- A grand unified theory of wisdom distills years of research and prior models of wisdom.
- Wisdom hinges on many factors, from personality to emotional function, ways of thinking and perceiving, social and communal perspectives.
- Broad agreement exists that wise behavior balances many elements, based in thoughtful contemplation, often of much information.
- Wisdom sometimes requires quick action but often first necessitates slowing down and orienting.
Wisdom sometimes seems in short supply, personally and collectively. War, climate change, political conflict, disagreement over basic human rights, gun violence, you name it. There's a lot to be thankful for—things are arguably better (Pinker, 2012) for more of humanity now than ever before in human history—but there are many opportunities not only to alleviate needless suffering but to build a better world together.
Wisdom is not merely a state of mind but a way of moving through the world, a model for understanding what is happening and why and making decisions based on self-awareness and the common good. From emotions to cognition to culture, having a better understanding of widsom's DNA, and how to construct wise behavior, seems like a good idea in terms of individual satisfaction, community function, and species-wide evolutionary adaptability.
Wiser Minds Prevail
Researchers Glück and Westrate have been studying wisdom and related concepts, from emotion to cognition, personality to community, contemplation to action, for many years. In their recent work reviewed here, which I've been mulling over for months, they pull together their own thinking and the work of many others into a coherent framework—the Integrative Wisdom Model (2022).
In their recent synthesis in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Review (2022), Glück and Westrate consider a large number of wisdom models, reviewing and analyzing each to extract the relevant concepts and processes.
For example, they look at what kinds of situations require wisdom (moral dilemmas, conflict, adversity), and what kinds of wise behaviors are required in challenging situations (conflict resolution, doing what is right, supporting others/the common good), and whether desired outcomes are achieved. Looking at dozens of relevant studies, they organize the findings around pragmatic outcomes: "Was an unbiased understanding of the problem gained?", "How did participants think about the problem and possible solutions?", "How were solutions suggested or implemented?".
In looking at earlier wisdom models—the MORE Life Experience Model, the Three-Dimensional Wisdom Model, the HERO(E) Model of Wisdom, the Balance Theory of Wisdom, The Berlin Wisdom Model, the Common Wisdom Model, the Self-Transcendence Model, and a few others—they identified areas of overlap, focusing on actionable, pragmatic elements. The full paper is available here, open-source, for curious readers.
Their coherent Integrative Model of Wise Behavior draws from a process of review and synthesis across the wisdom literature, spanning different psychological definitions of wisdom, cognitive models of wisdom, personality-focused and developmental models of wisdom, and ways of measuring wisdom.
Structure of Integrative Wisdom Model
Starting when we are confronted (individually or together) with a challenging situation, there are four stages demanding intentionally wise consideration:
- Wisdom-requiring situation
- Wisdom-fostering emotional and motivational state
- Wisdom-fostering thinking and reasoning state
- Wise behavior
In addition, the authors identify complex influences on wisdom that bear on critical steps—first, in managing emotional reactions when confronted with challenge: an exploratory orientation (curiosity, open-mindedness, inquiry), concern for others (compassion, empathy, prosocial emotions), and emotion regulation (recognition of distress, grounding, self-soothing).
Second, once a "wisdom-fostering" emotional and motivation state is established, how we think and reason with wisdom is influenced by high-order factors including life- and self-knowledge, metacognitive capabilities, and self-reflective capacity, working synergistically. All of the effort—which becomes "muscle memory" to an extent, with practice—comes together ultimately as wise behavior.
Integrative Wisdom Model Tree Diagram
In addition to the structured model, Glück and Westrate wisely developed a decision tree, an algorithm to help determine to what extent desired behavior is feasible in a given situation. Understanding what is possible of oneself and others in any given situation is important for setting expectations.
Unrealistic expectations typically lead to failure and disappointment, setting impossible goals in unreasonably short-time frames, and missing the mark. Realistic planning suggests we set expectations so that we can make gradual progress toward more ambitious goals. What is realistic or unrealistic varies greatly not just on talent and teamwork but also on emotional state, how we view planning and the actual approaches taken to planning. Focusing on the process over time can be immensely useful, for example, but requires broad perspective-taking and a systematic approach to locate granular details in overarching stages.
A simple blog post cannot resolve complex problems, but the work reviewed here is worth sitting with for a while. Developing wisdom is itself daunting. Many of the building blocks –developing metacognitive capacity, being open-minded and compassionate, cultivating measured self-reflection, for example–each take work. With time, wisdom enables good, fast decisions along with knowing when to slow down and take careful counsel.
With any luck and perhaps some intention, as new technologies shape the world—instant digital connection, mind-bending AI, advances in neuroscience, physics, and computer science—wisdom will have a strong hand in shaping our culture, leading to greater overall well-being and satisfaction for greater numbers of people.
We are in a transitional world, a world of uncertainty and change. Now would be a good time to install a widsom update into humanity's operating system. Wisdom gets us what we want.
Pinker, S (2012). The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. Penguin Books.
Glück, J., & Weststrate, N. M. (2022). The Wisdom Researchers and the Elephant: An Integrative Model of Wise Behavior. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 26(4), 342–374. https://doi.org/10.1177/10888683221094650
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