Psychologists uncover a list of characteristics shared across cultures in North America that shape today’s prototypical vision of “wisdom.”
Benjamin Franklin, Socrates, Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Teresa: All well-recognized names. In a recent study from Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, researchers studying Americans and Canadians found preferences for practical wisdom when people were asked to name important figures and tell stories about their wisdom.
Psychologists Nic Weststrate and Michel Ferrari (University of Toronto) along with Sociologist Monika Ardelt (University of Florida) studied average people to determine how everyday people understand wisdom and uncovered a set of characteristics shared across North America that shape today’s prototypical vision of “wisdom.”
“In North America, wisdom is a somewhat diverse concept—there is more than one way to be wise and each manifestation of wisdom has merits from a societal perspective,” says Weststrate.
The authors examined cultural-historical exemplars, provided by 209 Canadians and Americans in open-ended responses to a series of questions, and analyzed this research by generating three wisdom prototypes based on grouping the most prevalent examples from the first study.
Over 100 different exemplars were mentioned during the study, but certain names, like Mahatma Gandhi, Jesus Christ, Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King Jr., were more prevalent.
Weststrate and colleagues found that the most frequently mentioned exemplars clustered into three basic “wisdom” prototypes: practical (Lincoln, Franklin), philosophical (Socrates, King Solomon), and benevolent (MLK Jr, Mother Teresa). They completed this task by utilizing data from 202 Americans, who were presented with all possible pairings of the most commonly named exemplars and asked to rate how similar they were to each other.
While the benevolent and philosophical prototypes were often rated as wiser than the practical prototype, the researchers found 70% of the exemplars represented practical wisdom, 32% benevolent and 12% philosophical. Practical wisdom includes those who have insight into real-life issues and work strategically to deal with social problems.
“We hope this research influences our evolving understanding of the concept of wisdom as far as psychological theories are concerned,” says Weststrate. “Wisdom is a quintessentially “human” concept, so the average person should have a good sense of what it is—their perspectives are an important source of information for psychologists to consider.”
The authors remind us that no one type of wisdom is “best” and hope to conduct similar analyses across other cultures, “because the average person’s implicit theories are hugely affected by cultural factors,” says Weststrate. Further research could find other prototypes that “illuminate what people are striving for and how this differs regionally and globally.”
Nic M. Weststrate, Michel Ferrari, and Monika Ardelt. "The Many Faces of Wisdom: An Investigation of Cultural-Historical Wisdom Exemplars Reveals Practical, Philosophical, and Benevolent Prototypes", Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin online before print, April 2016. DOI: 10.1177/0146167216638075
Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (PSPB), published monthly, is an official journal of the Society of Personality and Social Psychology (SPSP). SPSP promotes scientific research that explores how people think, behave, feel, and interact. The Society is the largest organization of social and personality psychologists in the world. Follow us on Twitter, @SPSPnews and find us at facebook.com/SPSP.org.