ORACLES USE DELPHI: Does wisdom even exist?

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Wisdom overlaps and intertwines with many other more familiar constructs; characteristics such as creativity, reflection, empathy, and judicious decision-making are never far way in such discussions. So, is it possible that wisdom itself is just an unnecessary label for traits we already have very well covered by other frameworks, such as intelligence and spirituality? Does wisdom, in fact, even exist?


In 2009, a panel of 6 of the world’s leading wisdom experts steeled themselves to tackle a thorny problem. The researchers were Dilip Jeste and Thomas Meeks from the University of California, Monika Ardelt from the University of Florida, Dan Blazer from Duke University, Helena Kraemer from Stanford and George Vaillant from Harvard. The problem they faced was this. Wisdom research was growing rapidly across many different departments in many different countries. With a sevenfold increase in wisdom-related publications since the 1970s, the community needed to get its heads together and its ideas straight. Was wisdom genuinely a distinct entity from intelligence and spirituality? And from the first 30 years of research, what could actually be agreed on regarding the nature of wisdom itself?

With departments and experts spread across the globe, a novel approach was required to weave this rapidly developing and far-flung thinking together. In the 1950s the American military had been keen to combine expert thinking on how future technology might impact on future warfare. The RAND corporation developed the ‘Delphi method’ to do just this. The method allows for a broad range of expert opinion to be combined and refined over a number of rounds of questionnaires until a consensus is reached on the most likely ‘correct’ solutions. The thinking is that, if managed carefully, the consensus reached by a group of experts will be more reliable than those of any individual experts. The approach requires anonymity of all participants and at least two rounds of questions, allowing for first round answers to be modified by participants in light of the outcome of previous rounds. The Delphi method was adopted by the wisdom research team. A search for the ‘wisdom of the expert crowd’ began.

Having chosen 57 wisdom experts from around the world, the team sent out invitations to participate and 30 of these 57 researchers signed up. 22 of them were from North America, so there is of course the potential for a western-perspective bias in the findings. Of the 30 participants who completed the first phase of the project, 27 of them went on to also complete the second phase. In the first phase, the experts were asked to rate 53 survey items on how accurately they described each of wisdom, intelligence and spirituality. For example, the term might be ‘skepticism’. Each participant then gave a score anywhere from 1 (definitely not important) to 9 (definitely important) for how important ‘skepticism’ is in describing each of wisdom, intelligence and spirituality. So, each term would receive a wisdom score, an intelligence score and spirituality score.

The results from the first phase of the project were surprisingly clear (click here to see scores for every item). For 49 out of the 53 items, there was remarkable consensus amongst the experts that the three constructs are distinct. This means for most of the terms, the group consistently scored each of the terms very differently for how important they were in describing wisdom, intelligence and spirituality. In the very large majority of cases, terms that are considered very important in describing wisdom are not considered important for describing intelligence or spirituality, and vice versa. Essentially, this suggested that wisdom, intelligence and spirituality are genuinely distinct constructs.

Having determined that they are indeed distinct frameworks, what do they actually share? The following 3 terms were considered important in describing specifically both wisdom and intelligence:

  • skepticism
  • desire for learning/knowledge
  • unimportance of participation in religious services, membership of faith community

The following 18 terms were considered important in describing specifically both wisdom and spirituality:

  • altruism
  • other-centredness
  • willingness to forgive others
  • ego integrity
  • sense of peace with eventual death
  • humility
  • gratitude
  • self-compassion
  • mindfulness
  • reverence for nature
  • nonviolence
  • ethical conduct
  • calmness
  • sense of purpose in life
  • life satisfaction
  • general sense of well-being
  • present to some degree in everyone
  • optimism (neutral for both wisdom and spirituality)

In the second phase of the Delphi study, the team went on to nail down a consensus on the characteristics of wisdom itself. The experts were presented with 12 pairs of ‘polar statements’. These were statements such ‘Wisdom is culture specific’ paired with ‘Wisdom is universal’. They were asked to rate each item on a scale from 1 (definitely not) to 9 (definitely so).

The results (click here to see the scores for every item) show that strong agreement was reached on 9 of the 12 statements, which were as follows:

  • Wisdom is a personal quality (not a group quality)
  • Wisdom is a uniquely human trait (other animals can’t be wise)
  • Wisdom is a form of advanced cognitive AND emotional development (not just cognitive)
  • Wisdom is a rare quality (not normally distributed like other characteristics)
  • Wisdom is experience driven (rather than innate)
  • Wisdom can be learned
  • Wisdom increases with age
  • Wisdom can be measured
  • It will never be possible to increase wisdom by taking some medication

The agreement on the statement ‘Wisdom increases with age’ caused a little bit of surprise amongst some of the experts. In the Delphi model, participants are encouraged to also submit qualitative comments if they would like to. One participant suggested that whilst wisdom increases with age up to the age of 40 or so, the relationship between age and wisdom then largely evaporates.

Also, the point was made that, whilst ageing provides the conditions for the flourishing of wisdom, this is an opportunity to become wise, rather than a guarantee of doing so. The relationship between wisdom and ageing is explored in more detail in a recent post on this site (Click here to read the post ‘The Myth of the Aged Sage’).

No agreement was reached on the following items regarding the characteristics of wisdom:

  • ‘Wisdom is a trait with specific sub-components’ vs ‘Wisdom is a label for a group of desirable traits’
  • ‘Wisdom is culture specific’ vs ‘Wisdom is universal’
  • ‘Wisdom can best be judged by studying a person’s behaviour’ vs ‘Wisdom can best be judged by studying a person’s thought processes’.

From a methodological perspective, the Delphi method allows the possibility of including perspectives from geographically distant cultures. Whilst the concept of wisdom had been shown to be surprisingly consistent over different cultures in a different paper written by Dilip Jeste the previous year, there are also well-documented cultural differences. A Delphi method approach could serve an important function in learning more about such cultural perspectives on wisdom.

So, the leading lights in wisdom research reached a remarkably strong consensus in this project. In the large majority of cases, traits viewed as important in describing spirituality and intelligence don’t seem to be important when describing wisdom. Whilst there is of course some essential overlap (more so with spirituality than intelligence), wisdom seems to be a robustly distinct entity in its own right. Wisdom does indeed appear to exist.

Why not have a look at the following papers to read more about the development of wisdom?

Expert Consensus on Characteristics of Wisdom – This is the full paper describing the Delphi method study outlined above.

Self-development through selflessness: The paradoxical process of growing wiser (Ardelt, 2008) – This paper discusses some surprising aspects of what does and what doesn’t lead to growth in wisdom

The Myth of the Aged Sage: Does older really mean wiser? – This post from July 2015 discusses the complexities of the common belief that wisdom is a natural consequence of ageing

If you have any thoughts about wisdom and its distinction from other constructs, please get in touch. You can contact me via email or follow me on Twitter or Facebook.


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