Hung Chung Chih/Shutterstock
Source: Hung Chung Chih/Shutterstock

Throughout history, there have been countless iconic figures who are notorious for possessing extraordinary wisdom. But what exactly is “wisdom”? Although psychological research on wisdom has flourished in the past 30 years—defining wisdom can be difficult. Wisdom is like a mosaic that is composed of so many different facets... It can be challenging to articulate the exact characteristics that make an individual seem wise.

Luckily, in the past few months, two separate studies on wisdom have streamlined our understanding of wisdom by deconstructing specific traits that make up different types of wisdom; as well as, various elements that must come together to facilitate “wise reasoning.” In this blog post, I'm going to sum up these two different studies and illustrate why they both reaffirm the timeless wisdom of Muhammad Ali.

The first study, by researchers in the US and Canada, identified that there are three idealized prototypes of wisdom throughout history that include: practical wisdom, philosophic wisdom, and benevolent wisdom.

The second study, by a different group of Canadian researchers, identified various facets that constitute "wise reasoning." Their research identified that wise reasoning in everyday situations requires a combination of such abilities as: intellectual humility, self-transcendence, consideration of others' perspective, and looking for compromise.

Three Prototypical Ideals of Wisdom

In the first study, psychologists Nic Weststrate and Michel Ferrari of University of Toronto, along with Sociologist Monika Ardelt of the University of Florida, surveyed people across North America to determine how everyday people understand wisdom. Their findings identified specific characteristics that could define three different prototypical ideals of wisdom.

The April 2016 study, “The Many Faces of Wisdom: An Investigation of Cultural-Historical Wisdom Exemplars Reveals Practical, Philosophical, and Benevolent Prototype,” was published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

For this research, the authors chose a wide range of ‘cultural-historical exemplars’ throughout history—such as Socrates, Mahatma Gandhi, Jesus Christ, Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Teresa, etc.—and asked study participants a series of open-ended questions about what made these figures seem wise.

Within the most frequently mentioned exemplars of wisdom, the researchers created the three basic wisdom prototypes: practical wisdom (Lincoln, Franklin), philosophical wisdom (Socrates, King Solomon), and benevolent wisdom (MLK Jr, Mother Teresa). After analyzing the data, the researchers pinpointed which of the three wisdom prototypes resonated most strongly with participants.

Interestingly, the researchers found that practical wisdom resonated most strongly with the majority of study participants. Practical wisdom would include visionaries who have insight into real-life issues and work strategically to deal with specific social problems. In a statement, Westrate explained,

"In North America, wisdom is a somewhat diverse concept—there is more than one way to be wise and each manifestation of wisdom has merits from a societal perspective. We hope this research influences our evolving understanding of the concept of wisdom as far as psychological theories are concerned."

The authors emphasize one type of wisdom is not necessarily better than another type of wisdom. Future studies will expand to other cultures. As Westrate explained, "the average person's implicit theories are hugely affected by cultural factors.” Further research by Westrate and his team could find other prototypes that "illuminate what people are striving for and how this differs regionally and globally."

What Is "Wise Reasoning"?

This week, another group of researchers at the University of Waterloo—who are interested in deconstructing the elements of wisdom—identified that people tend to demonstrate different levels of wisdom from one daily situation to the next. The June 2016 study, “Wise Reasoning in the Face of Everyday Life Challenges,” appears in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.

For this study, the researchers conducted a 'daily diary study' of wise reasoning (WR) by recording people’s reflections on the daily challenges each person faced in terms of three facets: intellectual humility, self-transcendence, and consideration of others’ perspectives/compromise.

Three Facets of Wise Reasoning by Grossmann et al.

  1. Intellectual humility
  2. Self-transcendence
  3. Consideration of others’ perspectives/compromise

By examining conditions and situations under which people may or may not exhibit wisdom in their lives, researchers (and study participants) can learn more about situations that promote wisdom in daily life and  those situations that don't elicit wise reasoning. Professor Igor Grossmann, from the Department of Psychology at Waterloo and lead author of the paper, said in a statement, 

"This research does not dismiss that there is a personality component to wisdom, but that's not the whole picture. Situations in daily life affect our personality and ability to reason wisely. There are many examples where people known for their critical acumen or expertise in ethics seem to fall prey to lack of such acumen or morals.

The present findings suggest that those examples are not an anomaly. We cannot always be at the top of our game in terms of wisdom-related tendencies, and it can be dangerous to generalize based on whether people show wisdom in their personal life or when teaching others in the classroom."

For the next phase of this research, Grossmann and his colleagues are preparing a tool to assess wisdom according to specific situations. They also have plans to conduct the first-ever longitudinal study aiming at teaching people how-to reason wisely in their daily lives.

Conclusion: Muhammad Ali Embodied All the Facets and Prototypes of Wisdom

Autore Sconosciuto/Public Domain
Muhammad Ali (1942-2016) with The Beatles in 1964. 
Source: Autore Sconosciuto/Public Domain

Memorial services were held today for Muhammad Ali (born Cassius Clay, Jr.) who died on June 3, 2016 at the age of 74. Muhammad Ali’s infinite wisdom motivated and inspired me as both an athlete and political activist. Ali was a role model who led by example. He inspired me to do my best every day in sport competitions and to use athletics as a vehicle to break down barriers, shatter stereotypes, and to fight for the rights of the world's underdogs day-in and day-out. 

In memoriam to Muhammad Ali, I compiled my favorite Ali quotations (below) into a single paragraph to summarize his life philosophy and illustrate why he possessed every facet of wisdom discussed in the latest empirical research above. Ali was, indeed, The Greatest. Rest in peace Muhammad Ali, you will be missed. 

“I am an ordinary man who worked hard to develop the talent I was given. I believed in myself, and I believe in the goodness of others... It's the repetition of affirmations that leads to belief. And once that belief becomes a deep conviction, things begin to happen... I've made my share of mistakes along the way, but if I have changed even one life for the better, I haven't lived in vain... Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth.”

© 2016 Christopher Bergland. All rights reserved.

Follow me on Twitter @ckbergland for updates on The Athlete’s Way blog posts.

The Athlete’s Way ® is a registered trademark of Christopher Bergland.

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