Journal of Adult Development

, Volume 17, Issue 4, pp 193–207 | Cite as

Are Older Adults Wiser Than College Students? A Comparison of Two Age Cohorts

  • Monika ArdeltEmail author


This study examined whether (a) older adults are wiser than college students, (b) college-educated older adults are wiser than current college students, and (c) wise older adults show evidence of personal growth. Using a sample of 477 undergraduate college students and 178 older adults (age 52+), results showed that college students tended to score as high on the self-administered three-dimensional wisdom scale (3D-WS) as older adults. However, college-educated older adults tended to score significantly higher on the reflective and affective dimensions of wisdom and the overall score of the 3D-WS and than did current college students. Qualitative evidence suggests that many older adults, particularly in the top 20% of wisdom scorers, grew wiser with age by learning from life experiences. The results indicate that wisdom might increase with age for individuals with the opportunity and motivation to pursue its development.


Wisdom Age differences College education Older adults Personal growth 



I would like to thank Orli Zaprir and Steve Jacobs for suggestions and comments on an earlier draft. Special thanks go to Anthony Stewart, Steve Jacobs, Orli Zaprir, Carla Edwards, Anna Campbell, Lisa Hamilton, Stephen Mayer, Dana Federici, Amy Monk, Brad Tripp, Elizabeth Brown, and Yvonne Combs for their help at various stages of the research project and to the research participants for their time and commitment to the study. The research was in part supported by a grant from NIH/NIA (R03 AG14855-01), a Research Initiation Project Award from the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Florida, a grant from the John T. Templeton Foundation, and by the University of Florida Center for Spirituality and Health. A previous version of this paper was presented at the 2006 Annual Meetings of the Gerontological Society of America in Dallas, Texas.


  1. Achenbaum, A. W., & Orwoll, L. (1991). Becoming wise: A psycho-gerontological interpretation of the Book of Job. International Journal of Aging and Human Development, 32(1), 21–39.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  2. Ardelt, M. (1997). Wisdom and life satisfaction in old age. Journal of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences, 52B(1), P15–P27.Google Scholar
  3. Ardelt, M. (1998). Social crisis and individual growth: The long-term effects of the great depression. Journal of Aging Studies, 12(3), 291–314.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Ardelt, M. (2000a). Intellectual versus wisdom-related knowledge: The case for a different kind of learning in the later years of life. Educational Gerontology: An International Journal of Research and Practice, 26(8), 771–789.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Ardelt, M. (2000b). Still stable after all these years? Personality stability theory revisited. Social Psychology Quarterly, Special Millennium Issue on the State of Sociological Social Psychology, 63(4), 392–405.Google Scholar
  6. Ardelt, M. (2003). Development and empirical assessment of a three-dimensional wisdom scale. Research on Aging, 25(3), 275–324.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Ardelt, M. (2004). Wisdom as expert knowledge system: A critical review of a contemporary operationalization of an ancient concept. Human Development, 47(5), 257–285.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Ardelt, M. (2005). How wise people cope with crises and obstacles in life. ReVision: A Journal of Consciousness and Transformation, 28(1), 7–19.Google Scholar
  9. Ardelt, M. (2006). Set in their ways?—Personality stability and change in women and men across forty years. In J. Z. Arlsdale (Ed.), Advances in social psychology research (pp. 37–67). New York: Nova Science.Google Scholar
  10. Ardelt, M., & Jacobs, S. (2009). Wisdom, integrity, and life satisfaction in very old age. In M. C. Smith & T. G. Reio (Eds.), Handbook of research on adult development and learning. Hillsdale, NY: Lawrence Erlbaum (in press).Google Scholar
  11. Assmann, A. (1994). Wholesome knowledge: Concepts of wisdom in a historical and cross-cultural perspective. In D. L. Featherman, R. M. Lerner, & M. Perlmutter (Eds.), Life-span development and behavior (Vol. 12, pp. 187–224). Hillsdale, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum.Google Scholar
  12. Baltes, P. B. (1993). The aging mind: Potential and limits. The Gerontologist, 33(5), 580–594.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  13. Baltes, P. B., & Freund, A. M. (2003). The intermarriage of wisdom and selective optimization with compensation: Two meta-heuristics guiding the conduct of life. In C. L. M. Keyes & J. Haidt (Eds.), Flourishing: Positive psychology and the life well-lived (pp. 249–273). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Baltes, P. B., & Smith, J. (1990). Towards a psychology of wisdom and its ontogenesis. In R. J. Sternberg (Ed.), Wisdom: Its nature, origins, and development (pp. 87–120). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  15. Baltes, P. B., & Smith, J. (2008). The fascination of wisdom: Its nature, ontogeny, and function. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 3(1), 56–64.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Baltes, P. B., & Staudinger, U. M. (2000). Wisdom: A metaheuristic (pragmatic) to orchestrate mind and virtue toward excellence. American Psychologist, 55(1), 122–136.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  17. Baltes, P. B., Staudinger, U. M., Maercker, A., & Smith, J. (1995). People nominated as wise: A comparative study of wisdom-related knowledge. Psychology and Aging, 10(2), 155–166.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  18. Barbieri, P. (1997). Habitual desires: The destructive nature of expressing your anger. International Journal of Reality Therapy, 17(1), 17–23.Google Scholar
  19. Blanchard-Fields, F., & Norris, L. (1995). The development of wisdom. In M. A. Kimble, S. H. McFadden, J. W. Ellor, & J. J. Seeber (Eds.), Aging, spirituality, and religion. A handbook (pp. 102–118). Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.Google Scholar
  20. Bluck, S., & Glück, J. (2004). Making things better and learning a lesson: Experiencing wisdom across the lifespan. Journal of Personality, 72(3), 543–572.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  21. Brugman, G. M. (2006). Wisdom and aging. In J. E. Birren & K. W. Schaie (Eds.), Handbook of the psychology of aging (6th ed., pp. 445–476). San Diego, CA: Academic Press.Google Scholar
  22. Caspi, A., Roberts, B. W., & Shiner, R. L. (2005). Personality development: Stability and change. Annual Review of Psychology, 56, 453–483.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  23. Chandler, M. J., & Holliday, S. (1990). Wisdom in a postapocalyptic age. In R. J. Sternberg (Ed.), Wisdom: Its nature, origins, and development (pp. 121–141). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  24. Clayton, V. P., & Birren, J. E. (1980). The development of wisdom across the life-span: A reexamination of an ancient topic. In P. B. Baltes & O. G. Brim Jr (Eds.), Life-span development and behavior (Vol. 3, pp. 103–135). New York: Academic Press.Google Scholar
  25. Cohn, L. D. (1998). Age trends in personality development: A quantitative review. In P. M. Westenberg, A. Blasi, & L. D. Cohn (Eds.), Personality development: Theoretical, empirical, and clinical investigations of Loevinger’s conception of ego development (pp. 133–143). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.Google Scholar
  26. Colby, A., Kohlberg, L., Gibbs, J., & Lieberman, M. (1994). A longitudinal study of moral judgment. In B. Puka (Ed.), New research in moral development (pp. 1–124). New York: Garland Publishing.Google Scholar
  27. Csikszentmihalyi, M., & Rathunde, K. (1990). The psychology of wisdom: An evolutionary interpretation. In R. J. Sternberg (Ed.), Wisdom: Its nature, origins, and development (pp. 25–51). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  28. Dittmann-Kohli, F., & Baltes, P. B. (1990). Toward a neofunctionalist conception of adult intellectual development: Wisdom as a prototypical case of intellectual growth. In C. N. Alexander & E. J. Langer (Eds.), Higher stages of human development. Perspectives on adult growth (pp. 54–78). New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  29. Fisher, R. J. (2000). The future of social-desirability bias research in marketing. Psychology & Marketing, 17(2), 73–77.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Gurucharri, C., & Selman, R. L. (1982). The development of interpersonal understanding during childhood, preadolescence, and adolescence: A longitudinal follow-up study. Child Development, 53(4), 924–927.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Helson, R., Kwan, V. S. Y., John, O. P., & Jones, C. (2002). The growing evidence for personality change in adulthood: Findings from research with personality inventories. Journal of Research in Personality, 36(4), 287–306.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Helson, R., & Moane, G. (1987). Personality change in women from college to midlife. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 53(1), 176–186.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  33. Helson, R., & Srivastava, S. (2002). Creative and wise people: Similarities, differences and how they develop. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 28(10), 1430–1440.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Helson, R., & Wink, P. (1992). Personality change in women from the early 40s to the early 50s. Psychology and Aging, 7(1), 46–55.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  35. Holliday, S. G., & Chandler, M. J. (1986). Wisdom: Explorations in adult competence. Basel, New York: Karger.Google Scholar
  36. Jordan, J. (2005). The quest for wisdom in adulthood: A psychological perspective. In R. J. Sternberg & J. Jordan (Eds.), A handbook of wisdom. Psychological perspectives (pp. 160–188). New York: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Kekes, J. (1983). Wisdom. American Philosophical Quarterly, 20(3), 277–286.Google Scholar
  38. Kekes, J. (1995). Moral wisdom and good lives. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.Google Scholar
  39. Kohlberg, L., & Puka, B. (1994). Kohlberg’s original study of moral development. New York: Garland Publishing.Google Scholar
  40. Körner, A., Geyer, M., Gunzelmann, T., & Brähler, E. (2003). Persönlichkeitsmerkmale über 60-jähriger im Kontext sozio-demographischer Faktoren [The influence of socio-demographic factors on personality dimensions in the elderly]. Zeitschrift für Gerontologie und Geriatrie, 36(2), 130–137.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  41. Kramer, D. A. (1990). Conceptualizing wisdom: The primacy of affect-cognition relations. In R. J. Sternberg (Ed.), Wisdom: Its nature, origins, and development (pp. 279–313). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  42. Kramer, D. A. (2000). Wisdom as a classical source of human strength: Conceptualization and empirical inquiry. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 19(1), 83–101.Google Scholar
  43. Kunzmann, U., & Baltes, P. B. (2005). The psychology of wisdom: Theoretical and empirical challenges. In R. J. Sternberg & J. Jordan (Eds.), A handbook of wisdom. Psychological perspectives (pp. 110–135). New York: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Levitt, H. M. (1999). The development of wisdom: An analysis of Tibetan Buddhist experience. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 39(2), 86–105.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Loevinger, J. (1998). Ego development in adolescence. In R. E. Muuss & H. D. Porton (Eds.), Adolescent behavior and society: A book of readings (5th ed., pp. 234–240). New York: McGraw-Hill.Google Scholar
  46. Manheimer, R. J. (1992). Wisdom and method: Philosophical contributions to gerontology. In T. R. Cole, D. D. Van Tassel, & R. Kastenbaum (Eds.), Handbook of the humanities and aging (pp. 426–440). New York: Springer.Google Scholar
  47. McCrae, R. R., Costa, P. T., Jr, Terracciano, A., Parker, W. D., Mills, C. J., De Fruyt, F., et al. (2002). Personality trait development from age 12 to age 18: Longitudinal, cross-sectional and cross-cultural analyses. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83(6), 1456–1468.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  48. McKee, P., & Barber, C. (1999). On defining wisdom. International Journal of Aging and Human Development, 49(2), 149–164.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  49. Moody, H. R. (1986). Late life learning in the information society. In D. A. Peterson, J. E. Thornton, & J. E. Birren (Eds.), Education and aging (pp. 122–148). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.Google Scholar
  50. Mroczek, D. K., & Spiro, A., I. I. I. (2003). Modeling intraindividual change in personality traits: Findings from the Normative Aging Study. Journals of Gerontology. Series B, Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences, 58B(3), P153–P165.Google Scholar
  51. Osbeck, L. M., & Robinson, D. N. (2005). Philosophical theories of wisdom. In R. J. Sternberg & J. Jordan (Eds.), A handbook of wisdom. Psychological perspectives (pp. 61–83). New York: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Park, C. L. (1998). Stress-related growth and thriving through coping: The roles of personality and cognitive processes. Journal of Social Issues, 54(2), 267–277.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Park, C. L., & Fenster, J. R. (2004). Stress-related growth: Predictors of occurrence and correlates with psychological adjustment. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 23(2), 195–215.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Pascual-Leone, J. (1990). An essay on wisdom: Toward organismic processes that make it possible. In R. J. Sternberg (Ed.), Wisdom: Its nature, origins, and development (pp. 244–278). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  55. Pasupathi, M., & Staudinger, U. M. (2001). Do advanced moral reasoners also show wisdom? Linking moral reasoning and wisdom-related knowledge and judgement. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 25(5), 401–415.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Pasupathi, M., Staudinger, U. M., & Baltes, P. B. (2001). Seeds of wisdom: Adolescents’ knowledge and judgment about difficult life problems. Developmental Psychology, 37(3), 351–361.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  57. Piaget, J. (1952). The origins of intelligence in children. Oxford, England: International Universities Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Piaget, J. (1970). Piaget’s theory. In P. H. Mussen (Ed.), Carmichael’s manual of child psychology (3rd ed., Vol. I, pp. 703–732). New York: Wiley.Google Scholar
  59. Post, S. G. (2005). Altruism, happiness, and health: It’s good to be good. International Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 12(2), 66–77.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  60. 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.Google Scholar
  61. Richardson, M. J., & Pasupathi, M. (2005). Young and growing wiser: Wisdom during adolescence and young adulthood. In R. J. Sternberg & J. Jordan (Eds.), A handbook of wisdom. Psychological perspectives (pp. 139–159). New York: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. Roberts, B. W., & DelVecchio, W. F. (2000). The rank-order consistency of personality traits from childhood to old age: A quantitative review of longitudinal studies. Psychological Bulletin, 126(1), 3–25.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  63. Rottinghaus, P. J., Lindley, L. D., Green, M. A., & Borgen, F. H. (2002). Educational aspirations: The contribution of personality, self-efficacy, and interests. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 61(1), 1–19.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  64. Ryff, C. D., & Keyes, C. L. M. (1995). The structure of psychological well-being revisited. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 69(4), 719–727.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  65. Smith, J., & Baltes, P. B. (1990). Wisdom-related knowledge: Age/cohort differences in response to life-planning problems. Developmental Psychology, 26(3), 494–505.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  66. Smith, J., Staudinger, U. M., & Baltes, P. B. (1994). Occupational settings facilitating wisdom-related knowledge: The sample case of clinical psychologists. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 62(5), 989–999.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  67. Sorrentino, R. M., Raynor, J. O., Zubek, J. M., & Short, J.-A. C. (1990). Personality functioning and change: Informational and affective influences on cognitive, moral, and social development. In E. T. Higgins & R. M. Sorrentino (Eds.), Handbook of motivation and cognition: Foundations of social behavior (2nd ed., pp. 193–228). New York: Guilford Press.Google Scholar
  68. Speca, M., Carlson, L. E., Goodey, E., & Angen, M. (2000). A randomized, wait-list controlled clinical trial: The effect of a mindfulness meditation-based stress reduction program on mood and symptoms of stress in cancer outpatients. Psychosomatic Medicine, 62(5), 613–622.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  69. Staudinger, U. M. (1999). Older and wiser? Integrating results on the relationship between age and wisdom-related performance. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 23(3), 641–664.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  70. Staudinger, U. M., & Kunzmann, U. (2005). Positive adult personality development: Adjustment and/or growth? European Psychologist, 10(4), 320–329.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  71. Staudinger, U. M., Maciel, A. G., Smith, J., & Baltes, P. B. (1998). What predicts wisdom-related performance? A first look at personality, intelligence, and facilitative experiential contexts. European Journal of Personality, 12(1), 1–17.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  72. Staudinger, U. M., Smith, J., & Baltes, P. B. (1992). Wisdom-related knowledge in a life review task: Age differences and the role of professional specialization. Psychology and Aging, 7(2), 271–281.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  73. Sternberg, R. J. (1990a). Wisdom and its relations to intelligence and creativity. In R. J. Sternberg (Ed.), Wisdom: Its nature, origins, and development (pp. 142–159). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  74. Sternberg, R. J. (Ed.). (1990b). Wisdom: Its nature, origins, and development. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  75. Sternberg, R. J. (1998). A balance theory of wisdom. Review of General Psychology, 2(4), 347–365.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  76. Sternberg, R. J. (2000). Intelligence and wisdom. In R. J. Sternberg (Ed.), Handbook of intelligence (pp. 631–649). New York: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  77. Sternberg, R. J. (2001). Why schools should teach for wisdom: The balance theory of wisdom in educational settings. Educational Psychologist, 36(4), 227–245.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  78. Sternberg, R. J. (2005). Older but not wiser? The relationship between age and wisdom. Ageing International, 30(1), 5–26.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  79. Sternberg, R. J., & Jordan, J. (Eds.). (2005). A handbook of wisdom. Psychological perspectives. New York: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  80. Takahashi, M., & Bordia, P. (2000). The concept of wisdom: A cross-cultural comparison. International Journal of Psychology, 35(1), 1–9.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  81. Takahashi, M., & Overton, W. F. (2002). Wisdom: A culturally inclusive developmental perspective. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 26(3), 269–277.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  82. Taranto, M. A. (1989). Facets of wisdom: A theoretical synthesis. International Journal of Aging and Human Development, 29(1), 1–21.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  83. Terracciano, A., McCrae, R. R., & Costa, P. T., Jr. (2006). Longitudinal trajectories in Guilford-Zimmerman temperament survey data: Results from the Baltimore longitudinal study of aging. Journals of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences & Social Sciences, 61B(2), P108–P116.Google Scholar
  84. Toner, J., & Rountree, M. (2003). Transformative and educative power of critical thinking. Inquiry: Critical Thinking Across the Disciplines, 23(1–2), 81–85.Google Scholar
  85. U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Survey. (2005). Percent of people 25 years and over who have completed high school or college, by race, hispanic origin and sex: Selected years 1940 to 2004. Retrieved October 4, 2006, from
  86. Vaillant, G. E. (1977). Adaptation to life. Boston: Little, Brown.Google Scholar
  87. Weber, M. (1980). Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft. Grundriss der verstehenden Soziologie [Economy and society. An outline of interpretive sociology] (5th revised ed.). Tübingen: Mohr.Google Scholar
  88. Webster, J. D. (2003). An exploratory analysis of a self-assessed wisdom scale. Journal of Adult Development, 10(1), 13–22.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  89. Wink, P., & Helson, R. (1997). Practical and transcendent wisdom: Their nature and some longitudinal findings. Journal of Adult Development, 4(1), 1–15.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Sociology and Criminology & LawUniversity of FloridaGainesvilleUSA

Personalised recommendations