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.


THE BERLIN WISDOM PARADIGM: An expert knowledge system

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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

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.


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.


THE MYTH OF THE AGED SAGE: Does older really mean wiser?

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The concept of the white-haired, bearded ‘wise aged sage’, is very much part of our popular culture. Even if we put this image to one side, our common sense also seems to lead us to the same conclusion; more years lived means more life experience acquired, means more wisdom, surely? But what does the science of Wisdom research tell us? Does older really mean wiser?


With both common culture and common sense in such agreement, it’s understandable why the perception persists. Research done back in the late 1980s by Marion Perlmutter, a professor of developmental psychology at the University of Michigan, showed that people consider wisdom more strongly related to age than either education or gender. We really feel that ‘older is wiser’.

It’s not only the uninformed public that hold this view. Wisdom researchers also share the same expectations about age and wisdom. In a Delphi Method study canvassing the views of 27 International wisdom experts in 2009, significant agreement was reached on 9 characteristics of wisdom. This short-list included the characteristic that wisdom ‘increases with age’.

Furthermore, the ageing of the population has prompted a renewed interest in finding ‘upsides’ to getting older. Wisdom has become a prime candidate in this search. Many people are enthusiastic about this possible benefit to ageing. The next step, of course, it to find the evidence to back up the belief.

Unfortunately, in terms of a quest for empirical evidence, ‘the harvest is relatively small’, to quote Paul Baltes and Jacqui Smith, two pioneering wisdom researchers from the Max Plank Institute in Berlin reporting on their findings in 1989. At the start of the 21st century, Monika Ardelt, a professor of Sociology from the University of Florida checked in with an update: ‘We found no indication that wisdom automatically increases with age.’ The evidence unfortunately does not support our cherished notion of the aged sage.

John Meacham, now a professor at The University of Buffalo, has quite a different take on wisdom and the ageing process altogether. He says that the association of wisdom with ageing, rather than telling us about old people, reflects the needs of young people to attribute wisdom to older persons. They need to believe that those older people in power have learnt from life experience. They need to believe that their institutions are under the watch of those wiser than themselves. Meacham argues that the myth of the aged sage is a much-needed construction of the young.

In fact, he goes further than that. If Wisdom is about, among other things, openness and tolerance, we may in fact get more foolish as we age rather than more wise. He controversially claims that ‘Our experience represents the greatest threat to our wisdom’. As we get older, we confirm our prejudices, become more bigoted, have fewer new experiences and remove ourselves from opportunities to learn about other world-views. ‘Older’ may in fact mean the opposite of ‘wiser’.

Rather than a straightforward linear relationship, some research suggests that wisdom does vary with age, but has a different profile than expected. Gisela Labouvie-vief, a psychologist at the University of Geneva, found that wisdom increases from adolescence to adulthood, peaking in the 30s or 40s, and then tails off in later adulthood.

The relationship seems to be subtler than we first imagined. Stephen Hall, a science writer for the New York Times, writes about the need to distinguish between different elements of wisdom. Cognitive function may decline as a result of brain degeneration, limiting the cognitive aspects of wisdom. However, comfort with uncertainty may well increase, allowing old people to navigate uncertainty more effectively.

This approach chimes nicely with a paper by Judith Gluck, Susan Bluck, Jacqueline Brown and Dan McAdams called ‘The Wisdom of Experience: Autobiographical narratives across adulthood’. The paper argues that the forms of wisdom we employ change across the arcs of our lives. Younger people characterise wisdom primarily as ‘empathetic’ yet middle-aged people see it more as ‘self-determination’. Older people tend to characterise it more in terms of ‘flexibility of knowledge’. So, when we talk about wisdom and ageing, it seems we need to be more specific. Which component of the wisdom construct are we talking about?

The question of wisdom and its relationship with age is more complex than it first seems. Getting older certainly allows for more life experiences hence opportunities for acquiring wisdom, but ageing itself by no means guarantees wisdom. Some elements of wisdom increase with age and some decrease. To turn once again to Baltes and Smith ‘We expect ‘world records’ in wisdom to be held by older adults, although on average older adults may not be wiser than younger adults.’

It seems we have to let go of the comforting image of the aged sage. So, if age doesn’t lead to wisdom, what does? This is the big question facing researchers, and some intriguing answers are emerging….

Why not have a look at the following papers to read a bit more about wisdom and ageing?

Expert Consensus on Characteristics of Wisdom – This paper identifies 9 wisdom characteristics that experts agree on

The Wisdom of Experience: Autobiographical narratives across adulthood – This paper discusses the different forms of wisdom that resonate with different age groups

Antecedents and Effects of Wisdom in Old Age – This paper outlines the factors that influence the development of wisdom

If you have any thoughts about wisdom and ageing, please get in touch. You can contact me via the about page or find me on twitter @EBasedwisdom.



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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?’

kitchener quote

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:

  1. 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’.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.


(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.

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


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Welcome to ‘evidence-based wisdom’ – July 2015


I am starting a new online platform called ‘evidence-based wisdom’. It is for scientifically minded people who want to become wiser. Wisdom is considered to be the pinnacle of insight into the human condition and means to living a good life. No longer the exclusive domain of philosophy and religion, psychologists have recently started pulling the construct apart and putting it back together in a form that makes it accessible to all. I will be translating this new science of wisdom research into language and practical tools that people can use to become wiser and optimise their life experience.

Firstly, a few key questions and answers that may be helpful:

What is ‘evidence-based wisdom’?

‘Evidence-based wisdom’ is a term for scientifically determined knowledge about the psychological construct of ‘Wisdom’.

Why focus on wisdom?

We all want to live good lives. We all want to navigate life successfully. We all want to die happy, with confidence that we lived life well. We have brief lives and we want to get them right. Wisdom can be seen as the understanding and action that leads to optimal life experience. Pursuing wisdom is pursuing mastery or optimisation of the human experience. I realised a number of years ago, that what I wanted more than anything else is to master the human experience, to gain the understanding and take the action that leads to optimal life experience. Wisdom is the framework that guides us towards optimal life experience.

Why is wisdom an important construct to study?

The accumulation of knowledge does not automatically lead to the understanding of anything, let alone optimal life experience. Pursuit of happiness and wellbeing, whilst evidently worthy goals, can lead to an unrealistic and perhaps forced/limited/constrained view of life. Beyond knowledge or happiness, we find wisdom; a practical construct that allows the optimal navigation of life with all its gnarly conflicts, contradictions and uncertainties.

 Can wisdom be studied scientifically?

Having studied Physics at Manchester University, I place great stock in the scientific method. I have avoided the fields of philosophy and theology in this endeavour. Fortunately, research into wisdom has recently taken a distinctly scientific turn.

What is wisdom and who’s to say?

For centuries, wisdom has been the preserve of philosophy and religion and has lacked rigorous definition. I find it helpful to think of it as the understanding and action that leads to optimal life experience. Buddhists think of it as the distinguishing of thoughts and deeds that contribute to authentic happiness from those that destroy it. Christians think of it as profound understanding of life granted by God. In the last 30 years or so, wisdom has made its way into science departments across the globe, particularly in Germany, the United States and Canada. Psychologists are finding that societies do share an agreed understanding and conception of wisdom. Wisdom is a construct composed of the following traits:

  • Deep self-knowledge
  • Social intelligence and life skills
  • Broad compassion
  • Emotional management
  • Multi-model perspective-taking
  • Uncertainty navigation

What can be gained from studying wisdom?

Psychologists have worked hard to reach an agreed framework to talk about wisdom. This then allows measures to be developed to assess the wisdom of individuals or specific actions. In turn, this enables us to identify wise individuals, which may help suggest ways that others can ‘become wiser’.

Can individuals ‘become wiser’?

It’s early days but two distinct paths seem to lead to growth in wisdom. Firstly, traumatic experiences. These seem to temporarily shatter your world view, providing an opportunity for your perspective to widen a little, hence you can become more tolerant, more at peace with uncertainty, more compassionate for others, more robust emotionally etc. Overall, you can become wiser. Secondly, meditation. A large component of wisdom is self-transcendence. Your attention and efforts are no longer limited to looking out for your own needs, rather they expand to include the good of all people. Meditation has been shown to increase empathy and compassion, hence it can lead to increased levels of wisdom.

What do you hope to achieve by studying wisdom? What would be a good outcome from this?

Ideally, we will find what traits or behaviours lead to higher levels of wisdom. This could then enable the development of therapies, programmes or interventions that can increase individuals’ levels of wisdom. Ultimately, we can help people master the human experience. A society composed of wiser individuals will be a wiser society.

Why not dive in right away? Click below to read about some of the key findings from wisdom research:

  • Neurobiology of Wisdom – an outline of the brain areas active during behaviours considered to be sub-components of wisdom
  • WICS – an outline of why wisdom must be synthesised with intelligence and creativity to prepare young people in education
  • Exploring Solomon’s Paradox – self-distancing can lead to wiser decisions in human relationships

If you have any thoughts about evidence-based wisdom, suggestions of research papers that might be of interest or any other ideas about how to make the platform more helpful or effective, please get in touch. You can contact me via email or follow me on Twitter or Facebook.