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A psychological analysis of the concept of wisdom Holliday, Stephen George


The purpose of this project was to provide a psychologically based analysis of the concept of wisdom. Although wisdom has long been used to label competent people, psychologists have largely ignored wisdom in favour of such variables as intelligence. This study used a prototype analysis procedure to identify the attributes that characterize wise people together with the descriptors for intelligent, perceptive and other types of individuals. This served as a basis for describing wisdom and differentiating it from other competency descriptors. The study also examined generational differences in conceptions of wisdom and assessed the manner in which the prototype for wisdom influenced information processing. The project was divided into three studies. In Study I, groups of fifty young adults, middle aged adults and elderly adults provided descriptions of wise, intelligent and other types of individuals. In Study II, groups of subjects representing the same age cohorts rated the descriptors for wise people. An additional group of subjects rated descriptors associated with other categories. In Study III, thirty-eight young adults were administered a recognition memory task to assess the biasing effects of prototype descriptors. The results of Studies I and II indicated that wisdom is a well-defined, prototypically organized concept. Reliability analyses indicated within and between cohort agreement on the characteristics of wise people. Examination of overlap between categories indicated that wisdom was largely independent of other competency descriptors. A principal components analysis yielded five factors, which were labelled "Exceptional Understanding," "Judgement and Communication Skills," "Basic Competency," "Interpersonal Skills," and "Social Unobtrusiveness." The results of Study III indicated that people's memory processes were influenced by the prototypes of wise people. The evidence from Studies I, II and III suggest that wisdom may be viewed as a prototypically organized concept. These results both replicate previous studies and provide a more complete picture of the characteristics and abilities of wise people. The results are interpreted within a theory of development which emphasizes several factors that may contribute to the emergence of wisdom.

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