Laypeople’s Conceptions of Wisdom and Its Development: Cognitive and Integrative Views (Gluck & Bluck, 2011)

By 2011, psychologists tended to agree that wisdom broadly has three central elements: cognitive (understanding the human condition and having knowledge/experience about life), reflective (willingness and ability to thoughtfully examine issues, including oneself) and affective (compassion and benevolence). This paper investigated the possibility that different groups of people may weight the three elements differently. This turned out to be true. It appears that people can be split into two groups when articulating their conception of wisdom. Group 1 places more weight on the cognitive component. These people are more likely to be younger, western or male. Group 2 values the cognitive element as well but considers the affective component to also be important. These people are more likely to be older, eastern or female. The two groups do agree on the most important element for a definition of wisdom, namely ‘ knowledge and life experience’. They also agree on the most important element of the development of wisdom: ‘a broad spectrum of positive and negative experiences’.


Objectives. This study examined individual differences in laypeople’s conceptions of wisdom using a person-oriented approach, as previous studies using a priori group variables may have underestimated the variability. Although there is a tradition of examining people’s implicit theories of wisdom, this study is the first to also investigate their views of how wisdom develops.

Method. A total of 1,955 participants rated the importance of 8 items concerning what wisdom is and 9 items concerning how wisdom develops.

Results. Cluster analyses identified 2 conceptions of what wisdom is. Participants with a “cognitive conception” rated cognitive and reflective characteristics as central to wisdom; participants with an “integrative conception” additionally endorsed affective characteristics. Conceptions varied by age and sex. Concerning the development of wisdom, participants with a cognitive conception viewed learning from experiences and from wise persons as central; participants with an integrative conception rated experience with life challenges as equally important.

Discussion. Laypeople’s views of wisdom are not unitary, and the way in which wisdom is viewed is related to how it is seen as developing in a person’s life. These empirical differences in implicit theories of wisdom map onto theoretical differences in the views of wisdom researchers.

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