmann is a psychologist at the University of Waterloo in Canada, and he is also one of the brightest young lights in the field of wisdom research. Perhaps more than anyone else, he has pioneered and refined the concept of wise reasoning, which holds that people can think and act more or less wisely at any given moment, and that wiser habits of thought can be developed and learned.

In popular lore, wisdom includes elements of detachment from personal bias and emotion. It also includes the ability to balance conflicting and complex emotions. Both pop-culture icons, Yoda and Spock, display critical acumen, complex reasoning, and selflessness. But whereas Spock “down-regulates” his emotions in favor of logic and rationality, “Yoda embraces his emotions and aims to achieve a balance between them. Yoda is known to be emotionally expressive, to share a good joke with others, but also to recognize sorrow and his past mistakes.”

Grossmann and his colleagues wondered which qualities predominate among those reasoning wisely, and the researchers realized they could bring results from five (no less) experimental studies to bear on the question. They found a significant and robust association between emotional diversity—the ability to hold and balance multiple and often conflicting emotions—and wise reasoning. They found no such correlation between down-regulating emotion and wisdom.

Why might that be? Emotions convey information. Fear, love, anger, jealousy tell us things: about threats, friends, social violations, social rivals. Blocking them out deprives us of valuable input, which makes for poorer decisions. To reason wisely, then, we need to experience and balance complex emotions—something which, it turns out, older people tend to be better at.

Ironically, one place in pop culture to find this important insight is…Star Trek. In the 1967 episode The Galileo Seven, Spock, logical and brilliant though he might be, fails to rise to the challenge of command. Intuition and emotion prove to be essential; Spock himself finally admits that an illogical outburst—his own—saves the day.

Wisdom from the wisest of all television shows.

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