Wisdom and values: does what we value determine how we think about wisdom?

Wisdom is something to pursue. Many people would like to be able to act wisely in complex situations. And for many people it is an attractive perspective to, as they get older, become wiser. But what  precisely do we mean when we talk about wisdom? May what we call wisdom merely be a reflection of our personal values? May what one person views as wise be something completely different from what the other views as wise? In this article I discuss research from Glück, et al. (2021) which gives some interesting answers to these questions.

Unwise leaders

I speak for myself when I say that the behavior and the words of certain politicians seem to embody the opposite of what is wisdom. Politicians like Donald Trump, Recep Erdogan, Jair Bolsonaro, Boris Johnson and Thierry Baudet are characterized by nationalist, isolationist and xenophobic tendencies that remind me of utter low points of the 20th century. But maybe I'm wrong. Perhaps my assessment of these people is merely a reflection of my own values.

Wisdom and value orientations

Glück, et al. (2021) state that in the literature on wisdom there are at least two components of wisdom that have to do with people's value orientations:

  1. Benevolence: wise individuals are assumed to care about the well-being of others in need
  2. Universalism: wise individuals are assumed to be tolerant and accepting towards a variety of perspectives and world views

Is Jonathan Haidt right?

The authors note that it is possible that wisdom scholars have fallen prey to what psychologist Jonathan Haidt has warned for. He stated that psychologists tend to mistakenly consider their own values ​​of care and honesty as a gold standard (Haidt, 2008). He points out that in other cultures and in more conservative circles very different values are ​​dominant.

Research by Glück et al.

To get more clarity about this, Glück, et al. (2021) explored the following two questions:

  1. To what extent do people project their own values ​​on how they view wise individuals?
  2. What value orientations are actually correlated to wisdom?

In three studies, subjects twice filled out questionnaires to measure universal values ​​(Schwartz et al., 2012). One time they described their own values, the other time they described values ​​of an individual who they considered to be very wise. Glück et al. also did two studies in which they looked at the actual values ​​of people who were considered by others to be wise.

People agree on what wisdom is

The answer to question 1 was clear: Jonathan Haidt doesn't seem to be right. People do not project their own values ​​on wise individuals. The studies showed that there was a high degree of consensus in the views on wisdom of people with different political preferences and different value orientations. The study showed that people see wise individuals as people who:

  1. are concerned about other people
  2. are concerned about humanity and the world as a whole
  3. attach importance to the freedom to live a self-driven life
  4. do not care much about self-focused values ​​such as power over others, personal achievement, or their personal security and pleasure
  5. are balanced in their perspective
  6. value cultural, religious and family traditions

The values ​​of way people correspond to what people suspect

The investigation into values ​​of actual wise people led to findings that largely agreed with what people expected. In summary, the findings show that wise individuals:

  1. indeed care about the well-being of others
  2. not just care about their own group, but about humanity and the world as a whole
  3. value the freedom to make their own decisions and choices
  4. respect cultural, religious and individual differences

There was a difference. In the first three studies, people said they saw individuals as more traditionalistic than themselves. But when the study on wise people showed this not to be the case.


The authors see a paradox in their findings. If right wing and conservative people also see benevolence and universalism as a characteristics of wisdom, why do they vote for politicians who don't seem to espouse these values? Do these voters not value wisdom? Do they believe that wisdom is not relevant or feasible in politics? Don't they not recognize the lack of wisdom of these politicians? Are they just going along with the political preferences of their family and friends?

Exiting fear to suppress wisdom

I think that the success of unwise populists is mainly due to the following. By exiting fears - the fear that their own 'beautiful' culture is threatened from the outside, while the prevailing elite 'just allows it to happen' - these populists suppress the wisdom of these voters. Once afraid, they may lose their awareness that the populist is unwise and / or that wisdom is important. Out of fear they choose someone who is not wise.