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Social psychologist Wiesław Łukaszewski talks about the follies of egoism, the empathy of animal lovers, ...
2019-03-22 10:00:00

Sometimes It’s Wise to Be Unwise
An Interview with Wiesław Łukaszewski

Wiesław Łukaszewski. Photo by Damian Kramski
Sometimes It’s Wise to Be Unwise
Sometimes It’s Wise to Be Unwise

Professor Wiesław Łukaszewski is one of Poland’s leading social psychologists. He tells Katarzyna Sroczyńska that people are good and can develop, and explains why using the word ‘foolishness’ isn’t very wise at all.

Read in 14 minutes

Katarzyna Sroczyńska: Do you believe that people change?

Wiesław Łukaszewski: I know they do. And I have a certain problem with this, a problem of a moral nature, because sometimes change has a whiff of hypocrisy. Devout communists suddenly become fanatically pious, and some priests become dissolute.

People can change, they can work on it, but they need to learn it. There’s a quite widespread belief that in order to change, it’s enough to pull yourself together, awaken your inner motivation. But that’s not where the path lies. To change, you have to change the territory, the psychological field you’re functioning in, because it’s the source of various pressures and habits that switch on automatically. Karl Marx was right when he said that when changing the world, a person changes himself. But first he has to change the world! The great Canadian psychologist Albert Bandura had a similar theory.

In your newest book, Mądrość i różne niemądrości [Wisdom and Various Follies], you show how faith that both the world and people change is related to wisdom and foolishness.

If we believe in permanence, we become blind to everything that contradicts it. Every signal of change is deeply disturbing, because it goes against our expectations. Behind this conviction we inevitably find a tendency to close our minds, to block the inflow of data. We make for ourselves an exquisite filter, which lets in only what suits us, and destroys everything that could conflict with it. As a result, we quickly develop the conviction that our faith is well-grounded – that’s how it is, how it’s always been, and always will be. Even though we live in the world of what Zygmunt Bauman called ‘liquid modernity’.

Those whom I call “the defenders of the faith” are particularly predestined to this attitude. They are zealous believers in some conviction. They stand alert on the boundaries, on guard. But they’re quite inconsistent. Because these fans of permanence very much want to bring back the past, and because they want to bring it back, that means something must have changed.

But wisdom, in the conventional understanding, is more associated with something that’s permanent and ordered.

Well, contrary to appearances, order isn’t so wise after all. All ordered structures cease to generate new ideas. They become sterile, though for some time they can be practical. They lack that little bit of madness. It’s indispensable – you need movement, drive, that roaring in your head. Because the foundation of wisdom is diversity, not uniformity. Uncertainty, not order. The folk conviction that wise means orderly ‘hospital corners’ doesn’t check out.

In his The Praise of Folly, Erasmus of Rotterdam writes: “In the undertaking any enterprize the wise man shall run to consult with his books, and daze himself with poring upon musty authors, while the dispatchful fool shall rush blundy on, and have done the business, while the other is thinking of it.”

The popular association that the wise one is the one who’s educated, eloquent, a “Przekrój” reader, is definitely an oversimplification. I think there’s no library where you can acquire wisdom if you limit yourself only to libraries. But you also don’t acquire wisdom if you limit yourself to collecting data. Even huge quantities, of extraordinary quality. The essence of wisdom lies in what I would be inclined to call the socialization of the person. In resonance with other people, in dialogue.

So what about the hermits, who have no-one to open their mouths to, and become wise men?

Even if somebody talks to him or herself – which is worth doing – when various points of view appear, dialogue begins, sometimes turbulent dialogue. We can’t forget that each of us has more than one ‘I’, and each of them has something different to say. Of course, this is the most basic form of dialogue.

In general, I believe wisdom is a by-product of the variety of human activity. Not the result of an act of will; determination alone won’t get you very far. The basic thing is the question of separation in time. Over a short period, the biggest pay-off is from egoistic actions, on one’s own account – here I’ll make money, here I’ll outmanoeuvre somebody, here I’ll get mine and who cares about the rest?

Since the beginning of the 1990s, we’ve been instructed that that’s the wise way to act, and we all have to learn it.

It’s effective, but not wise. When we look from a longer-term perspective, it turns out that the machinery of egoistic drive led to a social collapse. Although economically it even seemed quite praiseworthy, at some point there too everything started to seize up. I get the impression that the disappearance of the category ‘the common interest’ or ‘the common good’ is the main weakness of our life as a society. Wisdom doesn’t help us.

I tried to talk about this with some students recently, but they didn’t really understand what I meant.

Many would agree that the common good is valuable, even so much so that they immediately call up the term ordo amoris, meaning the order of love: first help your own, then others. How can you give money to immigrants when we already have so many poor people? Are they speaking wisely?

But one doesn’t exclude the other! I think that in this way of understanding there’s too much enthusiasm for building alternatives. Meaning this kind of conviction that if I give somebody something, somebody else loses. This is the concept that Bogdan Wojciszke and his team described very nicely: the idea of life as a zero-sum game. When one wins, another loses. But it’s not like that. You can give to your child and to somebody else’s child. And nothing will happen. Once in a park in Wrocław, I saw a charming, tender scene. On a bench there was a breastfeeding mother, and next to her another woman with a baby in a pram. The second child saw her breast and reached out a hand, upon which the breastfeeding mother said “give him here”, and took him to the other breast. She could have thought: “I won’t give him anything, because my child will go without.” Which could happen, but not necessarily. I have the impression that this kind of argument is often an alibi for egoism.

You make a strong connection between wisdom and the idea of the common good.

It can’t be any other way, because one of the foundations of wisdom is the conviction that we’re similar to each other. We read the Bible story of Jacob and his sons from several thousand years ago, or the even older Gilgamesh Epic, and we know what they’re about. We understand these people. If a drop of rain falls onto my nose or onto an Inuit’s, we feel it the same way. That’s the foundation. Let’s look at the preamble to the US Constitution: “We the People.” How do we translate it into Polish? “We, the nation.” That’s a fundamental difference, which shows a turning in the direction of folly, the direction of egoism – group egoism, local egoism.

To be fair, we have to add that the Founding Fathers of the United States, when they wrote “We the People”, weren’t thinking about their slaves. After all you don’t have to reach so far back. In her recent book Służące do wszystkiego [Servants for Everything], Joanna Kuciel-Frydryszak shows how just 60 years ago, slavery functioned perfectly well in almost every respectable household, in the form of the maid.

That’s true, but fortunately over time both the slaves and these servants were humanized. But let’s not fool ourselves; slavery still exists. Not so long ago I heard a group of truly rich people competing over who paid their Ukrainian maid the least.

How does it happen that we don’t see what we do to these people?

This is related to a certain idée fixe of mine. For years I’ve been saying, with not much to show for it, that we’re obsessively concentrated on differences. After all, we can automatically draw contrasts, but we haven’t yet learned to look for similarities. A simple example: we asked people in what ways they’re similar to Joseph Stalin. “In no way,” they said. When we asked how they’re similar to Mother Teresa, the majority also thought the same. Then when we gave the provocative question “In what way are you similar to a cloud?” the subjects gave a look that said: “This guy’s nuts.” In fact, both clouds and humans are made up mainly of water!

In socialization, we neglect this important element: showing that people are similar to one another. Meanwhile, psychology has amassed stacks of data demonstrating how incredibly important it is to perceive similarities. This translates into an inclination to provide help, to rein in aggression, to show empathy, sympathy, trust. This is an incredibly strong mechanism, it just has to be switched on.

Recently I got a dog, and I see how similar we are to each other. I think that sometimes it’s easier not to notice that similarity to animals. Especially before dinner.

In general we have a problem with animality. Refusal to attribute animality to ourselves is universal, because as it turns out, the thought of the animal side of one’s nature awakens existential fears.

When I notice my similarity to my dog, I start to fear death?

Yes. When people are reminded of their animal nature, their fear of death and loneliness spikes. Elliot Aronson wrote the book The Social Animal, but it was translated into Polish as “Man: A Social Entity”. The animal nature of humans is stressed only to insult somebody.

Michał Bilewicz, an exceptionally clever researcher from the younger generation, has shown that vegetarians dehumanize people significantly less often. This is quite interesting and important. The American researcher Martin Hoffman has demonstrated in turn that somebody’s relationship to animals, not to people, is the best predictor of whether they are empathic. We’re similar not only to other people, but also to various elements of the world. This may seem exaggerated or romantic, but I think it’s a valuable way of looking at life. The Buddhists are closest to this, in their conviction about the oneness of the universe. That’s an example worth following. This Eastern wisdom is in fact a little passive, but that’s better than nothing.

Is it smart to want to have agency? To introduce changes?

The desire to have an effect is a natural ailment of living organisms that are active, that want to have effective relations with their surroundings. This can be seen at every stage of development. But focusing exclusively on individual agency, looking at what I can do, what depends on me and what I get out of it, is a kind of limitation. It’s also worth looking at other aspects, such as common interests, the common good, various forms of cooperation. I think the most basic truth is that people are good and changeable. But many don’t believe either thing. We’ve already talked about the second one, and with the first it’s even worse.

We don’t believe others are good?

It varies around the world, but most Poles are convinced that others are evil. I’ve written about this many times. Years ago on Świdnicka Street in Wrocław, we stopped passers-by and asked what percentage of the people around us – and there were crowds – were kind, helpful, just, honest, etc. According to passers-by, 80% of people on the street were egoists, untrustworthy, unjust. In short: bad. These results were systematically confirmed. For example, teachers say there are four times as many bad students as good ones. I think this is one of the barriers that hinders wise relations with others.

But it’s wise not to let yourself be fooled.

Shrewd, not wise. My grandfather was a wise man, with life experience. He believed children shouldn’t be given money, because it spoils them. They should earn it somehow. So he played cards with us for money. And lost. I think this was wise, because he was a great card player. In this way, he shaped a conviction in us that you have to be resourceful, but he also engaged in a kind of deception.

There’s another quote from Erasmus: “Ay, but (say you) to flatter is to deceive; and to deceive is very harsh and hurtful: no, rather just contrary; nothing is more welcome and bewitching than the being deceived.” Maybe sometimes it’s best not to face the naked truth? Is it wise?

It’s definitely cautious. After all, we generally deceive ourselves, editing our memories. I can’t stand reading biographies, because I don’t believe them. They’re usually a mix of truth and fabrications. But is deceit wise?

When I was doing my doctorate years ago, I went into the forest to work, having read Edward Stachura earlier. We worked felling trees, somewhere in Lubusz province. It was quite a special group: army deserters, criminals, and me, a doctor of psychology. There was one chap there who had a lot of elegant mannerisms. Once I struck up a conversation about them. He lit up a cigarette, inhaled, and said “Well, you know, I’ve already told several dozen different stories about this. Each was different, and none of them failed me.” I think all of us do the same. What’s more, there are many indications that we have various faces for use with various people, and this is a result of a certain type of adjustment, accommodation with others. As a result, the question of whether it’s good or bad ceases to make sense. Because that’s like asking whether it’s good to have a temperature of 36.6°C. That’s just the one you have.

So, in fact, it’s wise to recognize reality.

Definitely. And it’s wise to know that even if we have a strong feeling that we’re affecting our surroundings and being effective, it’s never the case that everything depends on us. In many situations, what we do is determined by context. The circumstances in which the same people sometimes behave honestly, and sometimes don’t. Dan Ariely placed on the windowsill in the university building a box with six cans of cola, each worth $2. He set them out during a lesson, and after the break there wasn’t a single one left. But when he put six $1 bills in the box, nobody touched them. They sat and sat and sat.

Most of us were raised this way: behave wisely (meaning obey the authorities). Obedience isn’t a wise thing. Just like anarchy isn’t a wise thing. I believe that when talking about what’s socially wise, you have to use a word that’s been somewhat forgotten, introduced to science by Professor Tadeusz Kotarbiński: trustworthiness. Meaning the ability to rely on somebody, which has a lot in common with co-deciding and cooperating.

Are there moments in life when it would be better to behave unwisely?

Oh, yes, various kinds of flirtation and affairs! This is ground where a lot of interesting, pleasant things happen, even though it’s known that most often they don’t have good prospects. They’re a satiation of extemporaneous hedonism. Of course, it’s pleasant to take part in this, but afterwards comes a kind of bewilderment…


Oh! That’s a good word.

The wiser, the stupider,” Gombrowicz says, and makes a silly face. At the start of the conversation you brought up the concept of the necessary dose of madness.

For me, Gombrowicz is an example of pathological egocentricity. Pathological egoists will do everything to satiate their ‘I’, even give alms. As long as it pumps up their ‘I’. I don’t really understand the sentence “The wiser, the stupider”, if it’s supposed to mean something more than that there really isn’t any sense in being wise.

I think it means there’s no sense in being too wise.

Definitely, because this also just satiates the ‘I’. Our outstanding colleague Andrzej Szmajke demonstrated that certain kinds of self-presentation, making a good impression, only fool the presenters. Nobody else. They believe in what they’re saying, but nobody else does.

I’d interpret Gombrowicz’s saying differently. I would think: does wisdom pay? Well, not always. It’s often not true, if you take into account the economic, social and interpersonal benefits. It’s connected with so many things that people often don’t like – with openness, distance, criticism.

But wisdom also – we can’t conceal it – is often suffering. That’s not at all a small thing. Starting from the suffering that results from the need to deal with contradictions, which can’t be avoided. Spinoza wrote long ago: “Conflicting thoughts cause pain.”

The second kind of suffering comes from how we’re often not understood. In this sense, maybe we need to say that to be wise, you need a certain masochistic streak.

Is life without a dash of stupidity even possible?

I think it’s not just impossible, but actively harmful. Because you can’t imagine that spending all your life in milk and honey can be satisfying. First of all, it would be boring. It starts from there. At all costs, you would have to leave some reserve of unwisdom, if this omnifarious wisdom spilled out over the whole world.

And why?

For comparisons. To have a point of reference. But also as a warning. As Lem said, you have to leave a couple of Homo sapiens so that the world, or rather the universe, can see what kind of element this is.

But a stupid person is often a clown as well.

That’s precisely why I don’t like the words ‘stupid’, ‘stupidity’, etc. They’re ambiguous. I prefer more delicate forms, like ‘unwisdom’.

A clown can be stupid, but a clown isn’t unwise.

Exactly, there’s a verse by Jonasz Kofta, “Poor Yorick”: “This is the order of things / Remember this, you clown / You’re ill from good sense / You’ll heal by ill imagination.”

Are you happy with some of the unwise things you’ve done in your life?

[laughter] Yes! But I can’t admit to them.

Or maybe not happy, but I don’t regret them. I’ve also done lots of unwise things that I regret very much, or am ashamed of.

Maybe it’s unwise, but I insist on at least one example.

[after a long silence] I don’t regret that as a 13-year-old, I decided that on my 18th birthday I’d move out of my home. For five years I thought about how I’d do it. This was not just unwise, it was inhuman in a certain sense, because I was plotting while ignoring everyone around me – my mother, my family. I didn’t care about anything at all. It was ugly. I moved out precisely on my 18th birthday. That was the wisest decision in my life. It’s the way I got to it that was unwise. Today I think that I could have done it differently, talked it over with my family. But at that time it didn’t occur to me at all. I wove this web, and on my 18th birthday I had it all ready. I had a place to live, a job. It was such an impulse to grow that I can’t imagine that my life could have played out the way it has if I had stayed at home.

What would happen if I decided that from this day forward I’m only going to behave wisely?

There are data showing that if we ask people to behave wisely, that’s how they’ll behave. In any case, more wisely than others, which shows that we have potential and tools that we don’t use every day. Meaning that most often the context we live in doesn’t supply us with this impulse.

I made up a metaphor. Both in my academic activity and in my everyday life, I describe myself as a person digging in a rubbish heap. He thinks he’s found something valuable, but it’s an old Champagne cork, or a crushed can. And, here you go, a gold ring. Sometimes on this heap you find a treasure. Rarely, but you do. To tell the truth, this dustman isn’t looking for rings at all. He’s just digging in the rubbish, and by chance finds a ring, or doesn’t. If he doesn’t, he doesn’t go hang himself. But if he does, he doesn’t go get drunk. He just looks at it. This is exactly how I see my fate.

Meaning we can’t work on wisdom?

It’s worth working on, because that increases the likelihood it will happen. But if today we signed a commitment that by next year we’ll get 3% wiser, that would be quite an unwise idea.


Wiesław Łukaszewski:

Professor of psychology. He has written many books, his latest being Mądrość i różne niemądrości [Wisdom and Various Follies]. Years ago, he always made sure to solve “Przekrój”’s famous crosswords on time. He did this not for money, but in order to impress women.


Translated by Nathaniel Espino