Motivating the Self to Virtue

Motivating the Self to Virtue in Western and non-Western Countries: Does Nation or Faith Matter More?

Michel Ferrari, Ph.D. (PI)
Professor and Head of Department of Human Development & Applied Psychology
University of Toronto, ON, Canada

Monika Ardelt, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Sociology, Criminology & Law
University of Florida, Gainsville, FL

Hyeyoung Bang, Ph.D.
Associate Professor, School of Educational Foundations, Leadership & Policy
Bowling Green State University, Bowling Green, OH

Michael Connell, Ed.D.
Cognitive Scientist and Co-Founder of Native Brain
Arlington, MA

Ricca Edmondson, D.Phil.
Emerita Professor in the School of Political Science and Sociology
National University of Ireland, Galway Ireland

Gilles Mongeau, S.J., Th.D.
Associate Professor of Theology
Regis College & Toronto School of Theology, University of Toronto, Canada

John Vervaeke, Ph.D.
Lecturer in Psychology, Buddhism and Mental Health Program
University of Toronto, ON, Canada

Project Summary

This research team addressed the following question: How do people motivate themselves to behave as virtuously and wisely as they can, and how do nation, religious faith, age, and/or wisdom contribute to this? We examined virtue and wisdom together because, historically and theoretically, they have been seen as integrally connected. To answer this question, they interviewed people from 4 faith conditions (Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, and Agnostic), in 2 countries (Canada and South-Korea).

In Study 1, participants came from two age groups at opposite ends of adulthood, with potentially very different views of the motivations that inspire a virtuous self: (1) emerging adults (age 18-25) and (2) retired older adults (age 60-80). The team interviewed about 30 people for each faith condition. Participants were asked about their understanding of virtue and how they might attempt to achieve virtue in their own lives, acknowledging that these faiths regard selves as needing support from faithful communities.  Since the team used a mixed method approach, they also had participants complete a set of self-report questionnaires about religious faith, wisdom, self-construal, values and quality of life. In addition, younger participants used the Multiplayer Simulation for Researching Effective Interpersonal Dynamics, developed through research supported by the John Templeton Foundation, that allows the study of how individuals make decisions about dynamic, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous situations.

Study 2 further explored these issues with in-depth case studies of exemplary people in each country in different faith conditions, including exemplary agnostics. The project team adapted methods developed within the autobiographical analysis of experiences of wisdom and narrative phenomenology to analyze participant responses, and to compare interview data with questionnaire measures of self, motivation, and virtue—both moral virtues like empathy and compassion and intellectual virtues such as wisdom. The main innovation of this project was to explore the cultural determinants and universality of virtue, and whether understandings of virtue are more commonly shared within national cultures or within religious faiths using a variety of formats that allow for both universalist (statistical analyses) and indigenous (interview narrative) perspectives.

Significant Research Accomplishments

In addition to transcribing all interviews (not just extreme cases), the conducted statistical analyses comparing countries and religious faiths (Ferrari et al., under review) and analyzed the highest and lowest wisdom-score participant interviews to look for differences in their understanding of wisdom and virtue. This research formed the basis of an MA thesis (Kim, 2017; Kim, Ferrari & Vervaeke, in preparation), co-supervised by Dr. Ferrari and Dr. Vervaeke.

The team reconceptualized study 2 late in the project to make it a set of detailed case studies of a few exemplary figures in each faith condition in each country. Rather than conducting case studies based only on participant nomination, the team decided to conduct case studies for participant nominees who had a clear public profile that seemed noteworthy. The project team conducted 18 interviews in South Korea, results of which will be presented later this year (Bang & Kerr, 2018). One remarkable interview has already been published (Bang, 2017).  In Canada, the team was able to complete only 2 interviews, with 3 more planned in the coming weeks and a total of 8 to 12 planned in total, using other funds. All these are interviews with exemplars at the intersection of various faith conditions (e.g., a Christian minister who believes in the important message of the historical Jesus, but not in a personal God, and so is an avowed atheist.).


  • Edmondson, R. (2017, May). Qualitative methods for researching in cultural contexts: Examples from investigating wisdom. Keynote address presented at the Festival of Methods, University of Jyväsklä, Finland.
  • Edmondson, R. (2017, May). (How) Is it possible to measure wisdom? Paper presented at the Festival of Methods, University of Jyväsklä, Finland.
  • Edmondson, R. (2017, April). Wisdom, ageing and “the light of experience.” Paper presented at the Conference of the European Network of Ageing Studies / 9th Symposium on Cultural Gerontology, Graz, Austria.
  • Edmondson, R. (2016, September). Wisdom, compassion, cosmopolitanism: Tracing and appreciating wisdom in everyday life. Keynote address presented at Helsinki.
  • Edmondson, R. (2016b). Rethinking interdisciplinarity. Presented at Summary conference on Rethinking Ageing and Memory through Interdisciplinary Research, Irish Research Council, Dublin, May.
  • Edmondson, R. & Rau, H. (2017, May). Critical visualization in environmental research: Interdisciplinarity in practice. Paper presented at the Rachel Carson Centre, Ludwig-Maximilian-Universität München, Germany.
  • Edmondson, R. & Woerner, M. (2017, October). Sociocultural constituents of the concept of wisdom: Traditions and counter-traditions. Keynote address presented at the Symposium on the Concept of Wisdom, University of Jyväskylä, Finland.
  • Ferrari, M. Munroe, M., Ardelt, M. & Edmondson, R. (2017). Comparing everyday moral and epistemic exemplars. Paper presented at the Conference on Exemplars and Exemplarism. Genoa, Italy.

Publications & Manuscripts

  • Bang, H. (2017). Buddhism and Up (Karma): A Buddhist priest’s wisdom to help suffering: A conversation with Ji-Gong Bob-Sa.  Journal of Global Mental Health and Traditional Healing, 1, 85-102.
  • Edmondson, R., Ferrari, M., Ardelt, M. & Bang, H. (in press). Integrating ‘Cultures of Reasoning’: Interdisciplinary Research on Motivating the Self to Wisdom and Virtue. Invited chapter for the SMV Edited Volume.
  • Ferrari, M. (2017). Introduction to Wisdom of the Elders Section. Journal of Global Mental Health and Traditional Healing, 1, 55-58.
  • Ferrari, M. & Alhoseini, F. (in press/2018). Cultural differences in wisdom and conceptions of wisdom.  In R.J. Sternberg & J. Glück (Eds.). Cambridge Handbook of wisdom (2nd. Ed.). New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
  • Ferrari, M. et al. (Under Review). Educating for virtue: The weight of Canadian and South Korean informal, non-formal, and formal education in motivation to virtue. Submitted to the Journal of Moral Education for the SMV Project Special Issue.
  • Ferrari, M. & Kim, J. (in press/2018). Educating for Wisdom. In R.J. Sternberg & J.Glück (Eds.). Cambridge Handbook of wisdom (2nd. Ed.). New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
  • Kim, J. Vervaeke, J. & Ferrari, M. (in preparation). Why the psychology of religion must be concerned with wisdom (and vice versa).


2017 Conference