We began this chapter with a description of the wisdom of the Dalai Lama. Similarly, a number of folktales recount the wisdom of older characters. For example, caught in a no-win situation with his son-in-law, an old alchemist comes up with an insightful and clever solution on how to turn base elements (dirt) into gold. Chinen (1989) points out that folktales highlight several aspects of wisdom: It involves practical knowledge, it is given altruistically, it involves psychological insights, and it is based on life experience.
A growing body of research has been examining these aspects of wisdom. Baltes and colleagues (Baltes & Kunzmann, 2003; Baltes & Staudinger,
2000) conclude that implicit conceptions of wisdom are widely shared within a culture and include exceptional levels of functioning; a dynamic balance between intellect, emotion, and motivation; a high degree of personal and interpersonal
competence; and good intentions. Drawing from this cultural-historical and philosophical analysis of wisdom, psychologists have attempted to operationalize wisdom in order to study it scientifically. Studies examining wisdom cross-culturally find that Westerners tend to define it using cognitive dimensions (e. g., experienced and knowledgeable), whereas people from Eastern cultures tend to define wisdom by stressing affective dimensions (e. g., emotional empathy, emotional regulation) (Takahashi & Bordia, 2000; Takahashi & Overton, 2002).
One of the best-known programs of research on wisdom and aging is the Berlin Wisdom Paradigm (Baltes & Kunzmann, 2003; Baltes & Staudinger,
2000) . In this line of research, wisdom is conceptualized as an expert system dealing with the meaning and conduct of life (Baltes & Smith, 1990; Staudinger & Baltes, 1994). Similarly, Sternberg’s (1998, 2004) research on wisdom defines it as the
application of tacit knowledge and values toward the achievement of the common good.
To define wisdom as expertise, Baltes and colleagues specified the content of wisdom in terms of the fundamental pragmatics of life. This includes knowledge and judgment about the human condition and ways to plan, manage, and understand a good life. Based on years of research using in-depth think-aloud interviews with young, middle-aged, and older adults about normal and unusual problems that people face, Baltes and Staudinger (2000) studied the nature of wisdom and how it relates to age and other psychosocial factors. In order to study wisdom scientifically, Baltes and Staudinger used their general framework to develop five specific criteria for determining whether a person demonstrates wisdom. These are described in Table 7.3.
One important issue with Baltes and Staudinger’s approach to wisdom is whether it has a psychological
bias. That is, the framework and criteria may not capture the “true” essence of wisdom, if one were to examine the characteristics of what people in everyday life define as wise behavior. To examine this possibility, Baltes, Staudinger, Maercker, and Smith
(1995) compared people who were nominated as wise to groups of clinical psychologists and highly educated older and younger groups. Their results indicated that the wise nominees performed as well on the five criteria of wisdom as did the clinical psychologists, who in other studies had outperformed other groups. The wisdom nominees also scored extremely well in tasks involving life management and on the criterion of recognizing that the “right thing to do” varies across people. Based on these findings, Baltes et al. concluded that their framework and criteria are not biased in such a way as to differentially favor psychologists.
Two important aspects of wisdom have been demonstrated fairly clearly. First, wisdom is not the same thing as creativity; wisdom is the growth of expertise and insight, whereas creativity is the generation of a new solution to a problem (Simonton, 1990).
Second, the relationship between age and wisdom is complex. Certainly, wisdom has long been
characterized as the province of older adults. For example, studies of people’s implicit theories of wisdom, in which people are asked to nominate the wisest person they know, indicate that people of all ages tend to nominate someone who is older than they are (Denney et al., 1995). However, when the criteria for wisdom discussed earlier are applied to people’s knowledge and actions, a different picture emerges. The typical way in which wisdom is assessed is to have adults respond to hypothetical life-planning problems, such as whether to accept a promotion or whether to retire (Staudinger & Baltes,
1996) . The problems were presented as dilemmas facing fictitious people, and participants had to reason out a solution. For example, one study had people respond to life-planning problems such as this: A 15-year-old girl wants to get married right away. What should she consider and do? Answers were then analyzed in terms of the degree to which they reflect the five wisdom-related criteria listed earlier. High and low wisdom-related responses are shown in Table 7.4.
Contrary to our stereotypes about wisdom and aging, in a number of studies using this method, Baltes and colleagues (Baltes & Staudinger, 2000;
Smith & Baltes, 1990; Staudinger, 1999) found no association between age and wise answers. Instead, they found evidence of wisdom in adults of all ages. The key variable appears to be having extensive life experience with the type of problem given, not just life experience in general. Thus, given the right circumstances, a 35-year-old and a 75-year-old could give equally wise solutions to a life problem.
Research based on cognitive developmental changes in adulthood such as those discussed earlier concerning post-formal thinking has uncovered other aspects in the growth of wisdom. Several investigators point out that a wise person is one who is can integrate thinking, feeling, and acting into a coherent approach to a problem (Labouvie-Vief, 1990; Orwoll and Perlmutter, 1990). This research implies that empathy or compassion is an important characteristic of wise people, due to their ability to overcome automatic responses to show concern for core human experiences and values (Pascual-Leone,
2000) . Thus, wise people can see through situations and get to the heart of the matter, rather than be caught in the superficial aspects of the situation.
So what specific factors help one become wise? Baltes and Staudinger (2000) identify three factors: (1) general personal characteristics, such as mental ability; (2) specific expertise conditions, such as mentoring or practice; and (3) facilitative life contexts, such as education or leadership experience. First, the most important personal characteristics related to wisdom were cognitive style (evaluation of issues, moving beyond existing rules, and tolerance for ambiguity) and creativity (Staudinger et al.,
1997) . Second, people with expertise in the form of professional clinical psychology showed higher levels of wisdom-related performance than other groups (Smith et al., 1994; Staudinger et al., 1992). Finally, social intelligence, social collaboration, and cooperative conflict management facilitate wisdom – related performance, and older adults profited more from this collaboration than the young ones did (Kunzmann & Baltes, 2003; Staudinger & Baltes, 1996; Staudinger & Pasupathi, 2003).
Other researchers point to additional criteria. For example, Labouvie-Vief (1990) argues that the integration of affect and cognition that occurs during adulthood results in the ability to act wisely. Personal growth across adulthood, reflecting Erikson’s concepts of generativity and integrity, helps foster the process as well. All these factors take time. Thus, although growing old is no guarantee that wisdom will develop, it provides one with the time that, if used well, will provide a supportive context for it.
The picture of wisdom that is emerging appears to support the opening tale. Just as the old alchemist’s response was based on his own specific experience with trying to make gold, so too our own wisdom comes from becoming experts at dealing with particular kinds of problems.
1. What differentiates an older decision maker from a younger one?
2. What do optimally exercised abilities and unexercised abilities mean?
3. How does the process of encapsulation occur?
4. What are the five criteria of determining whether someone is wise according to Baltes and colleagues?
274 CHAPTER 7