Would you rather be wise or intelligent?
Most people would say, “both.” Wisdom and intelligence are both considered to be positive qualities. But these are often used interchangeably, which isn’t exactly correct.
In this video, I’m going to break down the definitions of wisdom and intelligence and discuss their role in psychology. Wisdom and intelligence are both associated with the brain, but they are just pieces in larger theories of psychology.
What Is Wisdom?
Let’s look at how the dictionary defines wisdom. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines “wisdom” as the “ability to discern inner qualities and relationships,” or “good judgement.” The Cambridge Dictionary offers a similar definition, although it clarifies that one uses their knowledge or experience to make decisions and judgements. Often, these decisions and judgements have to do with “right” and “wrong.”
When I ask you to picture a person who is “wise,” who do you picture? It might be your grandparents. Or an old philosopher. Maybe it’s the owl from Winnie the Pooh. Either way, it’s probably someone older. Our culture tends to associate wisdom with age.
At what age do you “gain” wisdom? When do you have a sense of right or wrong? That last question is not always easy to answer. Earlier developmental psychologists believed that children had a sense of right and wrong before they could read. But the reasons they have given for their conclusions don’t always take context, intention, or the cognitive abilities of the child into consideration. If a child associates punishment with “wrong” behavior, have they truly developed a sense of right and wrong?
Wisdom in Psychology
For many, wisdom isn’t just about having knowledge. It’s about seeking knowledge, and using it in different ways. Aristotle believed that wisdom could be used to seek truth and explore things that were bigger than ourselves. He also believed that wisdom could be used to make good decisions in everyday life.
More current theories of wisdom focus more on the practical application of wisdom. For example, American psychologist Robert Sternberg has developed a “balance” theory of wisdom. He defines wisdom as “the use of one’s intelligence, creativity, common 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.”
Wisdom, according to Sternberg, requires more than just intelligence. And he argues that wisdom could be more important than intelligence. He says, “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.”
What Is Intelligence?
Wisdom could be more important than intelligence. But, as Sternberg says, college admissions officers aren’t exactly looking for the wisest students. They’re looking for scores that access a student’s intelligence.
Intelligence is more likely to be tested than wisdom. It certainly appears to be easier to test than wisdom. But as you’ll see, intelligence tests may not be what they’re cracked up to be.
Before we dive into intelligence, let’s talk about the definition of this term.
Merriam-Webster defines intelligence as “the ability to learn or understand or to deal with new or trying situations.” Cambridge says it’s “the ability to learn, understand, and make judgments or have opinions that are based on reason.” Whereas wisdom is based on right and wrong, intelligence deals more with practical facts.
Intelligence in Psychology
Robert Sternberg also has a theory of intelligence, known as the “Triarchic Theory of Intelligence.” He also agrees that intelligence deals more with the practical decisions in everyday life. His theory suggests that “successful intelligence is made up of three types of intelligence:
- Analytical intelligence (the ability to solve problems)
- Creative intelligence (the ability to use experience and skills to adapt to new environments)
- Practical intelligence (the ability to adapt to changing environments)
Sternberg is not the first psychologist to propose that there are multiple types of intelligence. Some might say that his theory is a response to Howard Gardener’s theory on the nine types of intelligence. These types include verbal-linguistic intelligence, musical intelligence, and bodily-kinesthetic intelligence.
Measuring Intelligence in Psychology
These theories of multiple intelligences are relatively new. One could argue that they are a response to the way that intelligence was defined and measured throughout the 20th century.
The first intelligence test was developed in 1904, the same year that “general intelligence” was introduced by British psychologist Charles Spearman. But the tests that we use nowadays look very different than the original IQ tests. Modifications to the tests have attempted to adapt to the changing world, as well as overcome racial or cultural biases that were present in earlier versions of these tests.
IQ tests still exist today, including the popular Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale. But as psychologists explore different types of intelligence, one number doesn’t always seem sufficient to measure your ability to understand the world.
Wisdom Vs. Intelligence
Gardener’s theory of multiple intelligences has been around since the 80s, but like the definition of measurement of intelligence, it continues to change. In 2009, Gardener proposed that a “moral” intelligence could also be included in his list of multiple intelligences.
Would you consider “moral” intelligence to be wisdom? Or, like Sternberg, do you believe that wisdom requires more than intelligence: it requires creativity, common sense, and other types of knowledge?
Let’s sum things up.
If people consider you to be wise, it’s likely that they consider you to be intelligent as well. But you can be “intelligent” without being wise. Someone can acquire a lot of skills and knowledge without having a moral compass. Knowing the difference between right and wrong, and using that knowledge to make decisions, is what makes you wise.