New research center becomes first to focus on wisdom

While people search for wisdom throughout their lives, it long has been overlooked as a topic for rigorous scholarship and scientific investigation.

That’s changing at UChicago, which recently launched the Center for Practical Wisdom. The first-of-its-kind center is being started with $2 million from the John Templeton Foundation.

“Wisdom is not a myth or something lost in classical times, but rather a real aspect of human psychology,” said Howard Nusbaum, professor of psychology, who will serve as the center’s first director. “It is not a property of a certain rare few people, but rather a skill that can be acquired through experience.”

The center will be housed in the Department of Psychology and be internationally focused and interdisciplinary in its approach—incorporating neuroscience, economics and philosophy.

“There are other scholars and labs that study wisdom and wisdom-related topics, but this center is the first of its kind in the world,” said Brenda Huskey, executive director of the center.

The mission of the center is to deepen the scientific understanding of wisdom and its role in the decisions and choices that affect everyday life. “We want to understand how people develop wisdom, and the circumstances in which people are more likely to make wiser decisions,” Huskey said. “The goal is to understand how to gain, reinforce and apply wisdom in order to help create wiser individuals, institutions and societies.”

The center is the latest step in a growing focus at UChicago on wisdom studies. It started with the Defining Wisdom project (2007-2011), which supported early-career scholars around the world and culminated in a working definition of wisdom. The work continued with the Wisdom Research Project (2012-2015), which provided a foundation for wisdom research at UChicago.

“We believe that we can now study wisdom in a way that would be credible and help promote the importance of understanding wisdom research, as well as the importance of understanding wisdom itself,” Nusbaum said.

The word “practical” was important to include in the name of the center. Its focus will be on knitting together the cognitive, social and emotional processes involved in everyday decision making.

“’Practical’ therefore refers to actual decisions and choices one might make rather than the abstraction of a ‘wise’ person,” Nusbaum said.

The center will connect UChicago faculty and students with researchers and scholars internationally. It also will provide guidance and support for learning about wisdom research, initiate new wisdom research and disseminate the findings of such research. Although the center will not offer a degree, it will offer courses and provide training to students and postdoctoral scholars in the methods and techniques of wisdom research.

In addition to the Templeton Foundation, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and federal agencies are also providing support for the new center. For more information, visit