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Wisdom - Explicit Theories And Assessment Of Wisdom

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Another recent line of empirical psychological inquiry on wisdom addresses the question of how to measure behavioral expressions of wisdom. Within this tradition, three lines of work can be identified: (1) assessment of wisdom as a personality characteristic, (2) assessment of wisdom in the Neopiagetian tradition of adult thought, and (3) assessment of wisdom as an expertise with regard to difficult problems involving the interpretation, conduct, and management of life (see Baltes and Staudinger, 2000).

Within personality theories, wisdom is usually conceptualized as an advanced stage, if not the final stage, of personality development. Wisdom, in this context, is comparable to ‘‘optimal maturity.’’ Ryff and Whitbourne, for example, have undertaken an effort to develop self-report questionnaires based on the Eriksonian notions of personality development and focused on integrity or wisdom.

Central to Neopiagetian theories of adult thought is the transcendence of the universal truth criterion that characterizes formal logic. This transcendence is common to conceptions such as dialectical, complementary, and relativistic thinking. Such tolerance of multiple truths (ambiguity), has also been mentioned as a crucial feature of wisdom. Empirical studies in this tradition by Gisela Labouvie-Vief or Deirdre Kramer found that, at least up to middle adulthood, performance increases on such measures of adult thought are observed.

Besides these measures of wisdom as a personality characteristic or as a feature of mature thought, there is also work that attempts to assess wisdom as an expertise concerning the interpretation, conduct, and management of life. This approach is based on lifespan theory, the developmental study of the aging mind and aging personality, research on expert systems, and cultural-historical definitions of wisdom (see Baltes and Staudinger, 2000). By integrating these perspectives, wisdom is defined as a system of expert knowledge in the fundamental pragmatics of life. Such knowledge allows for exceptional insight, judgment, and advice involving complex and uncertain matters of the human condition.

The body of knowledge and skills associated with such wisdom entails insights into the quintessential aspects of the human condition, including its biological finitude and cultural conditioning. Wisdom involves a fine-tuned coordination of cognition, motivation, and emotion. More specifically, wisdom-related knowledge and skills can be characterized by a family of five criteria: (1) rich factual knowledge about life, (2) rich procedural knowledge about life, (3) lifespan contextualism, the ability to view issues in a lifespan perception, (4) value relativism, and (5) awareness and management of uncertainty (see Baltes, Smith and Staudinger 1992).

To elicit and measure wisdom-related knowledge and skills in this approach, research participants are presented with difficult life dilemmas such as the following: ‘‘Imagine that someone receives a phone call from a good friend who says that she/he can’t go on anymore and has decided to commit suicide. What should one do and consider in such a situation?’’ Participants are then asked to ‘‘think aloud’’ about such dilemmas. The five wisdom-related criteria are used to evaluate these protocols. The obtained scores are reliable and provide an approximation of the quantity and quality of wisdom-related knowledge and skills of a given person (see Baltes and Staudinger, 2000). When using this wisdom paradigm to study people who were nominated as wise according to subjective beliefs about wisdom, it was found that wisdom nominees received higher wisdom scores than comparable control samples of various ages and professional backgrounds.

Part of this paradigm also is a general framework outlining the conditions for the development of wisdom as it is reflected in the thoughts and actions of individuals. The empirical work based on this model has produced outcomes consistent with expectations (see Staudinger 1999). Specifically, it seems that wisdom-related knowledge and judgment emerge between the age of fourteen and twenty-five. During adulthood, however, growing older is not enough to become wise. When age is combined with wisdom-related experience, such as professional specializations that involve training and experience in matters of life, higher levels of wisdom-related performance were observed. Besides experience, it was found that during adulthood wisdom-related performance was best predicted by openness to experience and measures drawing on both cognition and personality, such as a judicious cognitive style, creativity, and moral reasoning.

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