If you’re faced with a troubling personal dilemma, such as a volatile spouse or constant conflict with a family member, there may be a trick. The trick, researchers say, is to consider the situation as an outside observer would and you’ll likely develop a wiser perspective. Let’s take a look at some studies that reveal why this may be.
Researchers at the University of Michigan have discovered a particular breed of human bias that impedes our ability to reason with wisdom when it comes to interpersonal relationship dilemmas. They call this bias “Solomon’s Paradox,” named after the Biblical king who was known for his wisdom, but still often failed when it came to making wise personal decisions (Grossmann & Kross, 2016).
In the first study, researchers Igor Grossmann and Ethan Kross asked study participants, all of whom reported being in monogamous romantic relationships, to reflect on a relationship conflict. They were asked to vividly imagine scenarios in which either their partner or a friend’s partner had been unfaithful, then answer questions about the selected scenario. In other words, they were asked to self-distance, rather than self-immerse.
They were then asked a series of questions designed to explore dimensions of wise reasoning, such as the ability to recognize the limits of one’s own knowledge, recognize the possible ways in which the scenario could unfold, consider other people’s perspectives, and grasp the importance of compromise and future change.
Participants who were asked to reason about a friend’s relationship conflict made wiser responses than those who were asked to reason about their own relationship conflicts.
In a second study, Grossmann and Kross investigated whether personal distance bestowed wiser reasoning. This time, participants were asked to take either a first-person perspective (“put yourself in this situation”) or a third-person perspective (“put yourself in your friend’s shoes”) when reasoning about the conflict scenario. Participants who reflected upon their own relationship conflict from a first-person perspective showed less wise reasoning than those who reflected on a friend’s relationship conflict. But…
Taking a distanced or outsider’s perspective seemed to eliminate this bias: Participants who thought about their own relationship conflict through a friend’s eyes were equally wise as those who thought about a friend’s conflict. They were able to eliminate the Solomon’s Paradox bias by literally talking about themselves in the third person — using their names — when reflecting on a relationship conflict.
Interestingly, a third study comparing data from younger adults (ages 20-40) and older adults (ages 60-80) indicated that, contrary to the old axiom that “wisdom comes with age,” there are no age differences when it comes to self-distancing and wise reasoning about personal conflicts. Older participants were no wiser in reasoning about their own relationship conflicts than their younger counterparts.
Together, these findings suggest that distancing yourself from personal problems by approaching them from an outsider’s perspective can lead to wiser reasoning.
In Sahaja meditation, the state of thoughtless awareness enables us to automatically detach from our thoughts, feelings and ego and observe ourselves, others and situations objectively. In this state of pure and thoughtless awareness, the process of focusing inward with a nonreactive, nonjudgmental attitude triggers a shift in perspective. We’re able to explore multiple points of view. We can observe our thoughts and feelings merely as events in our minds, without over-identifying with them or reacting to them automatically or habitually.
The internalized attention we achieve through thoughtless awareness stimulates a detached, observing ego — a sort of “mediator” — which ultimately leads us to greater self-awareness and an enhanced ability to resolve relationship conflicts. This calm, dispassionate state of self-observation inserts, in essence, a “space,” or distance, between our perceptions and our responses. That open space allows us to respond to situations reflectively, rather than reflexively.
Grossmann, Igor & Kross, Ethan. Wise Reasoning in the Face of Everyday Life Challenges.
Social Psychological and Personality Science September 1, 2016 7: 611-622.