What is Wisdom?

Many of us think we know what wisdom means, but the concept lacks a universal definition. As Kanwar and Sehgal (2021) point out, wisdom is an important virtue across many major world religions and the traits thought to make a wise person vary by culture. For example, they describe that extroverts are seen as wise in western cultures whereas introverts are more likely to be viewed this way in eastern cultures. Likewise, researchers have proposed a wide variety of features thought to comprise wisdom.

One major model of wisdom was proposed by Baltes and Staudinger (2000). They famously defined wisdom as an “expert knowledge system concerning the fundamental pragmatics of life” (Baltes & Staudinger, 2000, p. 122). They went on to describe five components:

  • Factual knowledge (e.g., about human nature, interpersonal relationships)
  • Procedural knowledge (e.g., about contending with conflict or weighting life goals)
  • Lifespan contextualism (e.g., relating family, friends, work, and education to time, culture, and history)
  • Relativism (e.g., tolerance of differences at the individual and societal levels)
  • Recognizing and managing uncertainty (e.g., effectively navigating complex and ambiguous situations)

Glück and Bluck (2013) developed the MORE Life Experience Model which includes four resources: Mastery, Openness, Reflectivity, and Emotion Regulation and Empathy. Each of these resources “influence which life events individuals are likely to encounter, how they perceive and appraise them, how they deal with challenges, and how and to what extent they integrate and reintegrate experiences into their life story” (p. 2).

Weststrate and Glück (2017) conceive of wisdom as “a body of experience-based knowledge about the fundamental issues of human life […] Wisdom manifests outwardly in the form of exceptional advice-giving, decision-making, and problem-solving capacities” (p. 800).

One review of the literature on wisdom (Bangen et al., 2013) found still more components of wisdom including: prosocial values, self-understanding, emotional homeostasis, spirituality, and sense of humor. Grossmann (2017) synthesized several conceptualizations of wisdom, suggesting that wise thinking is a combination of: “(a) intellectual humility or recognition of limits of own knowledge, (b) appreciation of perspectives broader than the issue at hand, (c) sensitivity to the possibility of change in social relations, and (d) compromise or integration of different opinion” (p. 235).

The Relationship Between Wisdom and Age

The connection between age and wisdom is complex. Despite the widely held belief that individuals naturally become wiser with age, research examining the relationship between age and wisdom has produced inconsistent results (Bangen et al., 2013). This lack of consensus may be the result of varying definitions and measurement tools used to assess wisdom (Ardelt, 2010). It may also be that the platitude “with age comes wisdom” is simply out of step with a more complex reality that research is beginning to reveal.

While some literature supports the notion that wisdom increases with age, other studies suggests that it peaks in early or middle adulthood and then either remains stable or gradually declines with age (Ardelt et al., 2018). For example, Ardelt (2010) found that, in comparison to college students, college-educated older adults achieved higher scores on the self-administered three-dimensional wisdom scale. This suggests that wisdom may indeed increase with age.

In a study conducted by Webster et al. (2014), 512 Dutch participants aged 17 to 92 completed measures of wisdom, physical and mental health, and personality. In contrast to Ardelt’s research, their findings showed that wisdom peaked in midlife rather than older adulthood (Webster, 2014). They describe that “midlife adults score higher than both younger and older adults on certain subdimensions of wisdom (e.g., critical life experiences, emotional regulation, relative to younger adults; openness, humor, and emotional regulation, relative to older adults)” (Webster, 2014. p. 215). They speculated that midlife may be a time when adults strike a balance between acquiring “a critical mass of life experience” and possessing the “cognitive strengths and emotional resources to process such events” (Webster, 2014, p. 215).

These findings raise important questions regarding the development of wisdom. Staudinger (1999) put it succinctly, stating that, “after about age 20, growing older is certainly not enough to become wiser” (p. 660). Currently, research suggests that positive and negative life experiences may be fundamental to the development of wisdom (Weststrate & Glück, 2017). Although life experiences naturally accumulate with age, wisdom is not an automatic byproduct of experience (Weststrate & Glück, 2017; Webster et al., 2014). Rather, Webster et al. (2014) highlight the complexity of wisdom development by stating that, “the type of experience, one’s inclination to reflect upon and evaluate such events, and the competence to learn and grow from adversity (among other issues) are more influential in wisdom development than experience (and therefore age) alone” (p. 209).

Can Wisdom be Developed?

Thomas and colleagues (2017) considered a number of studies and determined wisdom has a positive association with physical and mental health, happiness, and life satisfaction. With this in mind, interventions to help people cultivate wisdom could lead to broad positive outcomes for many people.

Researchers have recently begun to explore methods of fostering wisdom. Weststrate and Glück (2017) conducted a study exploring the relationship between wisdom and self-reflection. They conclude that deriving wisdom from life experience can occur as a result of self-reflection. More specifically, the study suggested the kind of reflection that fosters wisdom “require[s] that individuals explore their own role in the occurrence of negative life events, confront and examine negative feelings, and do the effortful work of finding meaning in the difficult experience” (Weststrate & Glück, 2017, p. 810).

Laidlaw (2010) has conducted research on a wisdom-enhancing addition to cognitive-behavioral therapy that can enhance the treatment of late life anxiety and depression. Similar to the aforementioned conclusion regarding self-reflection, Laidlaw (2010) suggests that this additional CBT component could include reflection on current or past depressive episodes in the context of one’s broader life and consideration of any positive outcomes from past hardships.

An exploratory study by Bruya and Ardelt (2018) increased wisdom in college students by having them complete self-reflection journal prompts exploring their personal attributes, beliefs, values, and experiences. The intervention was based on an analysis of the theories for fostering wisdom in an educational setting and included: challenging beliefs, prompting the identification of values, encouraging self-reflection, and fostering emotions related to moral values.

Thus, despite the relative dearth of research on the development of wisdom, there is cause for optimism that it can be fostered and successfully incorporated in psychological treatment.

Assessment

A number of assessment tools have been developed to measure wisdom. These include:

  •       The Adult Self-Transcendence Inventory (Levenson et al., 2005)
  •       Brief Self-Assessed Wisdom Scale (Fung, Chow, & Cheung, 2020)
  •       The Gerotranscendence Scale (Tornstam, 1994)
  •       The Loyola Generativity Scale (McAdams & de St. Aubin, 1992)
  •       The Self-Assessed Wisdom Scale (Webster, 2003)
  •       The San Diego Wisdom Scale (Thomas et al., 2019)
  •       The Three-Dimensional Wisdom Scale (Ardelt, 2003)

Written by McEllen Lawrence, Holly Malette,  & Katherine King, PsyD, William James College

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Ardelt, M. (2003). Empirical assessment of a three-dimensional wisdom scale. Research on Aging, 25, 275–324.

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Ardelt, M. (2010). Are older adults wiser than college students? A comparison of two age cohorts. Journal of Adult Development, 17(4), 193-207.

Ardelt, M. (2010). Are older adults wiser than college students? A comparison of two age cohorts. Journal of Adult Development, 17(4), 193-207.

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Baltes, P. B., & Staudinger, U. M. (2000). Wisdom: A metaheuristic (pragmatic) to orchestrate mind and virtue toward excellence. American psychologist, 55(1), 122.

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Bruya, B., & Ardelt, M. (2018). Wisdom can be taught: A proof-of-concept study for fostering wisdom in the classroom. Learning and Instruction, 58, 106–114. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.learninstruc.2018.05.001

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