By Susan Rosegrant
As a 13-year-old Russian-Ukrainian who had just immigrated to Germany, Igor Grossmann used to wonder at cultural dynamics. For example, why did Germans seem so uninterested in meeting a foreign newcomer, when his peers back in Ukraine would have jumped at the opportunity? And when at first he spoke to his new classmates in clumsy and heavily accented German, how much of what he hoped to convey was actually understood? The intensity of the cross-cultural experience sharpened Grossmann’s already considerable interest in how people see and interpret the world. When he became an immigrant a second time, moving to the United States as an exchange student in 2005 and staying to pursue a Ph.D. in social psychology at the University of Michigan, Grossmann put his fascination with different styles of cognitive reasoning to work.
Using six characteristics of wisdom—including recognizing other points of view in a conflict, acknowledging uncertainty and a limit to one’s own knowledge, and searching for compromise—Grossmann and his colleagues developed a system for measuring wisdom-related thinking. They then used the system to explore whether the elderly are measurably wiser than younger people when analyzing social conflicts. The answer, the study concluded, was yes.
For his thesis, Grossmann, 27, wants to take those discoveries further. “Now that we have the paradigm to measure wisdom, there’s so much potential to address questions that have never been addressed in the past.” Grossmann chose two questions he found particularly intriguing: Is a person who is psychologically distanced from a situation more likely to reason wisely? And do social roles affect how wisely a person acts? Grossmann devised a series of experimental studies to answer those questions. To examine psychological distance, a random sample of seniors at Michigan will think about their future job prospects in the current depressed economy either from an “immersed” and personal perspective, or from a more distanced perspective, as though seeing themselves in the third person or through a video. Grossmann expects that those with psychological distance will respond more wisely.
To explore the importance of social roles, a random selection of UM graduate students will read an article about a social dilemma, and then discuss the likely outcomes with a partner over the phone whom they believe to be either a freshman research assistant or a university professor. Grossmann theorizes that grad students who believe they are talking to freshmen—and who see themselves in a mentor-like role—will be more likely to react wisely to the dilemma. If the studies show that either psychological distancing or social roles increase wise behavior, Grossmann says, psychologists could create training programs involving role play or other strategies to help cultivate wisdom in the face of conflict.
Meanwhile, Grossmann is wise enough, himself, to engage in pursuits “beyond the academic self.” He has resumed ballroom dancing, a hobby he began at age 11, but that he has periodically had to abandon due to moves and struggles with rheumatoid arthritis. Grossmann and his girlfriend, Julia Espinosa, recently won the United States National Latin Dancing competition in their division.