THE BERLIN WISDOM PARADIGM: An expert knowledge system

Posted on Updated on

Avoiding discussion of emotion and motivation altogether, one pioneering group of psychologists defined wisdom simply as a set of skills. They conceived of wisdom as an expertise, just like any other, although this expertise is in something fairly important – expertise in the fundamental pragmatics of life.

Welcome to the Berlin Wisdom Paradigm.


In the early 1980s, Paul Baltes was head of the Center for Lifespan Psychology at the Max Plank Institute for Human development in Berlin. Baltes and his team launched the ground-breaking ‘Berlin Wisdom Project’ and in doing so ‘obtained the most comprehensive empirical understanding of wisdom by any single group in modern psychology’, according to New York Time journalist Stephen Hall.

Their conception of wisdom was ‘expertise in the fundamental pragmatics of life’. They helpfully translated this into more understandable language as ‘good judgment and advice about important but uncertain matters of life.’ From a practical perspective, it was helpful to view wisdom as a type of expertise. Expertise is something that psychology has a great deal of experience in measuring and investigating. By framing wisdom as a form of expertise, such research experience could hence be brought to bear on the unwieldy construct of wisdom.

Before outlining the Berlin model, it’s worth stating that there are two categories of theories often discussed in wisdom research – implicit theories and explicit theories. Implicit wisdom theories are theories developed by asking the public what they think wisdom is. These are sometimes referred to ask ‘folk theories of wisdom’. Explicit wisdom theories are theories constructed by psychologists, which may or may not take into account what the public thinks wisdom is. They also identify behaviours associated with wisdom and as such lend themselves to empirical inquiry more readily than implicit theories. The Berlin Wisdom Paradigm is an explicit theory.

The Berlin wisdom paradigm outlines a family of 5 criteria that define wisdom. In fact, for a behaviour to be considered wise, it must exhibit all 5 of the criteria.

They are:

RICH FACTUAL KNOWLEDGE: general and specific knowledge about the conditions of life and its variations.

This means knowing about human nature and the life course.

RICH PROCEDURAL KNOWLEDGE: general and specific knowledge about strategies of judgment and advice concerning matters of life

This means knowing ways of dealing with life’s problems.

LIFESPAN CONTEXTUALISM: knowledge about the contexts of life and their temporal (developmental) relationships

This means having an awareness and understanding of the many contexts of life, how they relate to each other and change over the lifespan.

RELATIVISM: knowledge about differences in values, goals, and priorities

This means an acknowledgment of individual, social and cultural differences in values and life priorities.

UNCERTAINTY: knowledge about the relative indeterminancy and unpredictability of life and ways to manage

This means knowing the limits of one’s own knowledge.

The first two criteria, factual and procedural knowledge, are basic requirements for expertise in any field, here the field being ‘fundamental pragmatics of life’. The final three criteria are specific to the construct of wisdom.


As discussed in a recent post, measuring wisdom is inherently difficult. From conception, The Berlin group realised that asking subjects to fill in questionnaires would not provide meaningful data. Researchers have found that there are often discrepancies between people’s subjective reports of their competencies and objective measures of these competencies. This discrepancy has also been shown to become larger with age.

Baltes’ team avoided the problem of self-assessment altogether by using a ‘thinking aloud’ method. Subjects were presented with a ‘life dilemma’ – a hypothetical life problem – and were asked to think aloud about the problem. The subjects were encouraged to talk without pausing, for as long as they like, and to stop when they chose. Trained raters then scored the responses against the 5 elements of the model outlined above. An example of a life dilemma used was:

‘A 15-year old girl wants to gets married right away. What should one/she consider and do?’

Click here (See Appendix B) to read an example of a low-rated response and a high rated response.

Research in 1995 using this process produced encouraging results. A panel of journalists nominated test subjects who they considered to be wise. This group and a group composed of adults not nominated were both tested for wisdom using the procedure outlined above. The wise nominees outperformed the test group, suggesting that the Berlin Wisdom paradigm is measuring what we talk about when we talk about wisdom. Implicit and explicit wisdom seem here to be in agreement.


Two later experiments suggested intriguing interventions that result in greater wisdom scores, as assessed using the above criteria.

Inner/Outer Dialogue intervention (1996) –Staudinger & Baltes

Participants instructed to engage in dialogue with a person of their choice or even just to reflect on the problem alone before responding to the life dilemma increased their performance level by almost one standard deviation.

Travelling the Globe on a Cloud (2002) -Böhmig-Krumhaar, Staudinger & Baltes

Participants were asked to imagine travelling across the planet on a cloud before responding to the life dilemma. This focus on cultural relativism and tolerance resulted in greater scores in the ‘Relativism’ category, leading to an increase in overall wisdom scores.


More recently, it has been suggested that the Berlin paradigm overlooks some important aspects of wisdom. Primarily, wisdom research in the new millennium has emphasised the ‘integrative’ aspect of wisdom, the alignment of thinking with emotion. Monika Ardelt, a professor of Sociology from the University of Florida suggested in a 2004 paper that the Berlin model is too exclusively ‘cognitive’ and neglects the role of reflection and emotion. Furthermore, researchers such as Michael Levenson, a professor in the department of Human development at Oregon State University, suggest that wisdom entails a self-transcendence; an interest in working towards a common good. There is a sense that the ‘should’ of wisdom is somewhat absent from the model.

Writing in 2005 in Robert Sternberg’s ‘Handbook of Wisdom’, Baltes went someway to addressing these points, suggesting emotion does indeed have a key role to play in behaving wisely. He proposed that a wise person would empathise with another person’s problem and show an appropriate emotional response. However, they would then down-regulate this negative emotion to put some distance between themselves and the problem so they can access wisdom-related knowledge that may be helpful to the other person. This theory was scheduled to be tested in the laboratory but Baltes died of cancer the following year.

Whatever its shortcomings may be, the Berlin Wisdom paradigm is clearly a powerful and helpful conception of wisdom. Beyond that, its successful development played a fundamental role in convincing other researchers that a science of wisdom was possible.

Why not have a look at the following paper to read more about the Berlin Wisdom Paradigm?

Wisdom: A Metaheuristic (Pragmatic) to Orchestrate Mind and Virtue Toward Excellence (Baltes & Staudinger, 2000) – An overview of the Berlin Wisdom Paradigm

2 thoughts on “THE BERLIN WISDOM PARADIGM: An expert knowledge system

    Anand Awasthi said:
    September 20, 2015 at 9:53 am

    Wisdom is not a singular phenomenon, it is collective by nature. Therefore I have used ‘collective wisdom’. There is not nor can there be any theory to define wisdom. It is an experience/ realization. I am writing a book on the following lines:

    1. Collective wisdom is consciousness of natural reality and human experience. It provides solutions of misdirected approaches, cleanses maladies at the root, it fails none, harms none. Collective wisdom churns out of continuous dialogue. It’s informal. it is explicit in random ideas; it is proverbial as well as conceptual, inductive as well as deductive, but not regimental.
    2. It signifies consciousness- two dimensions: transitional (related to growth in an individual) and transconscious (based on experience of all in a social group)

    3. Ego dominates the mind; it is a free play for prejudices to rise, then knowledge fails but when ego is disciplined, it’s indication for wisdom to usher in. Where knowledge fails, wisdom illumines the path. Then it leads to building a condition, that strengthens positivity which everyone enjoys and it results in creating happiness for all. Such would be a blessed society.

    4. When ego is under control, prejudice disappears, it is time for knowledge. So long as prejudice rules wisdom is stifled. If the situation is reverse it is not the individual but social sense prevails, hence, wisdom prevails.

    5. The collective means pertaining to all, for all, by all and of all at once and without a grain of individual concern.

    6. Collective wisdom is not knowledge alone, or logic alone, or reason alone, or perception alone, nor is it art; it is an approach that deploys all these as tools at a time.

    7. Collective wisdom is not the property of any one individual; it is rather the experience of all but used as a single feat.

    8. Myths, stories, general view or public opinion, majority view do not contain CW but CW lies in the approach how to negate, frustrate, and completely dissolve successfully an absolutely wrong majority view being forced upon, because the majority in normal conditions becomes a crowd, which seldom sees reason and as Aristotle is of the opinion, majority consists of fools.

    9. Life is neither formal nor systematically organized, rather it’s informal, wayward and unpredictable so the educational process has to be capable of meeting all/ most challenges, which are unpredictable.

    10. Anything that has compatibility with the natural law, process and human experience which is always dominant in human being can lead to a desired result. Therefore No One Method is capable of developing whole personality because any one formal method does not include all aspects. All/ whole is needed for eco balance, existence and approach that includes both formal and informal ways, known as holistic – wholistic.

    11. Man has to remain conscious of his being part and parcel of nature. He pollutes air, water, earth, atmosphere (space) but not fire because he can’t, however, he has certainly discovered numerous varieties of fire to burn his world. But he can’t afford to ignore what this he has been doing from the start of modern age that moulded his culture and civilization all as inimical to nature. It may not be possible to stop total interference with natural state but there must be a boundary line, which he will not violate…. etc…etc. A K Awasthi


    […] han intentado aunar criterios y entender, desde una visión global, qué es la sabiduría. El Wisdom Project establecido en Berlín por Paul Baltes y Ursula Staudinger definió a la sabiduría […]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s