The 21st century has seen increasing interest in approaching the study of wisdom from a psychological perspective. The need for both a theoretical and methodological consensus on the study of wisdom led an international group of wisdom researchers to convene last summer in Toronto, forming the Wisdom Task Force. Although the name may sound like a superhero team-up, the goal of the conference was significantly more academic and practical in nature.
The need for a common model to conduct wisdom research
The chief organizer of the Toronto conference, Associate Professor of Psychology at The University of Waterloo, Dr. Igor Grossmann, convened the Task Force with the goal of establishing a common language and framework for researchers going forward: “In the emerging field of wisdom research, it has definitely been almost like building a Babylonian tower...where you have people talking completely different languages.” This is often referred to as the Jingle Jangle Fallacy in psychology where researchers might talk about the same idea using different terms or use the same term to describe different ideas. In the psychological study of wisdom, differentiation of the concepts epistemic humility and intellectual humility is one such terminology issue.
Another concern the Task Force addressed was a lack of consensus on how to define and measure wisdom. Before convening the Wisdom Task Force in 2019, Dr. Grossmann and Director of the University of Chicago’s Center for Practical Wisdom Howard Nusbaum submitted a proposal to the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society with the idea of creating a special issue on wisdom and wisdom research. While most of the feedback on their proposal was positive, a common concern was whether there was enough of a shared scientific understanding of wisdom to warrant a full issue. “While we may assume that wisdom has certain elements in common across different ways of studying it, there are still differences that exist,” said Nusbaum. “I’m happy that we’ve decided to form a consensus, I think it moves the field forward from where we were at the end of the Defining Wisdom Project in 2011.”
Along with Grossmann, the Task Force was made up of leading wisdom scholars from around the world including Nusbaum, social ecologist Marc Fournier, Professor of Educational Psychology Nic M, Weststrate, sociologist Monika Ardelt, and developmental psychologist Michel Ferrari, among others. The group's findings were recently published in the journal Psychological Inquiry as a paper, The Science of Wisdom in a Polarized World: Knowns and Unknowns. The article outlines a set of guiding questions the Task Force explored, chief among them: “What are the current significant conceptualizations of wisdom?” and “What do wisdom measures test, and how well do they test it?”
The Wisdom Task Force set out to investigate if there was any consensus amongst current researchers as to what the term wisdom encompasses, taking philosophical and psychological perspectives together. To this end, Grossmann surveyed scholars in wisdom including empirical researchers, moral scientists, and moral psychologists from China, Japan, South Korea, Europe, South America, and elsewhere to assess their definitions of wisdom and search for commonalities in their approach to measuring it.
Subsequently, Grossmann’s team of researchers in the Wisdom and Culture Lab classified the survey data into themes and found significant overlap amongst survey participants. The Task Force then identified two components that a majority of respondents singled out as central to the concept of wisdom: meta-cognition and moral grounding.
Common Model of Wisdom: Meta-cognition & Moral Aspirations
The Task Force took these two concepts as guiding components of their new common model which outlines wisdom as “morally grounded excellence in social-cognitive processing” (Grossmann et al., 2020 p. 133-Appendix). The researchers defined moral grounding as a set of aspirational goals that include prosocial behavior, the pursuit of truth, and an orientation toward shared humanity. The second part of the model, social-cognitive processes, refers to the use of aspects of metacognition in problem solving and decision making. According to Dr. Grossmann, “anything like intellectual humility, epistemic humility, paying attention to different ways a situation may unfold, or regulating your emotions when facing a challenging situation; all those types of things are metacognitive in nature. They are about mental processes that regulate our thoughts and feelings in a social context.” These qualities afford multiple layers of understanding of the problem at hand and are collectively termed by the paper as perspectival aspects of metacognition or PMC. Grossmann clarified “We don’t mean that you should be applying a particular perspective but that you should be considering different perspectives.”
The Wisdom Task Force outlined three arguments in their paper as justification for the centrality of PMC in wisdom research. First, as a functionalist argument in favor of PMC, the paper contends that aspects of PMC—intellectual humility, willingness to consider and integrate diverse perspectives—may help individual’s look past their own point of view and see a situation with more objectivity. Most importantly, these same processes allow people to incorporate abstract moral principles into their analysis of a problem, thus making PMC essential for successful application and realization of moral aspirations in real-world situations. Next, from an ecological perspective, some theorists believe that early humans required the ability to consider multiple solutions to a problem and be inclined to cooperate in order to survive. Finally from a psychometric perspective, PMC accounts for a set of connected concepts that are not easily subsumed under traditional measures of intelligence, personality, or empathy. Evidence suggests that using PMC when deliberating on a problem may promote cooperation and prosocial responses to conflict.
Though the Wisdom Task Force met in 2019, their is still much discussion on the merits, components, and practicality of the Common Model of Wisdom (commentaries and responses to the paper available at Psychological Inquiry and OSF Home) Professor of Sociology at the University of Florida, Monika Ardelt, collaborated in developing the model. As a critic of certain aspects of the model, her perspective allowed for a more comprehensive model to be formulated. Her own model for measuring wisdom, the Three-Dimensional Wisdom Model, attempts to implement a metric for measuring wisdom in individuals through three dimensions: reflective, cognitive, and affective.
Dr. Ardelt believes that the cognitive and reflective dimensions of the three-dimensional wisdom model are represented well under aspects of PMC. However, while she believes in the importance of including morality within any model for wisdom, she took issue with the Task Force’s qualification of the term: “The major problem I had was with the term moral aspirations. I had no problem with moral but I would have preferred moral grounding. I think that a wise person does not just have moral aspirations but that they are actually grounded in morality.” The common model stipulated that a wise person must aspire to morality. According to the Ardelt model, it is not enough for someone to have moral intentions.
Professor of Developmental Psychology at Alpen-Adria Universität Klagenfurt, Judith Glück, expressed concerns with regard to the Common Model of Wisdom. She stressed that the model may be missing an explanation of how people manage their own feelings when faced with stressful situations or difficult problems. She asserts the model needs to turn toward real world applicability. Glück stated, “I think one thing that the common model might really put the focus on...is wise thinking, how do wise people actually think?” One of the goals of the common wisdom model according to Glück should be able to describe how people manage to act and think wisely in real life situations. Gluck’s own model of wisdom, the MORE Life Experience Model, offers an explanation of how people gain wisdom over a lifetime rooted in how an individual utilizes different psychological resources. The MORE model also offers a mechanism through which negative experiences help grow an individual’s wisdom over their lifetime. The Task Force, however, argues while actions and behaviors are critical, assessing behaviors as wise requires reflection and context for interpretation. Thus, categorizing behaviors as wise can ultimately only occur after the fact.
Where does research go from here?
Glück suggested in order to test the new common wisdom model researchers might look at consistencies between the common model and those already in use. Glück hopes the common model will invite researchers, and in particular cognitive psychologists, to focus more on the aspects of wisdom that deal with decision making and problem solving. She would like to see researchers focus on how wise people solve problems and reason about difficult situations.
While the centrality of morally grounded perspectival aspects of meta-cognition may be gaining traction in the wisdom research community at large, a significant number of issues remain unresolved regarding terminology in the field and the importance of wisdom-related constructs. According to Dr. Nusbaum, a number of questions remain about the relationship between this new common model and constructs such as epistemic humility, open-mindedness, and the relationship between life experiences and the formation of wisdom. “This new framework will illuminate, if you will, the nature of the questions and the limits of theoretical assumptions that psychologists and neuroscientists make. That’s important, and it helps to continue discussion on these models in order to move thinking forward. That has been true for cognitive science and I think it’s true for wisdom research.” Ultimately, a common model of wisdom allows wisdom researchers to delve deeper, eliminate Jingle Jangle Fallacy stumbles, and focus research within a specific definition of wisdom and wisdom measurement.
To read more about the Common Model of Wisdom, see
- Glück, J. (2020). The Important Difference Between Psychologists’ Labs and Real Life: Evaluating the Validity of Models of Wisdom. Psychological Inquiry, 31(2), 144-150.
- Grossmann, I., Weststrate, N. M., Ardelt, M., Brienza, J. P., Dong, M., Ferrari, M., ... & Vervaeke, J. (2020). The science of wisdom in a polarized world: Knowns and unknowns. Psychological Inquiry, 31(2), 103-133.
- Grossmann, I., Weststrate, N. M., Ferrari, M., & Brienza, J. P. (2020). A Common Model Is Essential for a Cumulative Science of Wisdom. Psychological Inquiry, 31(2), 185-194.
- Löckenhoff, C. E. (2020). Leveraging the Common Model to Inform the Research Agenda on Aging and Wisdom. Psychological Inquiry, 31(2), 174-181.
About the author: Charlie Kolodziej is a content writer for the University of Chicago Center for Practical Wisdom. As an undergraduate, he is a senior reporter for the Chicago Maroon, an Odyssey Scholar, and a Metcalf Intern.