Grant seeks “wisdom” scholars for U of C

By Supriya Sinhababu

Defining Wisdom, a project sponsored by the University’s Arete Initiative and funded by the John Templeton Foundation, is now accepting letters of intent from scholars seeking grants to study “wisdom.”

“One of the goals of this enterprise is to try to establish a field of wisdom research,” said Howard Nusbaum, a professor of psychology, who serves as a co-principal investigator for the project. The project’s sponsor, Arete Initiative, serves to promote interdisciplinary efforts to tackle broad questions.

The project will accept three-page research proposals from scholars all over the world and across all disciplines until November 19. In an effort to support the research of younger scholars, applicants generally must have earned their Ph.D.s no more than 10 years ago.

“The process is to solicit these letters of intent to winnow out essentially 40 that would be selected for fuller proposals,” said Nusbaum. “From those, 20 final awards will be made.” The 40 finalists will present their proposals to the Project Council at a symposium scheduled for late August before final decisions are made in September.

The project stemmed in part from conversations between Nusbaum and co-principal investigator John Cacioppo, also a professor in psychology, about the nature of wisdom.

The topic also came up in discussions among members of an interdisciplinary research network, also funded by the Templeton Foundation, which already existed within the University.

“We started to think, maybe we could do a grant on wisdom,” said Nusbaum. “And then the Templeton Foundation thought it would also be good to get junior scholars interested in the problem.”

Intelligent decision making in different situations is a major component of wisdom that concerns Nusbaum and Cacioppo. Cacioppo gave the examples of the risk-benefit analysis employed by Enron’s former executives or the speed-accuracy tradeoffs one makes in completing everyday tasks.

“Are there some general principles that would be applicable across those domains?” he asked. “Are there ways of scientifically analyzing the issues so that you can know what a ‘wise’ decision is?”

Because of the many perspectives from which one could approach the problem, Nusbaum and Cacioppo have selected a project council from a broad range of fields to judge the proposals. The disciplines of law, medicine, philosophy, and divinity, among others, are all represented in council members’ expertise.

“So far we have about 20 that initially came in, but we have a few trickling in each day,” said Brenda Huskey, who coordinates the project and serves as associate director of interdisciplinary programs. “We could potentially have 300–400 applicants, projected, but we won’t know until that day.”

Cacioppo has been impressed with the proposals so far.

“Some of them look fabulous,” he said. “The quality is very high. We’ll get many of them at the last moment, just like papers for courses.”

Though psychology is more heavily represented than other fields in these proposals, letters have been received from applicants in other domains.

“They’re coming from every discipline—throughout the humanities, sciences, math,” said Huskey. “So it’s going to be interesting. It’s a very diverse project.”

The project’s broad scope may be both a benefit and a disadvantage.

“I welcome the heterogeneity of the project,” said Cacioppo. “That’s a U of C thing. How can it be too broad?”

But Nusbaum worries that proposals may be difficult to judge because of their diverse nature.

“I’m a little bit concerned that it will be difficult to say that this particular art project merits more than this particular engineering project,” he said. “That’s why we want the council to help.”

Studies of wisdom have been undertaken before. Nusbaum gave the examples of Max Planck Institute researcher Monika Ardelt’s wisdom research and Tufts University Dean Robert Sternberg’s studies of intelligence.

However, the efforts of individual researchers have not yet coalesced to make wisdom a clearly recognized field of study.

“Some people have tried to study it,” said Cacioppo, “but it’s not a coherent body.”

The project makes efforts to synthesize different perspectives on wisdom. Cacioppo and Nusbaum hope to establish the Wisdom Research Network, which will connect and engage interested scholars from all fields and universities in a continual dialogue on wisdom. Additionally, Nusbaum plans to edit a book regarding the project at its conclusion.

“The goal is to try to take the principle research, the work that’s done on the grants, and assemble that into a book,” said Nusbaum. “My hope is that the book won’t be 20 chapters that simply reflect the 20 projects, but in some way more of an integration of what comes from that work.”

Though the project is still in its early stages, the numbers of inquiries give council members reason to hope for results.

“We may never come up with a complete solution,” said Cacioppo. “But can interdisciplinary scholarship be brought to bear on this question and put us in a better position than we are right now? My hunch is yes.”