Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


7 Do's and Don'ts for Becoming a Wise Person

6. Make decisions based on facts, not hopes.

Key points

  • Most people wish they had wisdom, and it is certainly one that’s valued when seeking advice.
  • A new view of wisdom breaks it down into the 7 key areas of philosophy, showing what is wise and what is not.
  • By examining these 7 branches of philosophy, you can make wiser and more fulfilling decisions.
Fam Veld/Shutterstock
Source: Fam Veld/Shutterstock

When you think about wisdom, your mind might immediately race to some qualities such as having extensive knowledge and the perspective to use that knowledge. You might have an older relative who your family agrees is the go-to person any time there’s a problem. Need help deciding how to handle an argument between two of your in-laws? You’ll sit down and have a heart-to-heart with this family elder to plan a way out of the dilemma.

Wisdom might also strike you as a quality based on a wealth of world knowledge. For this, it’s not that older relative you seek wise counsel from but another family member who can help you sort through the ins and outs of planning a vacation to a new and exotic place. You know you’ll get great advice, from figuring out how to get where you’re going to discovering places to visit that aren’t in any online guide.

As you consider these two examples, perhaps it occurs to you that someone could be wise about one area of life but not particularly good at giving advice in another area. In fact, why would advice even come into the picture? Maybe it’s enough to know a great deal of information without ever having to apply it to practical situations.

You can also see from these examples why it’s useful to characterize the quality of wisdom. Beyond being an intellectual exercise, this search for wisdom’s definition can help you think about ways to become a better person yourself. If you think of the expression “older and wiser,” you know you’ll definitely get older with time, but it would be nice to get wiser, too.

Psychology’s Latest Way to Tackle Wisdom

Cornell University’s Robert J. Sternberg (2024), known for his extensive work in the area of human intelligence, first dabbled in the wisdom field in 1998 with his “balance” theory of wisdom, a view that proposed the three basic qualities of wisdom of balancing your own needs, the needs of other people, and the needs of the world at large. The wise person, essentially, is motivated to make the world a better place.

Sternberg now sees this theory as a manifestation of only one component of wisdom, the “process” view that reflects the way that people handle information. His new approach represents a more all-encompassing theory based on the main branches of philosophy. Lest you think this might be too esoteric, the “Tree of Philosophy (TOP)” is actually highly relatable. Its main thrust is that wisdom goes beyond a particular process or even, as some other theories propose, a quality that comes from within the individual, such as a personality trait or level of intelligence.

Wisdom’s 7 Branches Within the Tree of Philosophy (TOP)

Philosophy becomes a useful way to address the qualities of wisdom because, as Sternberg maintains, its main branches each correspond to important traditions in understanding what’s wise and what’s not. Below is a brief summary of each, along with examples of its positive and negative possibilities:

Epistemology: Knowing what you know and what you don’t know. The wise person may seem to be all-knowing, but this branch of philosophy suggests it’s as important to make room for the possibility that you don’t. For example, it’s wise to confess to your own limitations but unwise to fake knowing something you don’t (or can never know). When you make an “educated guess,” be sure not to claim you’re 100% sure.

Ontology: Keep the good of others at the forefront of your decisions. The wise person tries to mend fences, but the unwise person tries to build them.

Ethics: Have a clear sense of right and wrong and stick to it. To be wise means that you work hard to follow through on decisions that will further a worthwhile cause. Unwise people will do everything in their power to get ahead, regardless of the consequences to others.

Logic: Be able to make decisions based on analytical judgments, not gut feelings. This could be as simple as trying to figure out why your cellphone won’t charge properly. Stabbing away at it by plugging the cord into the outlet will not get to the root of the problem, as you will need to go through a set of more rational steps.

Aesthetics: Promote harmony and grace in the world. A wise person pursues beauty for its own sake, such as enjoying a calm and peaceful shoreline at sunset. Lack of aesthetic wisdom becomes toxic, such as when people make decisions that lead to outrage (such as designing an ugly building) or cause a lack of harmony in the world (such as a dictator invading another country).

Hermeneutics: Evaluating situations based on facts and not wishes. Wise people might wish that their families got along better but be resigned to the situation as it is. The unwise person will continue to hope and dream that, somehow, their families will miraculously decide to get along.

Axiology: Use logic to make decisions. To be wise means that you rely on facts determined through analyses of evidence (which could also mean they can be disconfirmed). Unwise people let their beliefs, religious or otherwise, determine what they believe to be true.

If you were keeping score of your own wise qualities, what stuck out as your greatest strengths? Are there times when you hope for the best or when you discard an idea because you didn’t like where it came from? As you think about the people you might approach for advice, whose word are you more likely to trust?

Turning Philosophy Into Action

As you can see, although philosophy may not seem to be the most practical approach to defining a psychological quality, these 7 branches of the field each contain useful pointers to becoming wiser yourself. They also can help you figure out who the best person is to ask for help when you need advice, especially of a sensitive nature, but even in practical situations. You want someone with a level head who can look at all angles and not throw out ideas that have no basis in fact.

As Sternberg points out, the problems that require wisdom tend not to have right or wrong answers but are ill-structured. “They often are a mess, and the available solutions may be messy as well.” And although even answers based on knowledge gained in school are usually either right or wrong, any problem can become “emotionally laden.” How many arguments have you had with people that, although settled by a Google search, still left you feeling a bit deflated?

To sum up, becoming wise may be thought of as a process, potentially one gained only by life experiences as you fumble your way through problems that life throws at you. By breaking wisdom down into these components, you can at least fumble a bit less and flourish a bit more.

Facebook image: Bricolage/Shutterstock

LinkedIn image: Cast Of Thousands/Shutterstock


Sternberg, R. J. (2024). What Is Wisdom? Sketch of a TOP (Tree of Philosophy) Theory. Review of General Psychology, 28(1), 47-66.

More from Susan Krauss Whitbourne PhD, ABPP
More from Psychology Today