An Overview Of The Psychology Of Wisdom

Introduction (Via Helena Marchand)

For approximately twenty years the concept of wisdom has received special attention in the psychology literature. Since the 1980′s several implicit and explicit definitions of wisdom, several research programs examining the aspects of wisdom, and some descriptions of environments that stimulate the development of wisdom have arisen. The purpose of this article is to provide a critical overview of theories of wisdom and the research done in this field.

What is understood by wisdom?

Wisdom is both an age-old topic and, in psychology, a current one: age-old, because references are found in Egyptian writings as far back as 3000 B.C. to wisdom and to persons held to be wise, sometimes renowned for their proverbs (cf. Birren & Fisher, 1990); current, because in the field of psychology, it is only two decades since it became the object of study by an eclectic group of researchers (Baltes & Smith, 1990; Birren & Fisher, 1990; Brent & Watson, 1980; Csikszentmihalyi & Rathunde, 1990; Dittmann-Kohli, & Baltes, 1990; Kitchener & Brenner, 1990; Kramer, 1990; Meacham, 1983; 1990; Staudinger, Smith & Baltes, 1994; Sternberg, 1990; 2001a,b, among others) who were particularly interested in high levels of human performance that could be termed exceptional or expert-like; the search for positive aspects of the aging mind; and the work on conceptions of intelligence reflecting a concern with the contextual and pragmatic features of everyday functioning (cf. Baltes & Smith, 1990).

Although it has been studied in psychology since the last decades of the twentieth century, we still do not have a clear definition of wisdom. The conceptualizations of wisdom differ in the weight given to cognition and to affect. In most of them wisdom is associated with cognitive competencies (Baltes & Smith, 1990; Kitchener & Brenner, 1990; Meacham, 1990; Sternberg, 1990; 2001a,b); in a smaller number the cognitive dimension is less dominant and wisdom is seen as involving a tight integration of cognition and affect (Kramer, 1990; Pascual-Leone, 1990).

In the conceptions of wisdom that give more emphasis to cognition wisdom is seen as: (1) level of mastery of the basic pragmatics of life (Staudinger, Smith & Baltes, 1994), (2) metacognitive style that allows subjects to be aware of the limits of reliability of their own knowledge (Meacham, 1983, 1990; Sternberg, 1990), (3) awareness of the existence of ill- structured problems; comprehensive knowledge characterized by tolerance and depth; and exceptional competency for formulating appropriate and feasible judgments in the face of uncertainty (Kitchener & Brenner, 1990). Unlike well-structured problems, ill-structured problems presuppose the use of a logic that makes it possible to insert them into a concrete, contextual reality, and that facilitates an awareness of the fluid, contradictory, and paradoxical nature of this same reality (see Kramer, 1990).

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15. February 2010 by Miguel Barbosa
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