Meet Our Researchers – Michel Ferrari


Dr. Michel Ferrari (University of Toronto) is PI for the SMV-funded research project “Motivating the Self to Virtue in Western and non-Western Countries: Does Nation or Faith Matter More?” His collaborators include researchers, Dr. Ricca Edmondson, Ms. Melanie Munroe (University of Toronto), and other researchers.

MICHEL FERRARI (PhD, Université du Québec à Montréal) is Professor of Applied Psychology and Human Development and head of the Wisdom and Identity Lab at the University of Toronto. His lab explores personal wisdom in people of different ages (from children to the elderly) in different countries around the world. Dr. Ferrari received his BA from the Liberal Arts College of Concordia University and his MA and PhD from the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM). He was a Postdoctoral Associate with Robert Sternberg at Yale University and a Research Associate with Michelene Chi and Kurt VanLehn at the Learning research and Development Center (LRDC) of the University of Pittsburgh. Dr. Ferrari has co-authored or co-edited twelve books and numerous scholarly articles and book chapters. You can learn more about Dr. Ferrari at his faculty webpage.

My current area of expertise is in developmental psychology as it relates to personal development, which extends to questions of personal wisdom as an ideal aspiration of personal development.  I came to this topic of wisdom and its relation to personal development through the study of expertise; more specifically, an interest in expert knowledge developed in pursuit of the best or most interesting life for oneself.  I came to believe that many current studies of personal development were very limited in their approach because they relied on questionnaires and general frames of reference developed in the west that focused on biological or sociocultural influences, but not on personally meaningful efforts to develop oneself. I was originally trained in the humanities, and so believe that concepts and understandings of human life can never be completely divorced from their sociocultural frame of reference, as filtered through our personal biography and what it means to us.

Originally, I was interested in the question of culturally informed personal wisdom in terms of national cultures and led an international study exploring this topic, extending beyond the classic east vs. west to include the Ukraine and Serbia; but I soon realized that personally meaningful wisdom is not just a matter of national or generational national differences, but also of religious differences that can span nationalities, whose conceptions of wisdom have developed historically over centuries; indeed, religious and philosophical traditions are often the guardians of any idea of wisdom that have been handed down to us (or at least in their most well-articulated forms).

In more recent years, two especially important styles of contemplative practice have caught my attention. The first style is broadly known as mindfulness, and in this area, my work has focused especially on understanding mindfulness in its many varieties but also in terms of its specific mechanisms. One key mechanism is the notion of “dereification,” which amounts simply to the capacity to experience one’s thoughts just as thoughts, and not as real representations of the world.

What I love about this area of research is that it addresses fundamental questions about what it means to be human and live a fulfilling life within the context of mundane day to day life and its concerns, which are nevertheless infused with deep and self-transcendent meaning. Many people have influenced me and my approach to these ideas, including: my MA supervisor, Adrien Pinard, for his open-minded engagement with intellectual questions and the world; my post-doctoral supervisor, Robert Sternberg, for his expansive understanding of intelligence, creativity and wisdom as they apply to everyday concerns in the world; also, the work of many friends writing about wisdom and its development too numerous to mention; and those writing in other areas, like Jens Brockmeier’s work on the interpenetration of personal and cultural meaning through narrative.

I met the other members of our research team through conferences, reading their writings, and sometimes, just sending them an email out of the blue inviting them to join me in creating an exciting project that met the demands for a specific call for proposals, including this proposal. Our relationship has evolved and continues to evolve just by working together. Monika Ardelt and I had already interviewed people in different countries, using a mix-method approach, about what wisdom means to them personally, in their own lives and in the lives of people they know personally and throughout history. Following on that project, I was interested to learn how moral virtue relates to wisdom (which many consider an intellectual virtue). If I define my field broadly as applied psychology, then wisdom and virtue are important to creating deeper and more personally significant, heartfelt knowledge able to alleviate anxiety and orient people in their lives for the betterment of themselves and their communities, in the fullest sense as citizens of the world.