A common model of wisdom

Both in our own everyday life and in society, we are often confronted with important issues that are difficult to solve with knowledge and rationality alone. The reason for this is that these issues are complex, surrounded by a great deal of uncertainty and often involve different perspectives and interests. Consider how to deal with the Corona crisis, the rise of artificial intelligence and the possible ethical consequences, political polarization and the spread of misinformation. Many philosophers and psychologists think that wisdom is necessary to tackle these kinds of issues effectively. But what is wisdom?

Taskforce examines how experts think about wisdom

Philosophers like Plato, Aristotle and Confucius have been interested in wisdom since ancient times. Past psychologists, such as Erik Erikson, have also formulated theories about wisdom. A few decades now, psychologists have seriously started to do empirical research into wisdom.

Because until recently there was not much consensus within psychology about what wisdom exactly  is, a task force, the Toronto Wisdom Task Force, was installed which tried to come up with a common model of wisdom. To this end, they consulted the literature on wisdom and administered questionnaires to wisdom researchers. The result of their work can be read in (Grossmann et al., 2020).

Common model of wisdom

On the basis of their investigation, the task force arrived at a common model that sees wisdom as morally grounded excellence in social cognitive processing. They break down the two components of this definition as follows:

1. Moral basis:

  1. balance between own interests and other interests
  2. pursuit of truth (versus dishonesty)
  3. orientation towards shared humanity

2. Excellence in social cognitive processing:

  1. context adaptability (e.g. practical or pragmatic reasoning, optimization of behavior towards achieving certain results)
  2. perspectivism (e.g. considering diverse perspectives, foresight and long-term thinking)
  3. dialectical and reflective thinking (e.g. balancing and integrating points of view, respecting opposites)
  4. epistemic modesty (e.g. open-minded / accurate thinking, looking through illusions, understanding your own limitations)


Simply put, the moral foundation is needed to make sure that you are working in a morally good direction and the excellence in social cognitive processing is needed to effectively interact with other people in such a way that they feel understood and involved.

If you look at these 7 characteristics of wisdom, you can use them to get ideas for how to deal with complex issues yourself. You can also use them to determine what effective leadership is. Finally, you can use them to teach about wisdom. We can see wisdom as we learnable skill rather than as a personality trait that you may or may not possess.

Education about wisdom could focus on questions such as:
  1. When is wisdom needed and beneficial? (For complex, poorly defined issues, etc.)
  2. What is wisdom? (Morally founded excellence in social cognitive processing)
  3. How do you adopt a wise attitude in concrete situations?