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Wisdom part III: The Berlin Wisdom Study

April 30, 2011

Part III of a series: Part I; Part II; Part III

The Berlin Wisdom Study reveals the difficulty of studying the human mind

A 1995 study in Berlin led by Paul B. Baltes attempted to discover just exactly what wisdom would look like on the brain. Baltes and his colleagues first came up with a definition of wisdom, then decided on two tasks they felt would be a good test of wisdom. They then examined a group of ‘wisdom nominees’, chosen from the Berlin community by noted journalists. Each subject responded to two questions and then another person evaluated the responses on a seven-point scale for five criteria. Rich factual knowledge and rich procedural knowledge were considered the basis for knowledge about live but not sufficient to encompass all of wisdom. The third criterion, life-span contextualism was considered more indicative of wisdom. It was expected to have developed later than the basic criteria and could be defined as “age-by-experience”. Value relativism, or the ability to prioritize and understand your own and other’s values, was also a metacriterion for wisdom. The final criterion was recognition and management of uncertainty. This experimental design makes the assumption that wisdom is culturally universal. The wisdom criteria chosen were gleaned from previous psychological studies of wisdom.

This study is interesting not because it successfully discovered how to be wise, but because it reveals the difficulty in studying the human mind. Ambiguity, perhaps due to the nature of our definitions of wisdom, clouds analysis of the results. Only two tasks were used to judge wisdom, so can we be sure that wisdom was in fact measured? Any possible subjects older than 80 were not tested for fear of the inevitable mental decline common in that age group, but it is easy to think of people older than 80 who are wise, so the sample size is biased. Perhaps there are important traits that only older people exhibit. Added to all of this, there is difficulty in deciding on a method of consistently choosing appropriate ‘wisdom nominees’.

The tasks preformed were an existential life-management task and a life-planning task. For the first, subjects were asked what to do when a friend calls with a suicide threat. For the second, subjects decided how to advise a fictitious older woman, about to embark on a second-career, who learns that her son is no longer financially able to support his children. Do these two tasks sufficiently screen for wisdom? They do involve difficult decisions, but how can you quantitatively evaluate the wisdom of each response? Raters, young and middle-aged professionals chosen randomly, evaluated each response based on length and the five criteria. One should question if each of the five criteria meant the same thing to each rater. It is impossible to control for individual variation, and all the scientist can hope is that they have a large enough sample size. A puzzling analysis presented in the paper was that the longer responses were rated as having more wisdom. Surely we all know someone who can talk for ages without saying anything worthwhile.

Another issue is choosing wise subjects. I thought that the researchers did a good job with a difficult issue. They had 21 professional journalists submit a nomination for wise citizens of Berlin. All 159 nominees were then rated by the journalists on the same 7-point scale and 14 nominees were chosen from those rated highest. This method attempted to overcome the difficulty of an impartial panel choosing wise people. In order to characterize someone as wise, you need to at least be familiar with that person, or at least with their reputation. This method was the best way to get a diverse sample of wise people, but it does present issues. How well did these 21 journalists know the wise people of Berlin?

The study’s results do indicate that the wise nominees are wise. They scored higher than a younger control group, a similarly aged control group, and about par with a group of clinical psychologists. The study expected that the clinical psychologists would do well because they have had ‘wisdom-enhancing training’—that is, they are likely to do well on a test designed by their peers.

Interestingly, the study found that wisdom has no correlation with age. The young control group preformed just as well as the older control group. The common ‘older and wiser’ convention may not be true.

So where does that get us?

My attempt to wade into the scientific literature of wisdom has made one thing clear: we don’t know how to study it. Even a search of pubmed turns up papers with ‘overturning conventional wisdom’ in the title– but a scan of the abstract reveals that the study is on cancer or anything but the study of wisdom. Studies of the biological basis of wisdom are hard to find.

It might be simpler to study the pieces of wisdom before we can draw any overall conclusions. Next up: Wisdom part IV: finding wisdom by looking at disease and ‘wisdom deficits’– where the brain functions sub-optimally.

The Berlin Wisdom Study:

Baltes PB, Staudinger U, Maercker A, Smith J (1995). People nominated as wise: a comparative study of wisdom related knowledge. Psychol Aging 10(2)155-166.

Do we get wiser with age? by Molly Edmonds

A conceptual analysis of a psychological approach to wisdom by Konrad Baniki

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