Understanding wisdom

You would think they’d be lots of good psychological theories of wisdom, as it’s something we talk about all the time in everyday life, but there just isn’t.

Psychologists have traditionally avoided the subject, although, thankfully, this is now starting to change and the New York Times has an in-depth article looking at some of the recent findings.

The article also looks at why the subject has been ignored, partly, of course, because it’s quite hard to define.

Nevertheless, one person who has pioneered the study of wisdom is neuropsychologist Dr Vivian Clayton who began studying this most valued of human traits in the 1970s.

Between 1976, when she finished her dissertation, and 1982, Clayton published several groundbreaking papers that are now generally acknowledged as the first to suggest that researchers could study wisdom empirically. She identified three general aspects of human activity that were central to wisdom — the acquisition of knowledge (cognitive) and the analysis of that information (reflective) filtered through the emotions (affective). Then she assembled a battery of existing psychological tests to measure it.

Clayton laid several important markers on the field at its inception. She realized that “neither were the old always wise, nor the young lacking in wisdom.” She also argued that while intelligence represented a nonsocial and impersonal domain of knowledge that might diminish in value over the course of a lifetime, wisdom represented a social, interpersonal form of knowledge about human nature that resisted erosion and might increase with age. Clayton’s early work was “a big deal,” Sternberg says. “It was a breakthrough to say wisdom is something you could study.” Jacqui Smith, who has conducted wisdom research since the 1980s, says it “was seminal work that really triggered subsequent studies.”

The article discusses some of Clayton’s early groundbreaking work in the field and goes on to look at what modern psychology and neuroscience is telling us about how we understand wisdom and act wisely, particularly in terms of emotion and maturity through the later years.

Link to NYT article ‘The Older-and-Wiser Hypothesis’.

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