Balance Theory of Wisdom

The balance theory defines wisdom as the use of one’s intelligence, creativity, commone sense, and knowledge and as mediated by positive ethical values toward the achievement of a common good through a balance among (a) intrapersonal, (b) interpersonal, and (c) extrapersonal interests, over the (a) short and (b) long terms to achieve a balance among (a) adaptation to existing environments, (b) shaping of existing environments, and (c) selection of new environments.

First, wise decisions do not just require intelligence and explicit knowledge, they typically draw on or tacit, or implicit, knowledge gained through experience as well (see discussion of tacit knowledge under theory of practical intelligence).

Second, the definition draws heavily on the idea of balance: the balance among multiple interests, immediate and lasting consequences, and environmental responses. Balance needs to exist, not only for intrapersonal interests, but also for interpersonal and extrapersonal interests, as well as among the environmental responses. What are these different interests and responses? Intrapersonal interests affect only the individual. They have to do with one’s own sense of identity and may include such things as the desire for self-actualization, popularity, prestige, power, prosperity, or pleasure. Interpersonal interests involve other people. They relate not only to one’s sense of self but also to desirable relationships with others. Extrapersonal interests are those that affect a wider organization, community, country, or environment. In addition to multiple interests, the consequences of each decision are assessed in order to balance short- and long-term objectives.

Third, the balance in the balance theory of wisdom does not mean that each interest, consequence, or response is weighted equally. The relative “weightings” are determined by the extent to which a particular alternative contributes to the achievement of a common good.  Obviously, there is no obvious nor consensually accepted definition of “common good.”  A large part of wisdom is in finding a truly common good and in persuading others of its suitability.

Although currently, our societies tend to emphasize analytical intelligence in their assessments of individuals in school, college, and beyond, one could argue that assessments of wisdom would be more valuable.  When citizens and leaders fail in the pursuit of their duties, it is more likely to be for lack of wisdom than for lack of analytical intelligence.  In particular, failed citizens and leaders are likely to be foolish—to show unrealistic optimism, egocentrism, false omniscience, false omnipotence, false invulnerability, and ethical disengagement in their thinking and decision making.  In other words, they fail not for a lack of conventional intelligence, but rather for a lack of wisdom.



Key References

Sternberg, R. J. (1985). Implicit theories of intelligence, creativity, and wisdom. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 49(3), 607–627.

Sternberg, R. J. (1990). Wisdom and its relations to intelligence and creativity. In R. J. Sternberg (Ed.), Wisdom: Its nature, origins, and development (pp. 142–159). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Sternberg, R.J. (1998) A balance theory of wisdom. Review of General Psychology, 2, 347-365.

Sternberg, R. J. (2001). Why schools should teach for wisdom: The balance theory of wisdom in educational settings. Educational Psychologist, 36(4), 227–245.

Sternberg, R. J. (2003). Wisdom, intelligence, and creativity synthesized. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Reznitskaya, A., & Sternberg, R. J. (2004). Teaching students to make wise judgments: The “teaching for wisdom” program. In P. A. Linley, & S. Joseph (Eds.) Positive psychology in practice, (pp. 181-196). New York: Wiley.

Sternberg, R. J. (2004). What is wisdom and how can we develop it? The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 591, 164–174.

Sternberg, R. J. (2005). Foolishness. In R. J. Sternberg & J. Jordan (Eds.), Handbook of wisdom: Psychological perspectives (pp. 331–352). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Sternberg, R. J. (2005). Older but not wiser? The relationship between age and wisdom. Ageing International, 30(1), 5–26.

Sternberg, R. J., Reznitskaya, A. & Jarvin, L. (2007). Teaching for wisdom: What matters is not just what students know, but how they use it. The London Review of Education, 5 (2), 143-158. 

Sternberg, R. J., Jarvin, L., & Reznitskaya, A. (2008). Teaching of wisdom through history: Infusing wise thinking skills in the school curriculum. In M. Ferrari & G. Potworowski (Eds.), Teaching for wisdom (pp. 37-57). New York: Springer.

Karelitz, T. M., Jarvin, L., & Sternberg, R. J. (2010).  The meaning of wisdom and its development throughout life.  In W. Overton (Ed.), Handbook of lifespan human development (pp. 837-881).  New York: Wiley.