Psychological Research: Studying Wisdom

The psychological study of wisdom began to flourish in the late 20th century. It was during this time that Erik Erikson discussed wisdom as an optimal stage of human development, Abraham Maslow related wisdom to mental health and authenticity, Lawrence Kohlberg presented advanced stages of moral reasoning that are highly related to wisdom, and Viktor Frankl associated wisdom with finding a meaning in life (Karelitz et al., 2010).

Recent research on wisdom has primarily relied on theory-based measurement methodologies. These studies have produced a significant number of findings about the antecedents, correlates, and consequences of wisdom. Most psychological research on wisdom aims at specifying the components of wisdom. Current research also emphasizes the relation of wisdom and positive aspects of life, and the relation of wisdom to elevated human performance with regard to attributes such as intelligence, creativity, virtue/character strength, and practical thinking. (Karelitz et al., 2010).

Research Methodology: Implicit and Explicit Theories
Current psychological studies of wisdom can be categorized as either implicit or explicit theories. Implicit theories focus on people’s everyday conceptions of wisdom, whereas explicit theories are ones in which researchers offer a theory of their own and design studies to test it (Karelitz et al., 2010).

A Video Example of Implicit Theories of Wisdom: Andrew Zuckerman, an accomplished photographer and filmaker, interviews famous individuals over the age of 65: "What is wisdom?"

Implicit Theoretical Approaches
  • Aim to describe people's folk conceptions of wisdom.
  • Methodology:
    1. Ask individuals to describe a wise person.
    2. Use statistical methods such as multidimensonial scaling analysesto uncover common components of wisdom based on people's responses.
(Karelitz et al., 2010).

Implicit Theory Findings.
In her classic article on wisdom, Clayton (1976) asked participants from different age groups to describe a wise person. Participants identified these dimensions of wisdom:
Cartoon Example of an Implicit Theory of Wisdom
Cartoon Example of an Implicit Theory of Wisdom

  • Experience
  • Intuition
  • Introspection
  • Pragmatism
  • Understanding
  • Gentleness
  • Empathy
  • Intelligence
  • Peacefulness
  • Knowledge
  • Humor

Along similar lines, Holliday and Chandler (1986) uncovered five factors that people generally see as most prototypical of wisdom :
  1. Exceptional Understanding
  2. Sound Judgment and Communication Skills
  3. General Competence (Curiosity, intelligence, and thoughtfulness)
  4. Proper Interpersonal Skills
  5. Social Adeptiveness

Summarizing Implicit Theory Research.
In general, studies of implicit theories have shown that wisdom is viewed as having a(n):
  • Cognitive component related to possessing and using knowledge and experience
  • Affective component related to moral principles
  • Reflective component related to intrapersonal and interpersonal perceptions
(Karelitz et al., 2010)

Wisdom is thus conceived as the integration of characteristics related to one’s mind, spirit, and conduct. Being wise requires the ability to appropriately apply one’s skills and capabilities in the face of life’s complexities, uncertainties, and challenges (Karelitz et al., 2010).

Explicit Theoretical Approaches
  • Based on models of human-developmental psychology constructs
  • Aimed at explaining what wisdom is and how it is manifested in our lives
  • Two of the most prominent explicit theories: Berlin Paradigm and Sternberg's Balance Theory
(Karelitz et al., 2010)

external image Berlin+Wisdom+Paradigm_grab.jpg
Wisdom as Expertise: The Berlin Paradigm
  • The most extensive program of wisdom research conducted to-date.
  • Goal of developing tools to objectively measure wisdom-related performance.
    • Please refer to the Seeds of Wisdom pdf on our Development of Wisdom page to see an example of how the Berlin Wisdom Paradigm was used to assess wisdom-related performance in both adolescents and young adults.
  • Based on notion of wisdom as expert knowledge about fundamental issues
  • Three types of factors seen as antecedents/correlates to the development and application of wisdom:
    1. General Person Factors(mental health, cognitive style, creativity, openness to experience)
    2. Expertise-Specific Factors(experience or mentorship in dealing with life matters, heuristics, motivational dispositions)
    3. Facilitative Experiential Contexts (age, education, profession, culture)
  • Claims that development of wisdom requires a synthesis of these factors. Wisdom is not simply expert knowledge, but rather knowledge applied to the practical aspects of life.
(Baltes & Smith, 1990).

Wisdom as Balance: Sternberg’s Balance Theory
  • Definition of wisdom:
    • Application of knowledge and abilities,
    • mediated by positive ethical values,
    • toward the achievement of a common good,
    • through a balance among competing interests,
    • and responses to environmental contexts.
  • Draws on the idea of dialectical processes: Wisdom can be seen as the synthesis or balance of intelligence (the thesis; the reasoning used to advance current societal agendas) with creativity (the antithesis; the questioning and opposing current agendas, as well as proposing new ones) to achieve both stability and change.
external image Balance+Theory+of+Wisdom_grab.jpg

Measurements of Wisdom
  • Several assessments of wisdom have been proposed, including the:
    • Berlin Paradigm (1990)
    • Three-Dimensional Wisdom Scale (2003)
    • Self-Assessed Wisdom Scale (2003)
    • Practical Wisdom Scale and the Transcendent Wisdom Ratings (1997)
    • Foundational Value Scale (2001)
    • Wisdom Development Scale (2006)
  • Measures of wisdom must address a number of challenges specific to wisdom as a psychological construct:
    • First and foremost, an underlying theory describing wisdom and its observable manifestations is necessaryto identify exactly what is to be measured.
      • Thus, just as the Berlin Paradigm is based on its namesake theory, the Wisdom Development Scale is based on Brown's (2004) model of wisdom consisting of six dimensions: self-knowledge, interpersonal understanding, judgment, life knowledge, life skills, and willingness to learn.
      • For a brief summary of the respective theories underlying each of the above measurements, please see pages 858-863 of the Wisdom Chapter pdf listed at the top of our Development of Wisdom page. (Karelitz et al., 2010).
    • Second, researchers need to develop appropriate tasks to elicit behaviors indicative of wisdom.
    • Third, a set of criteria for evaluating performance on the tasks is needed to obtain a valid and reliable assessment of wise people.
  • The above assessments differ in their underlying conceptualization of wisdom, the ways in which these definitions are operationalized, the ways in which responses are obtained, the methods used for determining scores, and their psychometric rigor.
    • Perhaps the main distinction between these different assessments, however, is the type of task to which participants are asked to respond.
    • For example, the Berlin Paradigm assessment uses hypothetical scenarios requiring one to judge wisely in giving advice to others in difficult matters of life. Thus, it measures wisdom-related performance in solving problems removed from one's own life. By contrast, measures such as the Three-Dimensional Wisdom Scale are based on people's self-report of how they typically think, feel, and act in situations from their own life.
(Karelitz et al., 2010)

Value of Explicit Theories
Regardless of what type of measure is used, studies based on explicit theories of wisdom produce a wealth of knowledge about the nature of wisdom and how to identify, describe, and quantify it. Ultimately, explicit theory studies using measurement methodologies thus enable us to discuss wisdom in concrete terms, and to empirically examine its relation to other individual and environmental factors (Kareltiz et al., 2010).

Weaknesses of Current Knowledge/Methodology Related to Wisdom
  • Wisdom is a hard-to-define, multi-faceted, complex phenomenon.
    • Difficulties synthesizing findings across multiple studies, given that different researchers have different conceptualizations of what wisdom is and how it should be measured.
(Karelitz et al., 2010)
  • Wisdom as a rarity.
    • Wisdom is considered a rare attribute, and it can thus be difficult to find people who possess wisdom in significant measure.
    • Many psychological and philosophical perspectives describe wisdom in utopian, almost superhuman terms, making it practically impossible for people to achieve high levels on wisdom-related assessments.
(Kareltiz et al., 2010)

  • Reliance on Cross-Sectional Studies
    • Most research on wisdom has been cross-sectional (comparing different age cohorts at the same point in time) rather than sequential/longitudinal (comparing the same cohort during different periods of time).
    • Problem: Cross-sectional differences often do not reflect different stages in the developmental trajectory of wisdom.
    • Problem: Findings may be biased by period or cohort effects. For example, supposed differences in wisdom-related knowledge may actually be due to differences between cohorts in their level of familiarity/access to information in the modern technological age. Differences in wisdom between cohorts may thus ultimately reflect cohort rather than developmental effects.
    (Karelitz et al., 2010)
external image 0087-11_designing_age_groups_thumbnail.jpg
    • The few longitudinal studies that do exist sometimes rely on existing data collected under different research goals and with non-representative samples.
    • More tightly controlled longitudinal studies are needed to answer the basic questions about how wisdom develops within individuals over time
(Karelitz et al., 2010)

external image Wisdom.jpg
Strengths of Current Knowledge/Methodology Related to Wisdom
  • Wisdom research illuminates the potential benefits of late adulthood
  • Wisdom research can provide practical insights within the field of gerontology concerning factors and strategies that can lead to optimal levels of human development
  • The most important contribution wisdom research holds for developmental psychology: It can lead to a better understanding of factors that may enable us to foster wisdom sooner and maintain it longer throughout life.
      • Current perspectives are already emphasizing the development of wisdom in adolescence, and the importance of teaching wisdom in schools. For more information on the relationship between wisdom and education, see the following section on current wisdom issues.
(Karelitz et al., 2010).

Current Wisdom Issues
Wisdom and Education
  • Drawing from the core concepts of his Balance Theory of Wisdom, Sternberg (2001) has recently argued that schools should more explicitly integrate wisdom-related skills into their curricula.
  • Sternberg believes that wisdom, as a form of tacit knowledge, cannot be directly taught, but rather needs to be acquired through experience that requires using cognitive skills and moral attitudes to make wise decisions and to act accordingly.
  • Sternberg has offered principles, procedures, and guidance for developing a curriculum for teaching wisdom.
    • Under this framework, students would learn the need to recognize and balance their own interests, those of other people, and those of institutions.
  • Sternberg’s ideas have initiated a critical discussion about the role of wisdom in education, and similar ideas have now been advocated by different authors, researchers, and organizations across the U.S.
  • Sternberg's (2001) full article on how and why schools should teach for wisdom can be found here:

Conceptualizing and Measuring Personal Wisdom

One recent addition to the wisdom literature has been Mickler and Staudinger's (2008) development and validation of a performance measure of personal wisdom (PW).
  • Based on the Berlin Paradigm as well as growth theories of personality, five criteria for personal wisdom were established: self-knowledge, growth and self-regulation, tolerance of ambiguity, self-relativism, and interrelating the self.
  • A visual representation of personal wisdom is presented below:


  • Based on a sample of 161 participants, all five criteria for personal wisdom were found to be psychometrically valid.
  • The results of this study indicate that Mickler and Staudinger's (2008) performance measure of personal wisdom is another potentially valuable tool in describing and quantifying the wisdom construct.
  • To see the full results of this study as well as findings related to personal wisdom and age differences, please click here:

Additional Resources

In addition to the four articles presented in this wikipedia, individuals interested in learning more about wisdom are encouraged to visit the University of Chicago's "Defining Wisdom Project" website:

Baltes, P.B., & Smith, J. (1990). Toward a psychology of wisdom and its ontogenesis. In R. Sternberg (Ed.), Wisdom, its nature, origins, and development (pp. 87-120). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Brown, S.C. (2004). Learning across campus: How college facilitates the development of wisdom. Journal of College Student Development, 45, 134-148.

Holliday, S.G., & Chandler, M.J. (1986). Wisdom: Explorations in adult competence. Basel, Switzerland: Karger.

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.

Mickler, C., & Staudinger, U.M. (2008). Personal wisdom: Validation and age-related differences of a performance measure. Psychology and Aging, (23)4, 787-799.

Sternberg, R.J. (1998). A balance theory of wisdom. Review of General Psychology, 2, 347-365.

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