Most everybody believes that one becomes wiser with age and experience. People obviously vary across a wide spectrum, from foolish to wise, but is there an objective way to measure wisdom?

A group of researchers at UC San Diego believes that wisdom can be objectively measured. They tested their ideas on 524 adults, ages 25 to 104, selected from an ongoing longitudinal investigation called the Successful Aging Evaluation (SAGE) study. The study population involved near equal numbers of males and females, with more than three-fourths claiming to be non-Latino white. A majority had some college education. The study was funded by three grants from the National Institute of Mental Health, the Veterans Administration, and the Stein Institute for Research on Aging.

The researchers developed a series of questions that focused on physical, cognitive, and psychosocial aspects of successful aging across the adult lifespan. Collectively, the answers provide a numerical index of wisdom that can be used to compare and judge people on the basis of presumed wisdom. Participants rated a set of statements by agreeing or disagreeing on a scale of 1 to 5. The statements presumably tested the degree of wisdom, covering six specific domains: 1) prosocial attitudes and behaviors such as empathy, altruism, and social cooperation, 2) social decision-making/pragmatic knowledge of life, 3) emotional regulation, 4) reflection/self-understanding, 5) tolerance of diverse values, 6) and ability to effectively deal with uncertainty and ambiguity in life.

Factor analysis revealed that the scale reliably measured wisdom as defined by the questions. Thus, their questionnaire makes effective distinctions between individuals’ differing degrees of wisdom.

Limitations of the study are that responses were self-reported, not measured empirically by others. Also, the demographic was narrow (Caucasians with some higher education). Some of the assumptions could be questioned. For example, is a sense of wellbeing always a reliable indicator of wisdom? A person could feel good because of lucky circumstance or because of delusion. Is it always wise to be tolerant of diverse values, especially if it leads to political correctness run amuck or acceptance of an evil that needs to be overcome? How wise is it to accept ambiguity if it means avoiding the hard work of solving important problems? 

That brings us to the definition of wisdom, which is hard to define. However, we think we know it when we see it. Certainly we should seek to be wise, but not without a lot of hard thought on what that means.

The potential value of wisdom-scoring questionnaires is that they can have a teaching function of helping to show people what wisdom is by identifying its specific domains in a tangible way that could guide the striving for wisdom. Another value could be clinical evaluation of mental deterioration with age. Finally, such questionnaires could be used in screening people suitability for admission into prestigious universities, hiring in industries requiring emotional and cognitive maturity, or acceptance into certain social groups. However, the judgmental use of such questionnaires opens the door to manipulation by the people taking the test and discrimination by those using the test results for personal judgment.

The researchers promote their "San Diego Wisdom Scale (SD-WISE)" as a new way to judge people. Society already has multiple ways to judge people: IQ scores, SAT scores, "likes" and "followers" on social media—and now on wisdom! Such indices have some valid uses, but the possibilities for abuse are enormous. Why are we always looking for ways to judge people? When people must be judged, why not emphasize what they actually do, not what their test score is?

References

Thomas, M. L. (2017). A new scale for assessing wisdom based on common domains and a neurobiological model: The San Diego Wisdom Scale (SD-Wise). J. Psychiatric Res. Sep 8. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jpsychires.2017.09.005

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