Getting wise


My favorite academic institution in the world, the University of Western Australia in Perth, has a fine concise motto:  “Seek Wisdom”. This would do very well alone but as we might expect from an excellent University we get further guidance. At one end of a charming reflecting pool a plinth tells us “Verily it is by Beauty that we come by Wisdom”. At the other end a companion slab tells us that “Beauty is truth”. Perhaps my colleagues thought it tactless to complete Keats’ aphorism to tell students sweating difficult courses “This is all you know and all you need to know”.





The universal folklore is that Wisdom is a marvelous bonus of old age, because it can only be earned by living long enough. My grandchildren laugh uproariously at the idea that I might be wise. This erosion of esteem for the chronologically challenged began when clay tablets started to replace pre-literate brains as archives of useful knowledge. Because reading and remembering also takes years respect for Senior Knowledge withered on, despite papyri and Gutenberg, but Google is now the end of it. Our grandchildren access far more information far better than we can.

Gerontologists who are tempted into “Wisdom Studies” (and how could any academic resist?) are offered too much help. Krishnamurti warns that “information is not knowledge, knowledge is not wisdom…wisdom is when knowledge ends”. Frank Zappa riffs that “Wisdom is not truth, truth is not love, love is not music, ………” A trove for tautology hunters and those who think that defining a concept by negatives effs the ineffable. Not a credible platform for a research project but, if we need fine examples of Daniel Dennett’s excellent new term “deepities” this is where to look. (1 – very highly recommended).

Encyclopedias and dictionaries try less circular definitions e.g. Wikipedia: “a deep understanding and realization of people, things, events or situations, resulting in the ability to apply perceptions, judgments and actions in keeping with this understanding. It often requires control of one’s emotional reactions (the “passions”) so that universal principles, reason and knowledge prevail to determine one’s actions. Wisdom is also the comprehension of what is true coupled with optimum judgment as to action. Synonyms include: sagacity, discernment, or insight”.

So wisdom is not just knowing the right thing to do but actually doing it. Because “rightness” is culturally relative so must be wisdom. Judeo-Christian texts such as the Book of Job emphasise obedience to an enigmatically capricious and punitive deity (“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom”). Classical Greco-Roman literature is more humane (“Moderation in all things”). Confucian ethics stress concern for Society as a whole over personal wishes. Shih-Ying Yang (2) recently summarised 220 “wisdom incidents” reported by Taiwanese volunteers into five classes of worthy actions: “Striving for common good by helping others; Striving and achieving a satisfactory state of life; Deciding and developing life-paths; Resolving difficult problems at work and insistence on doing the right thing when facing a problem”.

Everybody agrees that Wisdom is a Very Good Thing, that it requires considerable knowledge about the world and of other people and so takes time to acquire. How long to learn and how long to last?

Paul Baltes and Ursula Staudinger asked volunteers to comment on how people should cope with a variety of imagined dilemmas (3). Their wisest comments fell into five categories: Necessary factual knowledge about people and the world; Useful factual knowledge and also procedural knowledge of how to get things done; recognition of relativity- what is best for people to do will differ depending context and circumstances and particularly on how old they are; Ability to recognise that values are not absolute but relative ; Perception that life is always  uncertain so plans must be framed accordingly.  From these categories they derived a “Wisdom Rating Scale” that they could use to identify individuals who are wiser than others.

On the Baltes/Staudinger scale people-centred professionals such as health specialists and clinical psychologists scored higher than non-people centered professionals such as accountants and geologists. Older and younger respondents were rated as being equally wise but each group could offer more insightful and appropriate guidance for people of their own generation. So wisdom can be acquired young, is most relevant to the particular age and environment of the person who has it and can be effectively maintained in old age – though its content changes to fit different circumstances. We have much clearer insights into the situations and problems of people of our own generation whose outlooks and feelings we are more likely to share (4,5). We can give our contemporaries good advice – but, if we are truly wise, never do.

Another way to seek an objective definition is to ask people to nominate particular individuals they think are exceptionally wise and to give reasons for these judgments. The Baltes scale was used to compare 78 men and women whose acquaintances had rated them as being, in general terms, exceptionally wise (6). Twenty two had also rated themselves as being wise. A control group was made up of people of the same ages who were not considered to be wise, either by themselves or others. Those who were rated as wise by others also gained relatively high Wisdom Ratings. They were also, on average, relatively better educated, more intelligent, more sensitive to the complexities of the dilemmas they discussed, had fewer dogmatic and inflexible beliefs and were more contented with their own lives. Those who thought that they were wise were rated no higher than controls who were not considered wise. I find this satisfying.

People who were identified as wise, whether by their peers or by the rating scale, also had longer educations, were better off, and lived in comfortable environments. They tended to score higher on intelligence tests. Their most important characteristic was that they had  pleasing personality attributes, tending to be more governed by reason than emotion, to be reflective rather than impulsive and to be emotionally warm and sympathetic. It has been argued that an important component of wisdom is having a comprehensive “theory of mind” –  a clear and accurate idea of how others feel about events in their lives and how they are likely to try to cope with them (7). Intelligence is necessary for such empathy but, unfortunately, the converse is not true

All of the many attempts to objectively define wisdom suggest that it is as much an attitude to life, people and oneself as a stock of useful information and the ability to predict actions and consequences. Old age is not essential for wisdom nor does it guarantee wisdom. The young can be wise in somewhat different ways and about different things. Both young and old are most insightful about the plights and reactions of their own generations. Wisdom can be learned, as in caring professions that bring more frequent encounters with distressed people and their problems. A good further question is whether qualities of mind and heart that make people choose caring professions are also those that encourage empathy and human insight. Since all studies agree that wisdom implies ability to correctly make complicated analyses to reach appropriate decisions, wisdom must also involve intelligence. It follows that it may be vulnerable to the decline of fluid intelligence in old age. What matters most are qualities that do not have much to do with how fast we can solve logic problems: benevolence, an open mind and heart and sympathy. These, as we have all noticed, can gleam even through clouded wits in extreme old age.


  1.  Dennett, D. (2013) Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking, W.W. Norton & Co., NY, 2013; and Penguin Books, UK
  2.  Yang, S.H. (2008). Real-Life Contextual Manifestations of Wisdom. The International Journal of Aging and Human Development  67, 273-303.
  3.  Baltes, P.B. & Staudinger, U.M. (2000). Wisdom: A metaheuristic (pragmatic) to orchestrate mind and virtue toward excellence American Psychologist, 55, 122-136.
  4. Smith, J., Staudinger, U.M. & Baltes, P. (1994). Occupational  settings facilitating wisdom-related knowledge: The sample case of clinical psychologists. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology,  62 , 989-999.
  5. Staudinger, U.M., Smith, J. & Baltes, P.B. (1992). Wisdom: A metaheuristic (pragmatic) to orchestrate mind and virtue toward excellence. American Psychologist, Vol 55(1),  122-136.
  6. Lyster, T.L. (1996).  A nomination approach to the study of wisdom in old age. PhD thesis, Concordia University.
  7. Happe, F.G.E. & Winner, E. (1988) The getting of wisdom: Theory of mind in old age. Developmental Psychology, 34, 358-362.

About Gray Rabbitt

Grumpy gerontologist
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