Psychology of Wisdom Research Paper

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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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