THE BALANCE THEORY OF WISDOM: Doing the right thing.

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Sternberg’s Balance Theory of Wisdom is one of the most celebrated models of wisdom to emerge from the field of psychology. It’s practical, it’s clear and it’s all about doing the right thing.


Robert Sternberg is somewhat of a titan of American Psychology. A one-time president of the American Psychological Association, he has developed highly respected models on a huge range of topics fundamental to the human experience: intelligence, creativity, even love. And of course, wisdom.

Sternberg’s main area of research has always been intelligence and the need to look beyond mere mental abilities and ‘book-smarts’. He even wrote a book in 2003 titled ‘Why smart people can be so stupid’.

Sternberg’s perspective on intelligence suggests that successful intelligence requires three elements:

(1) Creative intelligence – coming up with new ideas

(2) Analytical intelligence – reviewing them to see if they have value

(3) Practical intelligence – convincing others to adopt and run with them

Whilst this broader perspective indicates that there is more to intelligence than simply robust cognitive abilities, Sternberg was still left with unanswered questions. Superior intelligence does not ensure people have a positive impact on the world. Why build an education system around ‘intelligence’ and provide no guidance about how to use that intelligence out in the real world? Tufts University, where Sternberg worked from 2005 to 2010 as the Dean of Arts and Sciences, was the Alma Mater of Kenneth Lay and Andrew Fastow, Enron’s notoriously unwise executives. Socrates was clear on the distinction between intelligence and wisdom. In Plato’s Republic he refers damningly to ‘The narrow intelligence flashing from the keen eye of a clever rogue’. The Enron rogues were clearly very smart, yet their impact on the world could not be described as positive. Sternberg saw that very smart people can sometimes do very foolish things.

Sternberg put is as follows: ‘I looked at people like Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., and Mother Teresa and Nelson Mandela – take your own pick – and if you compare them to Stalin and Hitler and Mao, they probably didn’t differ much in I.Q. It seemed that what differentiated them was wisdom.’

Sternberg recognised that we wouldn’t label actions as wise unless they are directed towards the common good. As he puts it, ‘It’s all about doing the right thing.’ This idea of ‘the common good’ distinguishes wisdom from mere cunning and he placed it at the heart of his new wisdom theory. ‘A person could be practically intelligent, but use his or her practical intelligence toward bad or selfish ends. In wisdom, one certainly may seek good ends for oneself, but one also seeks common good outcomes for others.’

Sternberg’s Balance theory of Wisdom defines wisdom as:

The application of tacit knowledge as mediated by values toward the achievement of …

a common good through a balance among multiple…

(a) intrapersonal, (b) interpersonal, and (c) extrapersonal interests in order to achieve a balance among…

(a) adaptation to existing environments, (b) shaping of existing environments, and (c) selection of new environments.

Review of General Psychology – 1998

Some versions also add a final phrase…

….. over the (a) short- and (b) long-terms.

That’s quite a lot to take in. It’s worth breaking it down into its elements:

A common good

The model suggests that wisdom always works towards the optimal solution for the group, not the individual agent. It’s about doing the right thing. This is the ‘should’ element of wisdom, beyond the ‘could’ element of intelligence.

Balance among INTERESTS:

(a) Intrapersonal – competing interests within an individual. e.g. wanting to read a good book and wanting to watch the news.

(b) Interpersonal – competing interests amongst a group of individuals e.g You want to go for another drink but your friend wants to go home

(c) Extrapersonal – competing interests imposed not by a person but by something else entirely e.g. helping in the local community, serving one’s country

Balance among ENVIRONMENTS:

(a) adaptation to existing environments – changing yourself or behaviour for a more optimal outcome in a given environment

(b) shaping of existing environments – taking action where possible to change our environment for a more optimal outcome

(c) selection of new environments – leaving an environment and choosing a new one when adaptation and shaping are not good options

The ‘Balance among environments’ section of the theory is reminiscent of Reinhold Niebhur’s ‘Serenity prayer’. Also sometimes known as the wisdom prayer, the lines have been a mainstay of the Alcoholics Anonymous programme since the 1940s:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

The courage to change the things I can,

And the wisdom to know the difference.

Balance over TIME-FRAMES:

(a) Short-term interests – what we want for our present self

(b) Long-term interests – what we want for our future self

Whilst the idea of balancing competing interests is instrumental to Sternberg’s theory, the more fundamental aspect appears to be the idea of the common good.

As Osbeck and Robinson say in Sternberg’s ‘Handbook of Wisdom’, ‘What the word wisdom is intended to reach is the combination of virtue and the most refined intelligence’. Wisdom appears to not just be intelligence then, but intelligence harnessed to realising the common good.

Sternberg has not only developed these theories, but he has also put them into practice. When he was working at Tufts, he overhauled the admissions process with the Tufts ‘Rainbow’ programme. As well as completing all the elements of the traditional application process, applicants were encouraged to tackle an additional open-ended task. The idea was to allow for the display of creative intelligence or wise perspectives. For further information, have a look at Sternberg’s presentation on ‘Rethinking admissions’.

When describing the importance of new ways of thinking about education, Sternberg stated: ‘The important thing is to work together towards a common good – toward devising the best ways to select and educate students so as to maximise their positive future impact. We wish our students to show wisdom. We need to do the same.’

Why not have a look at the following sources to learn more about Sternberg’s Balance Theory of Wisdom?

Academic Intelligence is not enough (Sternberg 2009): Sternberg outlines why we need to think more broadly about intelligence and wisdom in education

Conversations on Wisdom – Uncut Interview with Robert Sternberg: Sternberg discusses his contributions to Wisdom research

Career advice from an oldish not-quite geezer: Interview in The Chronicle of Higher education in which Sternberg provides practical advice gleaned from an illustrious and fascinating career

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


One thought on “THE BALANCE THEORY OF WISDOM: Doing the right thing.

    Rick Badman said:
    November 3, 2020 at 2:20 am

    This post was truly worthwhile to read. I wanted to say thank you for the key points you have pointed out as they are enlightening.
    Please check my blog about Wisdom Is Not the Same as Knowledge

    Hope this will help. Thank you.


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