Just by answering 39 questions one can find out just how wise they really are.

Take the quiz.

On May 6, 2007 The New York Times Magazine ran an article by Stephen S. Hall entitled Can Science Tell Us Who Grows Wiser? I admit that I was skeptical about this piece before I read it. Just what definition of wisdom were these scientists using, and how does one go about measuring such a concept? That was just my intuition, my gut feeling. I have not studied psychology, sociology, or even philosophy (I just muddle my way through various books, magazines, and blogs), and so I could not bring a credible argument to counter the assumptions laid out in the title. Of course, I went on to read the article.

The article was not very revealing about what wisdom actually is, although it did present various researchers’ attempts at pinning this elusive subject to the mat.

Certain qualities associated with wisdom recur in the academic literature: emotional resiliency and the ability to cope in the face of adversity; an openness to other possibilities; forgiveness; humility; and a knack for learning from lifetime experiences.

What emerged from that analysis was that wisdom meant a lot of different things. But it was always associated with knowledge, frequently applied to human social situations, involved judgment and reflection and was almost always embedded in a component of compassion.

… defined wisdom as “an expert knowledge system concerning the fundamental pragmatics of life.”

I don’t have any problem with the work that these researchers are doing. They are “pushing the envelope” and taking risks as is often the case with scientists. And I especially applaud their attempts at defining wisdom. As a wannabe philosopher myself, I can certainly relate to their desire for a greater understanding of what knowledge is and how it changes over a person’s lifetime and whether or not this knowledge ever transforms into wisdom. As the writer Stephen S. Hall notes:

But there is a delicious paradox at the heart of the study of wisdom. As difficult as it is to define, the mere contemplation of a definition is an irresistible exercise that says a lot about who we aspire to become over the course of a lifetime and what we value as a society.

But when they conduct experiments to measure a person’s wisdom, I just can’t suspend my disbelief. I’m reminded of the song by Jim Croce that begins: If I could save time in a bottle…. Or maybe from the Sound of Music: How do you solve a problem like Maria? How do you catch a cloud and pin it down? It’s the catching it and putting it in a bottle that I question.

Later the article examines research on how the brain controls our emotions over time, and how a more balanced set of emotions might contribute to or be a sign of wisdom. Much of the research involves the elderly and examining their quality of life, which I also applaud. Overall the story was informative.

Here’s my favorite definition of wisdom found in the article and it comes from psychologist Erik Erikson:

he described [wisdom] as “ego integrity versus despair”

And now to the quiz. Monika Ardelt a researcher mentioned in the article has come up with a set of 39 questions which she uses to measure a person’s wisdom. The NYTimes has provided an online version. Take the quiz and see how you do.

On my first go I rated a 4.1 (the top third) and I tried to be honest but as Hall writes about taking this quiz:

There is, of course, something utterly quixotic about assessing human wisdom on the basis of a self-report test in which subjects agree or disagree with statements like “People are either good or bad” and “I always try to look at all sides of a problem.”

My second time through I answered as I imagined the test thought a wise person would or should, and that time I scored 4.9 (the highest being 5.0). Lastly I went back and took it a third time, and this time I was really hard on myself not to answer as if my ego were at stake (remember that quote from Erikson) but as truthfully as I could, and not surprisingly my score dropped to 3.1 (just above that lower third of people with little wisdom). Somehow this exercise raised even more questions. Odds are that we will never know for sure that what we’ve caught in that bottle is wisdom, or not.