A pathway to wisdom in the face of adversity: Type of self-reflection matters

Open-mindedness, humility, and empathy represent key character strengths for the virtue of wisdom1–3. There is a longstanding view that such aspects of wisdom may develop by accumulating critical life experience. In particular, various theories suggest that wisdom-related character strengths develop by mastering adversity1,4,5. At the same time, mechanisms through which experience of adversity produces growth in wisdom-related character strengths are underspecified, with existing research on outcomes of adversity suggesting a puzzle.  On the one hand, adverse experiences can be a source of strength and positive personal development6. On the other hand, adverse experiences can generate maladaptive avoidance, depressive rumination, and high levels of anxiety and distress5,6. In our research project, we examine conditions under which adverse experiences result in wisdom-related growth vs. stagnation or decline.

Central question. We explore whether the self-perspective adopted when reflecting on adverse experience – i.e., self-distanced perspective compared to self-immersed – influences the trajectory of wisdom-related character development.  Reflecting on adverse experiences from a self-distanced perspective, one is more likely to focus on the “big picture,” realizing that life events are in flux and may not fit one’s expectations9. Simultaneously, self-distanced reflection may help to facilitate the realization that adverse experiences are challenging rather than merely  threatening and uncontrollable10. New learning about the self and environmental contingencies via the violation of expectancies (i.e., prediction error) is the key cognitive process at the heart of effective psychological interventions for anxiety disorders and related mental health difficulties in which negative appraisals of past adverse experiences often play a prominent role11. Prospectively, self-distanced reflection on adverse life events may be crucial for facilitating violation of one’s expectancies about the personal meaning of such events and, in turn, promote changes in one’s beliefs, goals, and identity, instigating growth in character strengths12. In particular, the person engaged in self-distanced reflection may be better able to cultivate greater humility, open-mindedness and consideration of others’ perspectives – adaptive character strengths in the context of lifespan uncertainty. In contrast, self-immersed reflection may lead to a possible viscous cycle of rumination on the adverse experience, resulting in perception of the experience as threatening and distressing, and fostering avoidance of similar adverse experience without subsequent growth in wisdom-related characteristics.

To address this hypothesis, we employ a multi-method approach involving a data-intensive longitudinal survey. This approach is necessary to address the limitations in much of the prior research on post-traumatic growth in general13 and wisdom-related character strengths in particular14. Most empirical studies on the role of adverse experiences in wisdom-related character strengths of open-mindedness, humility, or empathy have been cross-sectional15 and have often failed to measure adverse experiences directly or in a controlled fashion. Not surprisingly, this cross-sectional work has produced mixed results16–20. Notably, in such cross-sectional studies it is unclear whether observed differences in character strengths are driven by a person’s growth over time or by culture-specific cohort shifts across generations21–25. Testing the relation between adversity and growth in wisdom-related character strengths requires prospective longitudinal studies, which have so far been missing from the extant literature.

Method. We conduct a (i) a prospective year-long longitudinal survey of daily adversity and its impact on growth of wisdom-related character strengths vs. stagnation/decline over time, (ii) exploring the prospective role of self-distanced reflection for working through adverse experience and subsequent growth in wisdom-related character strengths of open-mindedness, humility, and empathy. We use state-of-the-art measures, including recently validated state-level measures of these qualities when working through personal adversities, void of social desirability and recall biases in subjective self-reports26. Given potential biases when employing questionnaire self-report measures, we also use narrative content-analyses based on coding by independent observers to provide a different way to assess people’s spontaneous expression of character strengths in their narratives, following established procedures regularly used in our lab1,9,17,18. These measures are administered at multiple time points to examine intra- and inter-individual variability in wisdom-related character growth and the role of self-distanced (vs. self-immersed) reflection after the experience of adversity for the developmental trajectory of these character strengths.

Our research aligns with Pathways to Character Project in three ways. First, we employ a multi-method framework integrating a range of insights from prospective longitudinal studies and employing questionnaires and narrative analyses of stream-of-thought reflections on adverse experiences. We specifically focus on possible developmental trajectories of wisdom-related character strengths: open-mindedness, humility, empathy. Second, we examine two cardinal ways of working through adverse experiences: a self-distanced vs. self-immersed reflection on adversity. Third, we explicitly focus on prospective assessment using multi-wave longitudinal surveys. Together, this program of research aims to: (a) pinpoint psychological mechanisms such as self-distanced reflection that may contribute to wisdom-related character growth when experiencing adversity; (b) utilize tools to enable accurate, valid, and reliable measurement of adverse experiences and wisdom-related character strengths at the state and trait-levels as they unfold over time.


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