Studies Show that Humility and Pursuit of Virtue Lead to Wisdom in Resolving Conflicts: Implications for Mediation?

A path toward wisdom

By Donald L. Swanson

Soloman’s Paradox” = “we tend to reason more wisely about other people’s problems than our very own” (aka, “Plenty of wisdom for others; but not for oneself”). [Fn. 1]

“King Solomon, the third leader of the Jewish Kingdom, is thought of as a sage and a man of great wisdom. People traveled great distances to seek his counsel.”

“But what’s not remembered quite as well is that his personal life was not so pretty. He made bad decisions repeatedly, had uncontrolled passion for money and women, and neglected to instruct his only son, who went on to ruin the kingdom. Hence the name, Solomon’s Paradox.”

“Wisdom” is defined in one study as ”pragmatic reasoning that helps people navigate life’s challenges,” which “requires transcending one’s egocentric point of view – recognizing the limits of one’s own knowledge, taking others’ perspectives, and seeing circumstances in flux.”

In other words, studies suggest, humility and the pursuit of virtue are needed for resolving ones own conflicts. This is an important reality that should have ramifications in mediation and should become a focus for mediator actions and strategies.

Two empirical studies discussed below conclude:

  • Solomon’s Paradox is moderated when a person in conflict looks at life with humility and from another person’s perspective; and
  • Solomon’s Paradox is moderated by the pursuit of virtue and intellectual humility (i.e., recognizing that one’s own perspective alone may be insufficient to understand one’s social conflict).

Study No. 1: Confirms Solomon’s Paradox and identifies the tonic of humility

Solomon’s Paradox has been confirmed by empirical studies. One study [Fn. 2], for example, took couples in long-term romantic relationships and split them into two groups:

the first group imagined their partner had cheated on them;

the second group imagined that their best friend’s partner had cheated on their best friend; and

everybody answered questions about the future of the relationship, which measured these humility-components of wisdom:

ability to take others’ perspectives;
recognition of the limits of one’s knowledge; and
searching for compromise.

Here’s what that study found:

The group imagining their best friend being cheated on scored much higher than the group who imagined themselves being cheated on; and

The best-friend group, (i) were better at self-awareness and empathy, (ii) could view the situation from a wider perspective, and (iii) were more emotionally in tune with the situation.

The study went on to ask whether people might be able to distance themselves from their own problem and think about it like they would a friend’s problem?

Then, the study did the same experiment described above – but with a twist. The group who imagined they had been cheated on were broken into two subgroups:

The first subgroup was instructed to think about being cheated on from a first-person perspective—to immerse themselves in their thoughts and feelings—and were asked questions like, (i) “Why am I feeling this way?” and (ii) “What are my thoughts and feelings about this?”

The other group was instructed to think about being cheated on from a third-person perspective—like they were looking in on themselves and their relationship—and were asked questions about themselves in the third person like, “Why does he or she feel this way?”

Here’s what they found:

The third-person participants scored higher in wise reasoning than those who thought about it from the typical first-person perspective;

Those who distanced themselves from their own experience were indistinguishable from those who pondered their friends’ situation in the first experiment; and

The first study’s conclusion is this: Psychological distance (i.e., looking at life with humility and from another person’s perspective) is the tonic to Solomon’s Paradox.

Study No. 2: Pursuing “virtue” and “intellectual humility” mitigates Solomon’s Paradox

Another study on Solomon’s Paradox is titled, “The Wisdom in Virtue: Pursuit of Virtue Predicts Wise Reasoning About Personal Conflicts.”

Philosophers have long tied the idea of wisdom with virtue, proposing that wisdom and virtue are core facets of the good life.

Existing research supports the correlation between wisdom and virtue. Participants in various studies, for example, who expressed high levels of virtuous motives (i.e., a desire to act beyond personal interests and develop the best in oneself) were also less likely to be selfish and experienced greater growth and insight from life’s problems.

Accordingly, pursuing virtue should promote wisdom about one’s own conflicts as well as other people’s.

Participants were randomly assigned to report on either a personal conflict they were involved in or a conflict that a close friend was involved in:

Self-conflict participants were told to think about a close relationship that is not going well (e.g., you fight a lot or don’t talk much) and that may not continue as a close relationship in the future; and

Others-conflict participants were told to think about a friend’s close relationship that is not going well and that may not continue as a close relationship in the future.

Various tests, using these two groups, achieved this conclusion: motivation for virtue uniquely moderates Solomon’s Paradox. This is driven by a recognition that one’s own perspective and knowledge may be insufficient for understanding one’s own social conflict. Put another way, intellectual humility and adopting an outsider’s perspective are virtues that promote wisdom;

The study concludes that:

• Solomon’s Paradox is moderated when people pursuit virtue in their own conflicts; and
• A primary virtue in resolving ones own conflict is intellectual humility—i.e., recognizing that one’s own perspective alone may be insufficient to understand one’s social conflict.


Wisdom and virtue go hand-in-hand. This is an intuitive proposition—and one that’s supported by empirical studies as well.

In managing and resolving ones own conflicts, the pursuit of virtue (such as humility) is crucial to doing so effectively.

Mediators should keep such things in mind.


Footnote 1: All quotations at the beginning of this article are from, “Solomon’s Paradox: How to Unleash the Wisdom Within.”

Footnote 2: All information about this first study, are also taken from “Solomon’s Paradox: How to Unleash the Wisdom Within,” which describes a 2014 study by Igor Grossmann and Ethan Kross titled, “Exploring Solomon’s Paradox: Self-Distancing Eliminates the Self-Other Asymmetry in Wise Reasoning About Close Relationships in Younger and Older Adults.

Footnote 3: This study is by Alex C. Huynh, Harrison Oakes, Garrett R. Shay and Ian McGregor, and is published at Psychological Science, Vol28, Issue 12, pp. 1848 -1856 (2017).

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