The general consensus with regards to wisdom is that we can’t quite define it but we know it when we see it. Most people have a sense that they know what wisdom is, but for the construct to be studied scientifically, a much tighter definition is required. This was the first challenge facing researchers when wisdom was dragged into Psychology departments towards the end of the 20th century: ‘Just what exactly is wisdom?’
This question unfortunately won’t be resolved in the next 500 words. A dilemma that has kept philosophers and theologians scratching their heads for over two thousand years is a thorny dilemma indeed. Nonetheless, since the 1980s, a number of helpful frameworks have been outlined by leaders in the field. The three principle wisdom frameworks are:
- The Berlin Wisdom Paradigm: developed by Paul Baltes and Ursula Staudinger in the 1980s at the Max Plank Institute for Human Development. The model roughly defines wisdom as ‘expertise in the fundamental pragmatics of life’.
- The Sternberg Balance Theory of Wisdom: developed by Robert Sternberg in the 1990s at Yale. The model stresses the importance of balancing interests and working towards the common good.
- The Three-dimensional Wisdom Scale: developed by Monika Ardelt in the late 90s at the University of Florida. The model suggests wisdom is the integration of reflective, cognitive and affective personality characteristics.
In 2009, two American doctors in San Diego set about trying to identify neural activity associated with wisdom. In order to do so, Dilip Jeste, a neurologist and Thomas Meeks, a psychiatrist, conducted a review of the wisdom research literature to date, hoping to find common characteristics shared amongst the various wisdom models. Having identified 10 major descriptions of wisdom (including those listed above), they pulled out any elements that were present in at least 3 of these definitions. This resulted in a shortlist of 6 persistent sub-components of wisdom. The components were as follows.
THE 6 SUB-COMPONENTS OF WISDOM:
(1) Prosocial attitudes/behaviors: Working towards a common good
(2) Social decision making/pragmatic knowledge of life: Practical knowledge, judgement, life skills etc.
(3) Emotional homeostasis: Managing one’s emotions amidst challenging circumstances
(4) Reflection/self-understanding: Self-knowledge
(5) Value relativism/tolerance: Able to adopt multiple perspectives
(6) Acknowledgment of and dealing effectively with uncertainty/ambiguity: Effectively navigating uncertainty and the limits of knowledge.
This list of course is not the final word on ‘defining wisdom’. It does however combine the key elements of the most successful definitions to have emerged from wisdom research over the last 30 years. It is a helpful place to start. Once researchers have a working definition of a construct, studies can be designed to determine what exactly contributes to the achievement of the agreed standard.
The wisdom research community has not yet reached a consensus on a hard definition of wisdom. Whilst doing so would of course be incredibly helpful for the development of the field, a lack of a precise description is not a deal-breaker for wisdom. Agreement on the definition of incredibly familiar constructs such as ‘intelligence’ or ‘creativity’ has still not been reached, yet research in these fields marches boldly forth. It would be helpful to be able to work from an agreed definition of wisdom, yet fruitful research continues in its absence.
Not forgetting about our Californian doctors, Jeste and Meeks then went on to examine the literature on the neurobiology of each of the 6 subcomponents of wisdom. These are very promising first steps in identifying the neural correlates of wisdom. To read their full paper, click here.
To learn more about the wisdom models discussed here, have a look at the papers below.
- The Berlin Wisdom Paradigm – Baltes and Staudinger
- Sternberg Balance Theory of Wisdom – Robert Sternberg
- The 3-dimensional wisdom scale – Monika Ardelt
- Neurobiology of Wisdom – Meeks and Jeste
If you have any thoughts about the 6 sub-components of wisdom, please get in touch. You can contact me via email or follow me on Twitter or Facebook. Charles