Do we really get wiser with age?

What Is Wisdom? Answers from the Berlin Wisdom Project

Passing on wisdom to a younger generation
Passing on wisdom to a younger generation
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Let's start off with some ideas of what wisdom entails. For such a little word, it's given a lot of people a hard time. While there's no one definition, some concepts appear again and again in studies examining the subject. The recurring qualities include:

  • intelligence and knowledge
  • an understanding of human nature (including the concepts of uncertainty and relativism between cultures)
  • emotional resiliency
  • humility
  • an ability to learn from experience
  • openness
  • superior judgment and problem-solving skills

All of these traits come together to form the magical superpower of wisdom that is used to navigate major life challenges in pursuit of the good life and the greater good for humankind. Wisdom, though, can differ slightly depending on cultural beliefs and can be shaped by social and environmental factors. Something like that should be easy as pie to study, right?

Of course, that's quite the laundry list of qualities, and as you can imagine, there's no easy way to measure something that lacks a proper definition. This difficulty is only compounded when you look at some of the more nebulous concepts, such as emotional resiliency, which are more difficult to measure than a quality like standard intelligence. Still, with wisdom representing such a pinnacle of personhood, many researchers believe that we have to keep working toward understanding how the state comes about.

Psychologists have attempted to create exams that assess wisdom on a quantitative scale; these tests usually involve either an autobiographical interview, in which a person relates a story in which he or she exhibited wisdom, or an interview in which the subject is given a set of complex scenarios or dilemmas and asked for an opinion. That opinion is then judged on how wise it is. Take this example: "A 14-year-old girl wants to move out of her home immediately -- what should be considered in this situation?" Someone who responded that a 14-year-old should never move out on her own would be considered unwise, while someone who considered differences between cultures or issues such as abuse in the home would be considered wise.

Whether researchers can accurately judge wisdom when they can't agree on a definition is arguable, and the tests measure different attributes. The example of the 14-year-old girl came from the Berlin Wisdom Project, a program that aimed to study the more definable output of a wise person, such as a speech or performance on a task [source: Hall]. While the Berlin Wisdom Project paved the way for wisdom studies, other researchers felt that the program focused too much on the measurable part of wisdom and not enough on the more intangible traits, such as emotional stability. This second view of wisdom acknowledges that while a vast background of knowledge and intelligence is a prerequisite of wisdom, wisdom goes beyond mere book learning to consider experiences.

Even though different camps are studying different traits, they have one thing in common: They want to know the effect of age on wisdom. On the next page, we'll take a look at what they've been finding.