A Special Note: Sources of Wisdom

The information on wisdom included throughout the pages of this wikipedia was drawn primarily from "Chapter 23: The Meaning of Wisdom and its Development Throughout Life" in The Handbook of Lifespan Development, unless otherwise indicated. The in-text citation for this chapter is: (Karelitz, Jarvin, & Sternberg, 2010). The full text of this document can be found here:

The full citation for this source can be found at the bottom of each page, along with the citations for all other articles referenced on each given page.

What is Wisdom? / What Does Develop?
There are many different defintions of wisdom, and thus the answers to these two questions depend on one's conceptualization of wisdom. Some proposed definitions of wisdom include: Wisdom_Encyclopedia.jpg
  • Ability to make proper judgments based on good sense and moral value
  • Possession of insight or wealth of knowledge
  • Reflective ability to discern inner qualities and relations
  • Emotional-spiritual strength needed to deal with life’s uncertainties or to show compassion to others
(Karelitz, Jarvin, & Sternberg, 2010)

Although there are many different perspectives on the meaning of wisdom (as can be seen from even the brief listing of definitions given above) , they generally seem to converge on the finding that wisdom involves the development and integration of cognitive, affective, and behavioral qualities oriented toward growth within one’s life context. In recent years, much wisdom research has thus specifically focused on the development of cognitive skills and aspects of personality that may in turn be contributors to the development of wisdom across the lifespan (Kareltiz, et al., 2010).
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Cognitive Skills
Wisdom is commonly associated with the development of metacognitive skills, including the following (Kareltiz et al., 2010):
      • Dialectical thought - Acceptance of contradictions and their resolutionthrough synthesis of opposing systems or frames of reference.
          • Reflective thought - Requires self-awareness, self-examination, and insight. It is "manifested as people shift from an understanding of what can be known with certainty, to awareness of the uncertainties that underlie any knowledge" (Kitchener & Brenner, 1990, p. 217).
          • Problem-finding - Reflection on the nature of the problem and its solution, while balancing multiple perspectives and sources of information.

Personality Development
In addition to cognition as the foundation for wisdom, many researchers emphasize the development of emotional, motivational, and moral aspects of personality (Karelitz et al., 2010):
  • Self-development and Self-transcendence - Moving beyond individualistic concerns toward universal concerns.
  • Maturity and Adaptation - Both from social (life satisfaction, positive relationships) and personal perspectives (openness to experience and personal growth).
  • Effective Regulation of Emotion in the face of life complexities. Emotions can either help or hinder the ability to make rational decisions in matters important to life. For example, if a college student is trying to decide whether to transfer to a different university, accurately identifying her emotions surrounding the decision may help her to recognize what path will best promote her overall well-being. On the flip-side, an adolescent who wants to drop out of high school and move in with her older boyfriend may not yet have the capacity to deal effectively with emotionally-salient situations. A wise way to use emotion may thus involve accurately identifying and assessing one's emotions about a given situation, as well as exploring the role these emotions may be playing in the decision-making process.

Wisdom as a Multi-Faceted Construct
Taken as a whole, research on wisdom has revealed a seemingly endless list of underlying qualities that may contribute to the ultimate development of wisdom (Karelitz et al., 2010):
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Reflective Thinking
Dialectical Thinking
Critical Thinking
Virtuous Character
Comfort with Uncertainty
Social Skills
Good Judgment

Mechanisms of Development
"An Age-Old Misconception"
It is a common assumption that wisdom is a positive outcome of late adulthood, but many studies have shown that wisdom is not correlated with age (Brugman, 2006; Jordan, 2005). Empirical studies on the development of wisdom show that wisdom does not, on average, increase in later life (Baltes & Staudinger, 2000), and that age has not been found to be a significant predictor of wisdom (Sternberg, 2005). Such findings have led some researchers to assert that it is better to view age as a proxy for other characteristics related to wisdom (Sternberg, 2005), such as:
  • Personal Growth/Accumulated Knowledge - As people age, they accrue valuable knowledge pertaining to cognitive, affective, and social aspects of the human experience.
  • Openness to Experience/Ability to Learn From Experience - The accumulation of experience through one's increasing age doesn't automatically lead to the attainment of wisdom. Rather, one’s ability to reflectively utilize experiences toward personal and social growth is what determines whether and how wisdom develops.
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Learning Wisdom
Schools can facilitate wisdom development by providing conditions conducive to accumulating knowledge and learning from experiences (Karelitz et al., 2010). For example, students are daily gaining knowledge on a variety of subjects, and are hopefully being given the opportunity to apply what they are learning through hands-on, experiential learning activities such as participation in science experiments or field trips. Currently, however, schools mainly nurture memory and analytical abilities. These skills are important, but they are not enough. Schools should also strive to provide students with a framework in which to develop positive and productive values (Sternberg, 2001). Please click here for a further discussion of the relationship between wisdom and education on our Research on the Meaning of Wisdom page.

Developmental Outcomes/Implications
Technically speaking, there is no one trajectory of wisdom with age; rather individuals differ in their paths to wisdom (Karelitz et al., 2010). Overall, findings suggest that individuals are able to develop and maintain wisdom until later stages of life in which health problems impair thinking (Karelitz et al., 2010). But whether wisdom actually develops depends not on age per se, but rather on cognitive variables, personality variables, and life experiences (Karelitz et al., 2010).
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Wisdom over the Lifespan
Childhood (Approx. Birth - 13 years)
  • As children experience and learn from life, their personal characteristics evolve (Karelitz et al., 2010).
  • We know relatively little about how wisdom is perceived or experienced in childhood (Karelitz et al., 2010).
  • Most research suggests that antecedents and correlates of wisdom emerge in early years, but it does not directly assess children’s wisdom (Karelitz et al., 2010).

Adolescence (Approx. 14 years - 20 years)
  • Evidence that wisdom-related knowledge increases between adolescence and early adulthood (i.e., between the ages of 14 and 25 years) (Pasupathi, Staudinger, & Baltes, 2001).
  • In contrast to adults, adolescents appear to become wiser with advancing years, making adolescence a prime time for studying the development of wisdom (Pasupathi, et al., 2001).
  • Research on wisdom in adolescence is relatively sparse. However, one exceptional study by Pasupathi et al. (2001) showing that adolescents demonstrate substantial age increments in wisdom-related performance can be found here:

  • Not much direct evidence that adolescence is a period of normative growth for wisdom, but indirect evidence of early-life development of intelligence and personality factors related to wisdom (Richardson & Pasupathi, 2005).
    • Intelligence. During the adolescent years, there are typically increases in a number of cognitive prerequisites for the development of wisdom (Karelitz et al., 2010):
      • The ability to think abstractly and reflectively
      • The ability to process information from multiple points of view
      • The ability to allocate attention
      • The ability to use different and more diverse strategies to understand and solve problems
      • Breadth of knowledge
      • Autobiographical experience
      • Decision-making skills
      • Awareness of uncertainty
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    • Personality. Adolescents, with their increased capacities to think more broadly and abstractly, are capable of developing the moral principles and conduct typical of wisdom. Other wisdom-related personality qualities known to develop in this stage of life include (Karelitz et al., 2010):
      • Open-mindedness
      • Ego-development
      • A move away from self-centered patterns toward more other-oriented patterns

Adulthood (Approx. 21 years - 75 years)
  • Researchers have found few age-group differences on wisdom performance across adulthood (Brugman, 2006; Jordan, 2005).
  • Younger adults generally perform at about the same level as older adults (up to about 80 years), and are equally likely to be among the top scorers on wisdom-related tasks (Kareltiz et al., 2010).
  • Some aspects of wisdom increase during adulthood (e.g., reflective thought), other aspects remain relatively stable (e.g., fluid intelligence), and others decrease (e.g., openness to experience) (Karelitz et al., 2010).
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  • Best predictors of wisdom in adulthood are intelligence-personality interface characteristics (e.g., creativity, moral reasoning, social intelligence) and life history factors (e.g., contact with excellent mentors, exposure to facilitative conditions) (Karelitz et al., 2010; Staudinger & Pasupathi, 2003).
  • Facilitative Conditions. Studies in adult samples indicate the importance of certain facilitative conditions that seem to happen later, rather than earlier, in life (Karelitz et al., 2010). In general, challenging life experiences, both personal (e.g., divorce, poverty) and social-historical (e.g., The Great Depression) are seen as pivotal for the development of wisdom, if the person reflects on these difficult experiences, integrates them with existing knowledge, and uses that knowledge when needed (Staudinger, 1999).

In the following video, Dr. Judith Gluck, a leading researcher in the Defining Wisdom Project at the University of Chicago, expounds upon the relationship between wisdom and life experiences.

Late Adulthood (Approx. 76+ years)
  • A decline in cognitive abilities related to wisdom is expected very late in life (i.e., around the age of 80 years) as a result of the biological deterioration of the older adult brain (Smith & Baltes,1993)
  • Societal structure and norms in the U.S. lead older adults to live more isolated lives, which can be less conducive to the development of wisdom (Jordan, 2005).
  • Those who attain wisdom earlier may be more able to accept biological and social decline in a healthier way (Karelitz et al., 2010).

Baltes, P.B., & Staudinger, U.M. (2000). Wisdom: A metaheuristic (pragmatic) to orchestrate mind and virtue toward excellence. American Psychologist, 55, 122-136.

Brugman, G.M. (2006). Wisdom and aging. In J.E. Birren & K. W. Schaie (Eds.), Handbook of the psychology of aging (6th ed., pp. 445-476). Amsterdam, The Netherlands: Acadmeic Press.

Jordan, J. (2005). The quest for wisdom in adulthood: A psychological perspective. In R. J. Sternberg & J. Jordan (Eds.) A handbook of wisdom: Psychological perspectives. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Karelitz, T.M., Jarvin, L., & Sternberg, R.J. (2010). Chapter 23: The meaning of wisdom and its development throughout life. In R.M. Lerner & W.F. Overton (Eds.), The handbook of lifespan development: Cognition, biology, and methods (Vol. 1, pp. 837-875). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Kitchener, K.S., & Brnner, H.G. (1990). Wisdom and reflective judgment: Knowing in the face of uncertainty. In R.J. Sternberg (Ed.), Wisdom: Its nature, origins, and development (pp. 212-229). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Pasupathi, M., Staudinger, U.M., & Baltes, P.B. (2001). Seeds of wisdom: Adolescents' knowledge and judgment about difficult life problems. Developmental Psychology, 37(3), 351-361.

Richardson, M.J., & Pasupathi, M. (2005). Young and growing wiser: Wisdom during adolescence and young adulthood. In R.J. Sternberg & J. Jordan (Eds.), A handbook of wisdom: Psychological perspectives. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Smith, J., & Baltes, P.B. (1993). Differential psychological aging: Profiles of the old and very old. Aging and Society, 13, 551-587.

Staudinger, U.M. (1999). Older and wiser? Integrating results on the relationship between age and wisdom-related performance. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 23(3), 641-664.

Staudinger, U.M., & Pasupathi, M. (2003). Correlates of wisdom-related performance in adolescence and adulthood: Age-graded differences in "paths" toward desirable development. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 13(3), 239-268.

Sternberg, R.J. (2001). Why schools should teach for wisdom: The balance theory of wisdom in educational settings. Educational Psychologist, 36(4), 227-245.

Sternberg, R.J. (2005). Older but not wiser? The relationship between age and wisdom. Aging International, 30(1), 5-26.