3-DIMENSIONAL WISDOM: Can wisdom be measured?

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For the field of wisdom research to develop, it is necessary to be able to objectively and reliably measure wisdom. This is clearly a challenging prospect. Simply asking people ‘how wise are you?’ will not yield useful results. The matter is further complicated by the fact that wise people are often more aware than others of the limits of their understanding, meaning wise people may report themselves to be foolish and foolish people report themselves as wise. Can wisdom really be meaningfully be measured?


The business of ‘scoring’ wisdom is fraught with difficulty. Firstly, an agreed score relies on an agreed definition of wisdom to be scored against. Secondly, there is the problem of self-reporting. If people are asked to rate themselves on any positive trait, the results will be inevitably biased. Thirdly, there is the problem of wise people themselves. Judith Gluck, professor of developmental psychology at Klagenfurt University and renowned wisdom researcher states “truly wise persons are unlikely to declare themselves as wise, so they may score lower in self-report wisdom scales than others.” Or as Socrates would put it, the wise person knows that he does not know. Nonetheless, there is optimism in the wisdom research community regarding the measurement of wisdom. In a 2009 study canvassing views of leading wisdom researchers across the globe, there was strong agreement on 9 stated characteristics of wisdom, one of which was ‘Wisdom can be measured’.

There are a number of wisdom measurement scales currently in operation. A review of four well-established scales can be found here. This post will be looking at one of these scales in a little more detail – the Three-dimensional Wisdom Scale – developed by Monika Ardelt in the 1990s. Ardelt, now a professor of Sociology at the University of Florida, started developing a new wisdom scale in 1990. The dominant wisdom framework at the time was the Berlin Wisdom Paradigm, which viewed wisdom as ‘expertise in the fundamental pragmatics of life’. There was a sense among many in the field that some emotional aspect of wisdom was being overlooked. Ardelt’s research lead her to the work of Vivian Clayton, a pioneering psychologist who in the 1970s had laid the foundation for much of wisdom research whilst at University of Southern California. This led to an enriched three-strand model of wisdom, and allowed for the inclusion of the elusive emotional aspect of wisdom. The three dimensions of wisdom, according to Ardelt’s new model were ‘reflective, cognitive and affective’.

She describes the three dimensions as follows:

  • Reflective dimension – looking at phenomena from different perspectives, including yourself, which tends to reduce ego-centredness and allows people to overcome subjectivity and projections
  • Cognitive dimension – the ability to see reality as it is, to understand deeper truths, in particular how it relates to the intrapersonal and interpersonal aspects of life
  • Affective dimension – sympathy and compassion for others.

Ardelt’s original study involved 180 senior citizens in North-central Florida and is described in full here. They responded to 132 items selected to probe various aspects of wisdom, for example ‘A problem has little attraction for me if I don’t think it has a solution.’ The list was then streamlined to a more manageable 39 items: 12 reflective items, 14 cognitive items and 13 affective items. This 39 item list is now known as the 3DWS (Three-dimensional wisdom scale) and is widely used throughout the wisdom research community.

As well as developing the 3DWS, Ardelt has also shared valuable insight regarding the relationship between the 3 dimensions. The dimensions are not independent strands, developing in isolation of each other. Rather, there is a critical interplay between them as an individual grows in wisdom. As one becomes more REFLECTIVE, self-induced distortions are reduced and one can gain a clearer appreciation of reality. This is growth of the COGNITIVE dimension, as discussed above. This deeper appreciation of the complexity of human behavior results in greater empathy, sympathy and compassion, hence an increase in the AFFECTIVE dimension of wisdom. A more detailed description of this process can be found in Ardelt’s paper ‘Antecedents and Effects of Wisdom in Old Age’.

Ardelt’s research also highlighted the relationship between adversity and wisdom. Her work suggests, perhaps predictably, that traumatic experiences are navigated more successfully by people who score highly for wisdom. However, she has also suggested that traumatic experiences themselves may be instrumental in the development of wisdom. This resonates with the concept of post-traumatic growth, an idea which has become more widely accepted in recent years.

As mentioned earlier, the Three-dimensional wisdom scale is only one of a handful of effective wisdom measurement scales in use today. Nonetheless, it has been widely adopted by the research community as a reliable scale and valid instrument, which returns emotion to a central role in the measurement of wisdom.

So it appears that wisdom can be indeed be reliably measured. An online version of Ardelt’s 3DWS can be accessed by clicking here. With the 3DWS at your fingertips, the only question remaining now is, are you prepared to have your wisdom measured?

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

How to measure wisdom; content, reliability and validity of five measures: Judith Gluck’s detailed analysis of the current leading wisdom measures

Empirical Assessment of a Three-dimensional Wisdom Scale: Monika Ardelt’s paper detailing the development of the 3DWS

The Wisdom Score Card: How wise are you? Take the 39-item test online and find out how you score on the 3DWS.

The Interplay of the 3 dimensions of wisdom: Watch a talk by Monika Ardelt which includes an outline of the key characteristics of the 3DWS.

If you have any thoughts about measuring wisdom, please get in touch. You can contact me via email or follow me on Twitter or Facebook.


One thought on “3-DIMENSIONAL WISDOM: Can wisdom be measured?

    […] Ardelt is a wisdom researcher who created a holistic 3 dimensional model of wisdom: cognitive, reflective and affective which explores the development and expression of […]


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