University of Chicago researchers to use science in study of wisdom

Scientists and scholars throughout the University of Chicago are organizing a new research project devoted to a systematic study of how people acquire and use wisdom in their decision-making.

The Chicago Wisdom Project, funded with a $5 million grant from the John Templeton Foundation, will support research projects, organize forums to discuss issues related to wisdom, and prepare a textbook on wisdom.

With the creation of the new project, the University of Chicago will concentrate a set of research efforts that are becoming “the center of gravity and infrastructure” for the emerging field of wisdom research, said Howard Nusbaum, professor in psychology and co-director of the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience.

Among the activities of the new project will be collaborative work with colleagues in China to prepare a textbook on teaching wisdom. The textbook produced in Chicago will integrate a wide range of views of wisdom, including combining traditional Chinese perspectives with scientific research, and provide material for an undergraduate course to be offered at English-speaking universities, he said.

In addition to the textbook, the project will organize a Chicago Wisdom Forum series and other meetings to explore problems and issues in the professions of business, medicine, law and public policy. One Chicago Wisdom Forum will focus on wisdom in religion and collaborate with the Martin Marty Center in the Divinity School of the University of Chicago.

Six research projects led by Chicago faculty, in collaboration with scientists at other institutions, will investigate big questions in the field that have the greatest potential of influencing research, education, policy and professions. The topics include: “What is the relationship between expertise and wisdom”; “How does experience increase wisdom”; and “What is the relationship between cognitive, social and emotional processes in mediating wisdom?”

Studies that will be part of the launch of the project include:

  • Medical Wisdom and Empathy, led by Jean Decety, the Irving B. Harris Professor in Psychology and Psychiatry, will look at how empathy is changed in medical residents with training.
  • Financial Expertise and Economic Wisdom, led by Ali Hortacsu, professor in economics, and John List, the Homer J. Livingston Professor of Economics, will look at how real financial experience and expertise such as that used by financial trading affects economic decision making.
  • Linguistic Expertise and Social Wisdom, led by Boaz Keysar, professor in psychology, will look at the ways in which linguistic expertise affects practical wisdom in decision making and negotiations.
  • Linguistic Reflection in Wisdom, led by Anne Henly, senior lecturer in psychology and Clark Gilpin, the Margaret E. Burton Distinguished Service Professor in the Divinity School, will map the effect of language use on wisdom.
  • Developing Insight and Wisdom, led by Nusbaum, will look at ways in which specific experiences in problem solving can change the component processes of wisdom.
  • Somatic and Mental Training for Wisdom, led by Nusbaum and Berthold Hoeckner, associate professor in music, will look at mind-body interaction through training practices such as meditation.  

The new project is being established following a successful four-year project at UChicago — the Defining Wisdom project — which the Templeton Foundation also funded.

That project, administered by UChicago faculty, funded scientists and scholars from around the world, and expanded the boundaries of wisdom research leading to extensive new publications on the topic, including five books and another ten in preparation as well as numerous articles, book chapters and academic presentations.

At the conclusion of the project, the group issued a statement on the nature of wisdom, in which they said individuals and groups can demonstrate wisdom, which helps resolve situations involving risk and uncertainty.

“Wisdom flexibly integrates cognitive, affective and social considerations, but can be studied profitably by understanding its constituent elements,” Nusbaum said. “Because of the fundamentally multifaceted nature of wisdom, interdisciplinary discourse is extremely useful in advancing the research."

More information about this project can be found at