Research Project Progress

Project I: Medical Wisdom, Expertise, and Empathy
Jean Decety, Department of Psychology

Despite the importance of empathy in a clinical setting, physicians may experience difficulty empathizing with their patients. Although the reasons for this difficulty are likely complex and multifaceted, one possible explanation may be that physicians lack the cognitive and emotional resources to engage in empathic processing. Extended hours, overnight call duty, and rotating shifts are all characteristic of a physician's residency. This schedule can result in chronic and acute sleep deprivation in physicians and deplete their limited cognitive resources. In fact, sleep deprivation (Mazukiewicz et al., 2011) and insomnia (Vela-Bueno et al., 2008) are correlated with a lack of empathy in burnt-out physicians.

The goal of this project is to investigate the extent to which empathy changes in medical students with increasing expertise (years of medical school), contributions of individual traits and genetic differences to these changes, and the relationship between empathy and cognitive and affective abilities during the development of expertise and wisdom in the medical profession.


Project II: Financial Expertise and Economic Wisdom
Ali Hortacsu and John List, Department of Economics

Economic expertise and economic wisdom are not the same thing. Wisdom requires going beyond the rational decision process of neoclassical economic theory. We examine how expertise changes previous findings such as the endowment effect (holding an asset makes it seem worth more irrationally) and how the manifestation of such biases changes with measures of wisdom (Berlin task etc). We predict that the bias effects are reduced differently for economic experts with wisdom measures predicting the difference. fMRI allows us to assess differences in neural activity between two equal experts differing in wisdom identifying brain mechanism differences due to wisdom.

Economic wisdom presumably reflects an ability to look beyond short-term gains, to be sensitive to social values, and to regulate affective responses and biases. Neoclassical economic theory envisions a world with infinite (economic) wisdom, where agents with well-defined preferences are assumed to make “optimal” decisions, albeit subject to resource and informational constraints. However, a plethora of empirical findings suggest otherwise: experiment after experiment, behavioral economists have demonstrated that neoclassical models are not adequate to describing observed behavior. The most important countercurrent to the “behavioral revolution” has been to point out that experimental findings might not have external validity in “real world” environments: that experience and/or expertise (whether gained through training or through selection) may, in certain situations, render real decisions much closer to the neoclassical paradigm.

A well-documented departure from the neoclassical paradigm is the endowment effect, a perceived increase in the value of a good once it enters an individual’s endowment (Thaler, 1980). On its face, this appears to be an affective bias in that the market value of a good is not changed simply by ownership. Researchers have offered multiple accounts of the processes behind the endowment effect: Morewedge et al. (2009) contends that ownership of the item drives its perceived value, whereas Knutson et al. (2008) find neural evidence (insula activation) for a loss aversion account. List (2004) instead proposes that market inexperience drives the endowment effect: he finds that experienced traders do not exhibit the endowment effect, whereas inexperienced subjects display a clear endowment effect. In essence, this suggests that market experience can increase economic wisdom by reducing an affective bias.

In the current study, we are pursuing the question of whether experience in a trading environment (an expertise in buying and selling) increases the apparent rationality of this approach. Moreover, we are investigating whether there are differences in the distribution of neural activity either reflecting local changes in amount of activity or neural network configuration as a function of increased economic wisdom due to trading experience. We have first replicated previous one-shot experimental results of List et al. using our repeated trading game protocol on a pilot sample of experienced vs. inexperienced subjects. This is important in order to be able to collect reliable measures of neural activity during price decisions about test objects. We recruited 20 experienced and 20 inexperienced subjects for fMRI scanning experiments who were matched on demographic characteristics. Data collection was completed in March 2013, and we are currently analyzing the behavioral and neural scanning data obtained from these experiments.

Our preliminary results suggest that the insula region is activated less in experienced vs. inexperienced subjects in response to offers below the subject’s stated willingness-to-pay (i.e. “low-ball” offers). The insula region is commonly activated in response to stimuli that evoke anger and pain. This finding is consistent with previous findings regarding insula activation as a neural correlate of the endowment effect and is consistent with a reduction in loss aversion that might explain the endowment effect. We are currently considering other analyses or testing more participants in order to strengthen the findings.

Research Team: Ali Hortacsu, John List, Raquel Cowell, Lester Tong, Kentaro Asai, Karen Ye       

Project III: Linguistic Expertise and Social Wisdom
Boaz Keysar, Department of Psychology

A common intuition is greater wisdom comes with greater expertise. However, our project explores a case in which expertise may in fact have the opposite effect. Specifically, we find that using a less familiar, foreign language can lead to wiser decisions under some circumstances. It is reasonable to assume that the difficulty of using a foreign language would interfere with the process of decision-making. For instance, the added effort and cognitive load of using a foreign language could push people to rely more on automatic, emotional processes. Our novel theory assumes that the opposite is true: Use of a foreign language may lead to more systematic decision-making, thereby reducing well-known decision biases and leading to wiser choices. The use of a foreign language, may promote wiser decision-making (1) because a foreign language is less emotionally grounded, which reduces the involvement of emotional reactions in the decision, and (2) because it increases psychological distance, which allows people to focus on important elements of the decision.

We conduct experiments in many different countries testing many different native/foreign language pairs in the U.S., China, Korea, France, Israel, Japan, Spain, and Italy, and tested how and why using a foreign language impacts a variety of phenomena.

Project IV: Linguistic Reflection in Wisdom
Anne Henly, Department of Psychology
W. Clark Gilpin, Divinity School

Contemporary scholarly efforts to delineate wisdom have very frequently identified multiple cognitive capacities that seem to be combined in a wise understanding or a wise ethical judgment. These cognitive capacities that contribute to wisdom have included a tolerance for ambiguity, a self-reflective awareness, and the ability to introduce a fresh perspective or new piece of information that gives coherence to seemingly disconnected facts (“insight”). The “Linguistic Reflection in Wisdom” Project explores the relationships among these components of wisdom from the perspective of language use, both verbal and written. First, the project focuses on the ability to use and interpret figurative language—especially metaphor—and this ability’s potential contribution to conceptual change that generates broader insights. Second, the project explores implications of the observation that our human self-awareness as persons hinges on the capacity of the self to carry on an inner dialogue, a dialogue with the self, and investigates how this inner dialogue may contribute to self-reflective awareness. Methodologically, the project proposes that the contributions of metaphorical language and inner dialogue to the components of wisdom may be investigated both through the performance of experimental tasks in a psychology laboratory and through the analysis of specific historical case studies. In addition to its contribution to wisdom research, the project therefore seeks to make a broader methodological contribution to discussions between the psychological and historical disciplines.

Project V: Developing Insight and Wisdom
Howard C. Nusbaum, Department of Psychology

The goal of Project V is to understand the basic mechanisms that underlie the development of insight in wisdom. Although there are examples of wise decisions arising from contemplation and reflection, and this may in fact be the typical way in which wise decisions and advice are produced, there are occasions that people recognize as wise insights. An insight can be thought of as a sudden understanding of a problem or situation that is not simply the result of a protracted session of reflection. Often insights emerge after a period of incubation in which no specific conscious thought is given to a problem that much earlier was struggled with and seemed too difficult to solve. In this way, insights seem to arrive without heralding or immediate cognitive activity, which makes understanding the nature of insight and cognitive creativity an interesting challenge. Further, it has been reported that insights seem to be potentiated by sleep (Wagner et al., 2004). If the failure to solve a problem is remediated by a subsequent period of disattention or incubation, the potential for insight seems to be increased further by “sleeping on it.”

Project VI: Somatic and Mental Training for Wisdom
Berthold Hoeckner, Department of Music
Howard C. Nusbaum, Department of Psychology

Wisdom is often thought of as a special form of knowledge and judgment that people acquire over time through experience. Our project studies whether specific practices might facilitate and enhance the acquisition of wisdom. Since a common assumption is that wisdom is a mental phenomenon, we are interested not only in the effect of mental practices on wisdom, but also in practices that involve the body. Many spiritual and philosophical traditions emphasize the connection between mind and body suggesting that wisdom depends on mastering both because they enhance one's mental and intellectual abilities, and in doing so may lead to a deeper understanding of the world. This conception has been significant not only in religious and meditative practices, but also in sports and performing arts, where the road to mastery has served as a general model for enhanced learning and achieving a state of well-being.

Our research focuses on ways in which mental and somatic practices interact with emotional and cognitive domains to contribute to the advancement of human wisdom. At the heart of these practices lies a non-dual conception of the relationship between body and mind, involving exercises in which bodily and mental states are intertwined. As new developments in molecular biology and neuroscience have increasingly undermined a clear distinction between mental and chemical operations as well as cognitive and physiological processes, the notions of "grounded" and "embodied" cognition and learning have contributed to a new area in cognitive science. In addition, mind-body integration as a source of mental health has become central to therapeutic traditions that focus on psychosomatic processes have been applied in conditions ranging from social misbehavior and psychic disorders. Moreover, recent research suggests that mind-body states which maintain a homeostasis between cognitive control and autonomic activity facilitate not only learning, but also improve cognition, emotion, and performance, such as perceptual discrimination and attention.

Practice and experience
Wisdom is anecdotally associated with old age, but not all elders are wise. What then are the life experiences that lead to wisdom? Using a cross-sectional questionnaire measuring cognitive, reflective, and affective wisdom (Ardelt, 2004) to practitioners of mediation, the Alexander Technique, the Feldenkrais Method, and classical ballet, we found that expertise, as measured by years of experience, was positively associated with wisdom for meditation and classical ballet, but not for the Alexander Technique or Feldenkrais Method. While the finding for meditation is in accord with its traditional role in cultivating wisdom and current research into the positive role of meditation on cognitive and affective processes (Arch & Craske, 2006; Hutcherson, Seppala, & Gross, 2008), the finding for ballet was surprising and has led us to hypothesize that expert ballet dancers may be wiser than their novice counterparts due to increased kinesthetic and somatic sensitivity.

Somatic markers of wise decision making
If ballet expertise is associated with wisdom, ballet dancers may possess an increased sensitivity to signals from the body that leads to better decision making. Previous evidence indicates that ballet dancers form and rely on increased body awareness to improve physical performance (Jola, Davis, & Haggard, 2011). But does this increased body sense correspond to increased sensitivity to somatic markers (Damasio, 1996) that affect decision-making? Given the pilot data that show expert ballet dancers as “wiser” than less experienced dancers, we are investigating whether this effect is reproducible in a sample of expert compared to novice ballet dancers, and whether this difference may be linked to increased somatic sensitivity and corresponding decision-making in a task that relies on somatic markers for optimal performance. Preliminary evidence suggests this may be the case as experts achieve optimal and sustained performance on average, more quickly than do novices.

Compassion, risk tolerance, trust
In several studies we look at components and antecedents of wisdom, such as compassion, risk tolerance, and trust. Since compassion is one component of wisdom (Meeks & Jeste, 2009), recent research indicates that compassion training increases positive affect toward others, promotes prosocial behavior, and strengthens personal resources (Klimecki, Leiberg, Lamm, & Singer, 2013; Leiberg, Klimecki, & Singer, 2011; Fredrickson et al., 2008). We have found however that by simply exposing individuals to compassion-based language, concern for others’ distress is increased, with a simultaneous decrease in concern for personal distress. This provides evidence that interpersonal sensitivity is easily induced, while drawing attention to the importance of treating with skepticism claims made about the effects of compassion training on pro-social behavior. 

Since another important aspect of wisdom is knowing how to manage risk and uncertainty, we are looking at specific populations who are involved in risk management, measuring for example, the physiology and behavior of stunt professionals who are actively engaging in high risk physical activity. Stunt professionals can provide valuable insight into the nature of managing physical risks in comparison to non-physical risk such as financial risk.

Meditation and Mindfulness
A recent proliferation in meditation and mindfulness research has led to the application of this ancient practice across business, education, and even military training, though its efficacy has not been rigorously examined. In several studies, we are measuring the effects of different forms of meditation practice in various domains. In one study, we compare the effect of open monitoring and focused-attention meditation on insight. In another study, we are measuring the effects of mindfulness training on the well-being and wisdom of professionals in the corporate world.

Research Team: Berthold Hoeckner, Howard Nusbaum, Patrick Williams, Greg Poljacik, Heather Lumdsen Harden, Carly Kontra, Laurel Sarfan, Greg Norman, Liz Hopkins.


Williams, P.B., Poljacik, G., Decety, J., & Nusbaum, H.C. (2014, June). Compassion language priming leads to increased sensitivity to others’ pain. 2014 Mind and Life Institute Summer Research Institute, Garrison, NY. Poster >>

Williams, P.B., Kontra, C., Harden, H.L., Nusbaum, H.C., & Hoeckner, B. (2014, May). The association between wisdom and practice. Midwestern Psychological Association, Chicago, IL. Poster >>

Williams, P.B., Kontra, C., Harden, H.L., Nusbaum, H.C., & Hoeckner, B. (2014, Mar. 13). The association between wisdom and practice. The University of Chicago Wisdom Research Forum, Chicago, IL.

Hoeckner, B. (2014, Winter Quarter). Cinematic representations of the relationships between affective trust, system trust, and economic wisdom. Presentation to the Humanities Visiting Committee, Chicago, IL.

Hoeckner, B. (2014, Spring Quarter). Film, Music, Affective Economies. International Conference "Sound and Affect", SUNY Stony Brook, New York; also as a colloquium at the University of Minnesota.

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