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1. Some Historical Background To The Psychological Study Of Wisdom
Since the beginnings of human culture, wisdom has been viewed as the ideal endpoint of human development (Baltes and Staudinger 2000a). Certainly, the psychological study of wisdom is still rather young compared with its philosophical treatment when considering that the very deﬁnition of philosophy is ‘love or pursuit of wisdom.’ Historically, wisdom was conceptualized in terms of a state of idealized being (such as Lady Wisdom), as a process of perfect knowing and judgment as in King Solomon’s judgments, or as an oral or written product such as wisdom-related proverbs and the so-called wisdom literature. Important to recognize is that the identiﬁcation of wisdom with individuals (such as wise persons), the predominant approach in psychology, is but one of the ways by which wisdom is instantiated. In fact, in the general historical literature on wisdom, the identiﬁcation of wisdom with the mind and character of individuals is not the preferred mode of analysis. Wisdom is considered an ideal that is difficult to be fully represented in the isolated individual.
Throughout history, the interest in the topic of wisdom has waxed and waned (Baltes and Standinger in press). In general, two main lines of argument have been in the center of the historical evolution of the concept of wisdom: the distinction between philosophical and practical wisdom, and the question of whether wisdom is divine or human.
In the Western world, these two issues (philosophical vs. practical; divine vs. human) were at the center of wisdom-related discourse during the Renaissance. An initial conclusion of this debate was reached during the later phases of the Enlightenment. Recently, in conjunction with value pluralism and the need for orientation characteristic of postmodern times, interest in the concept of wisdom has been revived. Finally, archeological–cultural work dealing with the origins of religious and secular bodies of wisdom-related texts in China, India, Egypt, Old Mesopotamia and the like has revealed a cultural and historical invariance with regard to wisdom-related proverbs and tales. This relative invariance gives rise to the assumption that concepts such as wisdom with its related body of knowledge and skills have been culturally selected because of their adaptive value for humankind.
Among one of the major reasons for the emergence of the psychological study of wisdom in the late 1970s, early 1980s was the search for the potential of aging or, more speciﬁcally, the search for domains or types of intellectual functioning that would not show agerelated decline. Life experience and wisdom as well as professional expertise, everyday problem solving or practical intelligence were selected as topics of investigation.
2. Psychological Approaches To The Deﬁnition Of Wisdom
A ﬁrst approach to the deﬁnition of wisdom from a psychological perspective is its treatment in dictionaries. The major German historical dictionary, for instance, deﬁned wisdom as ‘insight and knowledge about oneself and the world … and sound judgment in the case of difficult life problems.’ Similarly, the Oxford Dictionary includes in its deﬁnition of wisdom ‘Good judgment and advice in difficult and uncertain matters of life.’
In a next step, psychologists further speciﬁed the content and formal properties of wisdom-related phenomena. These initial efforts for the most part were theoretical and speculative. G. Stanley Hall in 1922, for example, associated wisdom with the emergence of a meditative attitude, philosophic calmness, impartiality, and the desire to draw moral lessons that emerge in later adulthood. Furthermore, writers have emphasized that wisdom involves the search for the moderate course between extremes, a dynamic be- tween knowledge and doubt, a sufficient detachment from the problem at hand, and a well-balanced coordination of emotion, motivation, and thought. In line with dictionary deﬁnitions, such writings refer to wisdom as knowledge about the human condition at its frontier, knowledge about the most difficult questions of the meaning and conduct of life, and knowledge about the uncertainties of life, about what cannot be known and how to deal with that limited knowledge (for an overview, see Sternberg 1990).
2.1 Implicit (Subjective) Theories About Wisdom
Most empirical research on wisdom in psychology so far, has focused on further elaboration of the deﬁnition of wisdom. Moving beyond the dictionary deﬁnitions of wisdom, research explored the nature of everyday beliefs, folk conceptions, or implicit (subjective) theories of wisdom. The pursuit of answers to questions such as ‘what is wisdom?’, ‘how is wisdom different from other forms of intelligence?’, ‘which situations require wisdom?’, ‘what is a wise act?’, and ‘what are the characteristics of wise people?’ have been at the center of psychological wisdom research during the 1980s (for a review, see Sowarka 1989, Sternberg 1990).
These studies in principle build on research initiated by Clayton (e.g., Clayton and Birren 1980). In her work three dimensions were typical of wise people: (a) affective characteristics such as empathy and compassion, (b) reﬂective processes such as intuition and introspection, and (c) cognitive capacities such as experience and intelligence. The focus of a study conducted in 1985 by Sternberg was the location of wisdom in the semantic space marked by other constructs such as creativity and intelligence. Wisdom was found to be described by six dimensions: reasoning ability; sagacity; learning from ideas and environment; judgment; expeditious use of information; and perspicacity. The greatest overlap was found between intelligence and wisdom. The sagacity dimension, however, was speciﬁc to wisdom. In later theoretical work, Sternberg deﬁned wisdom as balancing intra- personal, interpersonal, and extrapersonal interests to achieve a common good through a balance between adaptation to, shaping of, and selection of environments (Sternberg 1998).
Another major study on subjective theories of wisdom was conducted by Holliday and Chandler (1986). A factor analysis of the attributes judged to be ‘most prototypical’ of a wise person and wise behavior revealed two factors. One dimension was labeled ‘exceptional understanding of ordinary experience,’ i.e., combining qualities of the mind with practical virtues of leading a good life. The second factor was labeled ‘judgment and communication skills,’ i.e., qualities like comprehending, weighing consequences, and giving good advice.
Another study in the tradition of implicit-theory research involved asking subjects to nominate wise people and subsequently characterize nominees (Sowarka 1989). Two ﬁndings were of special importance. First, it seemed that the characterization of wisdom and wise persons was a task readily performed by elderly research participants. Second, subjects emphasized the notion that the persons they had nominated as wise displayed ‘excellent character.’
Finally, there is initial evidence on the implicit theories about wise acts (Oser et al. 1999). Wise acts seem to be characterized by the following seven features: (a) paradoxical, unexpected; (b) morally integer; (c) selﬂess; (d) overcoming internal and external dictates; (e) striving towards equilibrium; (f) implying a risk; (g) striving towards improving the human condition.
From this research on implicit theories of wisdom and wise persons, it is evident that people in Western samples hold fairly clearcut images of the nature of wisdom. Four ﬁndings are especially noteworthy. First, in the minds of people, wisdom seems to be closely related to wise persons and their acts as ‘carriers’ of wisdom. Second, wise people are expected to combine features of mind and character, and to balance multiple interests and choices. Third, wisdom carries a very strong interpersonal and social aspect with regard to both its application (advice) and the consensual recognition of its occurrence. Fourth, wisdom exhibits overlap with other related concepts such as intelligence, but in aspects like sagacity, prudence, and the integration of cognition, emotion, and motivation, it also carries unique variance.
2.2 Explicit Theories And Assessment Of Wisdom
A more recent line of empirical psychological inquiry on wisdom addresses the question of how to measure behavioral expressions of wisdom. Within this tradition, three lines of work can be identiﬁed (Staudinger and Baltes 1994): (a) assessment of wisdom as a personality characteristic, (b) assessment of wisdom in the Piagetian tradition of postformal thought, and (c) assessment of wisdom as an individual’s problem solving performance with regard to difficult problems involving the interpretation, conduct, and management of life.
Within personality theories, wisdom is usually conceptualized as an advanced if not the ﬁnal stage of personality development. Wisdom, in this context is comparable to ‘optimal maturity.’ A wise person is characterized, for instance, as integrating rather than ignoring or repressing self-related information, by having coordinated opposites, and by having transcended personal agendas and turned to collective or universal issues. Ryff and Whitbourne, for example, have undertaken the effort to develop self-report questionnaires based on the Eriksonian notions of personality development, especially integrity or wisdom. Recently, wisdom, in the sense of self-development and maturity, was operationalized using various scales of the California Q-sort and was found to predict life satisfaction in old age (Ardelt 1997).
Central to Neopiagetian theories of adult thought is the transcendence of the universal truth criterion that characterizes formal logic. This transcendence is common to conceptions such as dialectical, complementary, and relativistic thinking. Such tolerance of multiple truths, that is, of ambiguity, has also been mentioned as a crucial feature of wisdom. Empirical studies in this tradition by Labouvie-Vief (1994) or Kramer et al. (1992), found that, at least up to middle adulthood, performances on such measures of adult thought evince performance increases.
Besides these measures of wisdom as a personality characteristic, or as a feature of mature thought, there is also work that attempts to assess wisdom-related performance in tasks dealing with the interpretation, conduct, and management of life. This approach taken by the Berlin wisdom paradigm is based on lifespan theory, the developmental study of the aging mind and aging personality, research on expert systems, and cultural–historical deﬁnitions of wisdom (DittmannKohli and Baltes 1990, Baltes and Smith 1990). By integrating these perspectives, wisdom is deﬁned as ‘an expert knowledge system in the fundamental pragmatics of life permitting exceptional insight, judgment, and advice involving complex and uncertain matters of the human condition.’
The body of knowledge and skills associated with wisdom as an expertise in the fundamental pragmatics of life, entails insights into the quintessential aspects of the human condition, including its biological ﬁnitude and cultural conditioning. Wisdom involves a ﬁne tuned coordination of cognition, motivation, and emotion. More speciﬁcally, wisdom-related knowledge and skills can be characterized by a family of ﬁve criteria: (a) rich factual knowledge about life, (b) rich procedural knowledge about life, (c) lifespan contextualism, (d) value relativism, and (e) awareness and management of uncertainty (see Baltes et al. 1992 for an extensive deﬁnition).
To elicit and measure wisdom-related knowledge and skills, in this approach participants are presented with difficult life dilemmas such as the following: ‘Imagine, someone receives a phone call from a good friend who says that she he can’t go on anymore and has decided to commit suicide. What would the person be thinking about, how would the person deal with this situation?’ Participants are then asked to ‘think aloud’ about such dilemmas. The ﬁve wisdom-related criteria are used to evaluate these protocols. The obtained scores are reliable and provide an approximation of the quantity and quality of wisdom-related knowledge, and judgment of a given person (see Staudinger and Baltes 1994). When using this wisdom paradigm to study people who were nominated as wise according to nominators’ subjective beliefs about wisdom, it was found that wisdom nominees also received higher wisdom scores than comparable control samples of various ages and professional backgrounds.
Part of the Berlin paradigm also is a general framework outlining the conditions for the development of wisdom as it is instantiated in persons (Baltes et al. 1992). The model presents a set of factors and processes which need to ‘cooperate’ for wisdom to develop. First, there are general individual characteristics related to adaptive human functioning such as intelligence and personality. Second, the model presumes that the development of wisdom is advanced by certain expertise-speciﬁc factors, such as a strong motivation to ﬁnd out about life, practice with difficult life situations, and being guided by a mentor. Third, the model implies the operation of macro-level facilitative experiential contexts. For instance, certain professions and historical periods are more facilitative than others. Further, given the experiences certain social–cognitive processes (life planning, life management, and life review) are assumed to be critical for the development of wisdom-related knowledge and judgment.
The empirical work based on this ontogenetic model and the measurement paradigm, produced outcomes consistent with expectations. Contrary to work on the ﬂuid mechanics of cognitive aging, older adults performed as well as young adults (for a review see Staudinger 1999a). It seems that wisdom-related knowledge and judgment emerges between the ages of 14 and 25 years. Furthermore, when age was combined with wisdom-related experiential contexts, such as professional specialization speciﬁcally involving training and experience in matters of life (e.g., clinical psychology), even higher levels of performance were observed. In line with the historical wisdom literature, that portrays wisdom as the ideal combination of mind and virtue, it was found that wisdom-related performance was best predicted by measures located at the interface of cognition and personality, such as a judicious cognitive style, creativity, and moral reasoning. Neither intelligence nor personality independently of each other made a signiﬁcant contribution to wisdom-related knowledge and judgment. The predictive pattern is of an almost complementary nature when wisdom-related performance in adolescence is considered.
2.3 Is There Wisdom-Related Potential?
Researchers of wisdom are usually quite aware that it is a courageous undertaking to try to study wisdom empirically; a complex and content-rich phenomenon which, as many scholars have claimed, deﬁes attempts at scientiﬁc identiﬁcation. However, research on explicit theories of wisdom has shown that it is possible to measure wisdom in terms of a personality characteristics (standardized or open-ended), a characteristic of adult thought, as well as performance (judgment, advice) on difficult life tasks.
Given the fact, that wisdom-related performance had been successfully operationalized, the question arose of whether it was possible to modify this performance or more speciﬁcally to increase wisdom-related knowledge and judgment. It should also be noted that, not surprisingly, the overall level of wisdom identiﬁed was below or around the theoretical mean of the scale. Thus, leaving a lot of room for improvement. So far, to our knowledge three studies have been conducted to test these ideas. One was carried out within the framework of Neopiagetian notions of wisdom. It was demonstrated that the level of reﬂective judgment in adolescence could be raised by presenting examples of higher-level responses (Kitchener et al. 1993).
Within the Berlin wisdom paradigm two different approaches have been successful in activating wisdom-related potential. The ﬁrst study took into account the fact that wisdom may be too complex a knowledge system to be traceable in an isolated individual. Rather, it may be the case that higher performance levels are found if two minds can interact before responding to the wisdom dilemma. And indeed, when two individuals usually interacting about life problems in everyday life (real dialog) had a chance to do so before they individually reﬂected and responded to wisdom tasks, the performance level was increased by one standard deviation (Staudinger and Baltes 1996). In line with notions of symbolic interactionism, performance increase was also identiﬁed when participants thought about what other people might say while thinking about the problem (virtual dialogue). The second study focused on one of the ﬁve wisdom-related criteria, value relativism, and adopted a very successful memory training technique, the method of loci, for use in the realm of wisdom-related performance (Baltes and Staudinger 2000a). Participants were trained to think about life problems located at different regions of the world. At post-test, participants trained in the knowledge activating strategy outperformed the control group by more than half a standard deviation.
3. Conclusion And Future Directions
The concept of wisdom represents a fruitful topic for psychological research: (a) the study of wisdom emphasizes the search for continued optimization and the further evolution of the human condition, and (b) in a prototypical fashion, it allows for the study of collaboration between cognitive, emotional, and motivational processes. We expect that future research on wisdom will be expanded in at least three ways: (a) the further identiﬁcation of social and personality factors and life processes relevant for the ontogeny of wisdom, (b) the exploration of wisdom as a meta-heuristic aimed at orchestrating mind and virtue towards human excellence (Baltes and Staudinger 2000a), and (c) the contribution of wisdom research to building a psychological art of life (Staudinger 1999b).
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