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by Ben Dean Ph.D.

Definition: What is Wisdom?

The strength of wisdom refers to the ability to take stock of life in large terms, in ways that make sense to oneself and others [ii] 
Wisdom is the product of knowledge and experience, but it is more than the accumulation of information. It is the coordination of this information and its deliberate use to improve well-being.  In a social context, wisdom allows the individual to listen to others, to evaluate what they say, and then offer them good (sage) advice.  
Famous paragons of wisdom include the major religious leaders of history--leaders such as Jesus, Lao-tzu, the Buddha, the Prophet.  Famous statesmen and stateswomen throughout history such as Winston Churchill, and Eleanor Roosevelt are also exemplars of the strength of wisdom.  

Who Studies Wisdom?

Since the time of Aristotle, wisdom has been contemplated by philosophers, theologians, and most anyone concerned with the Good Life and how to live it. (For a good review of the history of wisdom, see Assmann, 1994.) 
In recent psychological history, two major research groups stand out as major contributors to the scientific study of wisdom: Paul Baltes and his colleagues at the Max Planck Institue for Human Development in Berlin and Robert Sternberg and colleagues at Yale University.  There is much overlap between the way the two groups conceptualize wisdom and their research findings are often complementary.  Yet it is interesting to note the unique theoretical slant that drives the research of each group:
  • Baltes and colleagues define wisdom as expertise in the conduct and meaning of life.  According to their theory, a wise person is someone who knows what is most important in life and how to get it.  He or she knows what constitutes the meaningful life and how to plan for and manage such a life (Baltes & Staudinger, 2000).  
  • Sternberg's most recent definition of wisdom stems from his "balance theory of wisdom."  According to this theory, people are wise to the extent that they use their intelligence to seek a common good.  They do so by balancing their own interests with those of other people and those of larger entities (e.g., family, community, country).  Wise people can adapt to new environments, change their environments, or select new environments to achieve an outcome that includes but goes beyond their personal self-interest (Sternberg, 1998) 

Interesting Research Findings About Wisdom

Wisdom is a positive predictor of successful aging.  In fact, wisdom is more robustly linked to the well-being of older people than objective life circumstances such as physical health, financial well-being, and physical environment (Ardelt, 1997; Baltes, Smith, & Staudinger, 1992; Bianchi, 1994; Clayton, 1982; Hartman, 2000).
In a fascinating study of women through midlife, Hartman (2000) found that those women who made major changes in the domains of love and work were higher in the development of wisdom by midlife. Interestingly, she found that making life changes in the 30s appeared to have a particularly positive effect on the development of wisdom.
Experiencing stressful life events across time can facilitate the development of wisdom--up to a point.  People seem to benefit from stressful life experiences, particularly if they respond well to them.  But as the ratio of negative to positive life experiences tips in favor of the negative, wisdom is inhibited (Hartman, 2000).
Wisdom is distinct from intelligence as measured by IQ tests (Sternberg, 2000).  Indeed, Sternberg goes so far as to suggest that intelligent, well-educated people are particularly susceptible to four fallacies that inhibit wise choices and actions.  You can read more about these fallacies in Sternberg's entertaining book Why Smart People Can Be So Stupid (2003), but I will summarize them here.  As you read the list, see if you can generate relevant examples of famous political and business leaders who have been susceptible to these fallacies! 
  • The Egocentrism Fallacy: thinking that the world revolves, or at least should revolve, around you.  Acting in ways that benefit yourself, regardless of how that behavior affects others.  
  • The Omniscience Fallacy: believing that you know all there is to know and therefore do not have to listen to the advice and counsel of others.  
  • The Omnipotence Fallacy: believing that your intelligence and education somehow make you all-powerful.  
  • The Invulnerability Fallacy: believing that you can do whatever you want and that others will never be able to hurt you or expose you.

Developing Wisdom

In addition to watching out for the four fallacies listed above, consider the following wisdom-building activities compiled, in part, by psychologist Jonathan Haidt:
  • Read the works of great thinkers and religious leaders (e.g., Gandhi, Buddha, Jesus, Mother Theresa, Nelson Mandela).  Read classic works of literature.  Contemplate the "wisdom of the ages."
  • Think of the wisest person you know. Try to live each day as that person would live.   
  • Look up prominent people in history and learn their views on important issues of their day.
  • Volunteer at a nursing home and talk with residents about their lives and the lessons they have learned.
  • Subscribe to two news editorial publications that are on opposite ends of the political spectrum (e.g., The National Review for the conservative perspective and The Nation for the liberal perspective).  Read them both and consider both sides of the issues.  
Remember that wisdom, like all of the character strengths we will cover in this series, exists on a continuum and can be developed with effort.
I hope you enjoyed this newsletter!  See you in two weeks when we discuss the character strength Bravery. 

References and Recommended Readings

Assman, A. (1994). Wholesome knowledge: Concepts of wisdom in a historical and cross-cultural perspective. In D. L. Featherman, R.M. Lerner, & M. Perlmutter (Eds.), Life-span development and behavior (Vol. 12, pp. 187-224). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
Baltes, P.B. & Staudinger, U.M. (2000). Wisdom: A metaheuristic (pragmatic) to orchestrate mind and virtue toward excellence. American Psychologist, 55, 122-136. 
Bianchi, E. (1994). Elder wisdom: Crafting your elderhood. New York: Crossroad.
Clayton, V.P. (1982). Wisdom and intelligence: The nature and function of knowledge in the later years. International Journal of Aging and Human Development, 15, 315-321.
Hartman, P.S. (2000). Women developing wisdom: Antecedents and correlates in a longitudinal sample. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.
Peterson, C. and Seligman, M. E. P. (Eds.). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification.  New York: Oxford University Press.
Sternberg (2003). Why smart people can be so stupid. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Sternberg, R. J. (2000). Intelligence and wisdom. In R. J. Sternberg (Ed.), Handbook of intelligence (pp. 631-649).  Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.
Sternberg, R. J. (1999).  Schools should nurture wisdom.  In B.Z. Presseisen (Ed.), Teaching for intelligence (pp. 55-82). Arlington Heights, IL: Skylight Training and Publishing.
Sternberg, R. J. (1998). A balance theory of wisdom.  Review of General Psychology, 2, 347-365.