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When I’m Old and Wise: Is Wisdom Related to Age?

The association between age and wisdom is intuitive. But is it accurate?

What is wisdom? One recent attempt to address this question, by Sharon Ryan, a philosopher at West Virginia University, begins with Socrates’s famous line, "The only true wisdom is knowing you know nothing." In doing so, Ryan argues, Socrates may have defined wisdom as Epistemic Humility, the notion that you are wise if you believe you are not.

However, per Ryan, an alternative interpretation of Socrates may argue that his view expresses a notion of wisdom as Epistemic Accuracy, because he believes he’s knowledgeable only when he actually is. Wisdom, in this view, resides in the accuracy of your beliefs. You are wise if you only believe you know what you actually know.

Image by Pixabay
Source: Image by Pixabay

An alternative approach to wisdom, per Ryan, may argue that it’s not enough to know what you know; you also have to know a lot. Thus we may opt for a Hybrid Theory, by which a wise person is one who has extensive knowledge as well as few unjustified beliefs. Still, this formulation leaves out the question of success—of living a good life. Intuitively, we can all envision someone who knows a lot, and has very few unjustified or false beliefs, and yet is unable to be successful in life.

So, a test of wisdom appears to be one’s success in achieving a good life. Then again, who defines "good" in this context? Aristotle held that, “It is evident that it is impossible to be practically wise without being good.” Most philosophers and lay people addressed to the question of wisdom would probably include moral virtue as inherent in the definition of living well.

However, others—like the philosopher Dennis Whitcomb of Western Washington University—may argue cogently that a morally repugnant person could nevertheless be wise. Perhaps wisdom entails not a good life in the moral sense, but a rational one. A wise person, in addition to having world knowledge and self-knowledge, is one who lives their lives rationally and reasonably. Such a person will not be devoid of emotion but rather able to regulate it in a rational manner.

Historically, the question of wisdom has mostly resided in the domains of philosophy, religion, and literature. More recently, however, the question has attracted the attention of contemporary, research-minded psychologists. An effort has been underway in psychology to pin down the concept of wisdom in terms that can be measured, and devise theories of wisdom that yield testable predictions.

Many laypersons, when asked about wisdom, will associate it with advanced age. When we imagine a wise person, we do not commonly imagine youth. It is possible that in ancient societies—in which tradition ruled over change, and in which arriving at old age was itself an achievement—wisdom was indeed closely linked with age. Yet the relationship between age and wisdom, like much of everything else, is bound to be more complex today. Indeed, the psychological research literature by and large challenges the idea that age begets wisdom.

For example, Paul Baltes (1939-2006), the German developmental psychologist who founded the Berlin Wisdom Project at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development, is perhaps the most influential figure in this area. In Baltes’ thinking, wisdom is defined as an expert knowledge system concerning the fundamental pragmatics of life. That system has five components:

  1. Rich procedural knowledge about life.
  2. Rich factual knowledge about life.
  3. An understanding of lifespan contexts.
  4. An awareness of the relativism of values and priorities.
  5. The ability to recognize and manage uncertainty.

While age does not factor explicitly in the Berlin Model, Baltes and colleagues’ research suggests that wisdom rises steadily from age 13 to 25 and then remains relatively stable through to age 75, after which a decline is common, correlated with the physical decline. They also found that intelligence explains less of the variance in wisdom-related performance than personality traits. Life experience (in particular, interacting with other people) is the strongest predictor—accounting for more than 25 percent of the variance.

Taking a somewhat different theoretical tack, Monika Ardelt, a professor of sociology at the University of Florida, has advanced the influential Three-Dimensional Theory of Wisdom. Unlike Baltes and the "Berlin Group" who consider wisdom to be an "expert knowledge system," Ardelt considers wisdom to be a "combination of personality qualities" that "cannot exist independently of individuals.“ For Ardelt, it’s not enough for one to be knowledgeable and articulate. True wisdom involves virtuous action as well as emotional self-control. Ardelt notes that:

“Wisdom cannot exist independently of individuals…if this is true, then wisdom itself cannot be preserved outside of individuals. Its distribution in society depends on the personal development of the people who make up society and not on the development of a cultural ‘software.’ The moment one tries to preserve wisdom (e.g., by writing it down), it loses its connection to a concrete person and transforms into intellectual (theoretical) knowledge. I propose that even the most profound ‘wisdom literature’ remains intellectual or theoretical knowledge until its inherent wisdom is realized by a person.”

She has proposed a model of wisdom as a personality characteristic, made up of three dimensions:

  • Cognitive: An understanding of life and a desire to know the truth. According to Ardelt, “The cognitive dimension of wisdom refers to a person’s ability to understand life—that is, to comprehend the significance and deeper meaning of phenomena and events, particularly with regard to intrapersonal and interpersonal matters.”
  • Reflective: A perception of phenomena and events from multiple perspectives, which requires self-reflection, awareness, and insight. Ardelt explains: “The reflective dimension is a prerequisite for the development of the cognitive dimension of wisdom. A deeper understanding of life is only possible if one can perceive reality as it is without any major distortions. To do this, one needs to engage in reflective thinking by looking at phenomena and events from many different perspectives to develop self-awareness and self-insight. This practice will gradually reduce one’s self-centeredness, subjectivity, and projections, and increase one’s insight into the true nature of things, including the motivations of one’s own and other people’s behavior.”
  • Affective: Sympathetic and compassionate love for others. Per Ardelt: “The presence of positive emotions and behavior toward other beings, such as feelings and acts of sympathy and compassion, and the absence of indifferent or negative emotions and behavior toward others.”

For Ardelt, then, wisdom exists only to the extent that wise people exist. Wisdom, in her definition, can grow with age, but it doesn't do so automatically; rather, it grows for those who seek it and invest in nurturing it.

Ardelt’s work has also found that college students scored at the same level as older adults on measures of wisdom. Yet some differences did emerge. “Qualitative evidence suggests that many older adults, particularly in the top 20 percent of wisdom scorers, grew wiser with age by learning from life experiences. The results indicate that wisdom might increase with age for individuals with the opportunity and motivation to pursue its development.”

The American psychologist Robert Sternberg, of Yale University, has developed his own ideas about wisdom in the Balance Theory of Wisdom. For Sternberg, wisdom is defined as, “the application of tacit knowledge as mediated by values toward the achievement of a common good through a balance among multiple (a) intrapersonal, (b) interpersonal, and (c) extrapersonal interests … in order to achieve a balance among: (a) adaptation to existing environments (b) shaping of existing environments, and (c) selection of new environments.”

His emphasis on balance refers to balancing self and social interests, long- and short-term goals, and multiple environmental contexts and demands. Sternberg has argued that we would be wise to pay more attention to wisdom when we choose whom to admit to university, whom to hire for a job, and whom to elect to high office. This is because, according to Sternberg, errors in judgment and policy decisions are more often failures of wisdom than of intelligence. He explains:

“Although currently, our societies tend to emphasize analytical intelligence in their assessments of individuals in school, college, and beyond, one could argue that assessments of wisdom would be more valuable. When citizens and leaders fail in the pursuit of their duties, it is more likely to be for lack of wisdom than for lack of analytical intelligence. In particular, failed citizens and leaders are likely to be foolish—to show unrealistic optimism, egocentrism, false omniscience, false omnipotence, false invulnerability, and ethical disengagement in their thinking and decision making. In other words, they fail not for a lack of conventional intelligence, but rather for a lack of wisdom.”

Like Ardelt, Sternberg argues that age does not inherently confer wisdom. He summarizes thus:

“Most important, the person has to utilize life experience in a way that is consistent with the development of wisdom … people must want to develop their wisdom-related skills in order for them actually to develop, and then must adopt the attitudes toward life—openness to experience, reflectivity upon experience, and willingness to profit from experience—that will enable this development to occur.”

In conclusion, while psychologists (like laypeople) may differ in their definitions of wisdom, both theory and data in contemporary psychology appear to converge on the notion that old age is neither sufficient nor necessary for the development of wisdom. The question to ask when it comes to wisdom is not how much time you’ve had, but what you chose to do with your time.

On its face, this appears to be a fairly wise conclusion.

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