Wisdom Project Descriptions

The following pages contain short summaries of the projects that were selected as winners in the Defining Wisdom grant competition. Participants were chosen because each showed the promise of a distinctive contribution to wisdom research and the potential to help establish a new and rigorous field of research on the topic of wisdom. Here, we have short written summaries of these projects.

All project descriptions have been updated to reflect progress as of Spring 2010.

Deborah Coen
Assistant Professor, History
Columbia University, United States
Uncertain Ground: A Historical Tectonics of Wisdom

“Uncertain Ground” has analyzed the development of a paradox: a vernacular, international, scientific language. This language wisely acknowledged the complexity and historicity of geoscientific data such as those collected when earthquakes occurred, which were never fully abstracted from experiential narratives. “Uncertain Ground” argues that the source of this wisdom lay in the sensitivity of Central European researchers to problems of translation—between classes, cultures, and even between species. This research makes it possible to historicize current models of wisdom, particularly of embodied wisdom.

Melissa Ferguson
Assistant Professor, Psychology
Cornell University, United States
When Archimedes and King Solomon Meet: Wisdom as Intuitive Problem Solving

There are important similarities between wisdom and insight. Arguably, both wisdom and insight depend on intuitive problem solving. This research tests for the non-conscious processes that lead to solving an intuitive problem. Specifically, this project tests how the cognitive accessibility and affective value of a particular solution to a problem non-consciously increase in the mind as the person is trying to generate that solution. Findings indicate that there may be a non-conscious “a-ha” response to solutions of problems that the mind is occupied with.

Judith Glück
Professor, Psychology
Alpen-Adria-University, Austria
Wisdom and the Life Story: How Life Experiences Foster Wisdom

"Wisdom and the Life Story" looks at how life events and challenges aid in the development of wisdom. Though the data collection for the project is still underway, it currently has two main findings: 1) Participant scores in multiple measures of wisdom are virtually uncorrelated, so project members are working on a heuristic for deciding which nominees to consider wise; and 2) Individuals nominated on account of being wise tend to have less stereotypical, more reflection-based views of the events of their lives. The current main goal is to develop categories for content-coding of the interview transcripts in order to test predictions concerning the MORE wisdom model. This model predicts wise participants will possess a heightened sense of Mastery, Openness to experience, a Reflective attitude, and Emotion regulation skills.

Jean Gordon
Associate Professor, Communication Sciences and Disorders
University of Iowa, United States
Wisdom in Words: The Relationship between Language Use and the Perception of Wisdom

The study “Wisdom in Words” is currently collecting data and coding from speaker participants. Preliminary results support previous research findings of a decline in word retrieval ability with age, particularly after age seventy, and particularly in tasks involving time constraints. However, word knowledge improves or remains stable with age, and is more closely related to participants’ education level than age. Further studies will explore the relationship of these findings to the ways in which listeners’ perceptions of wisdom are influenced by linguistic variables.

Jeffrey Green
Assistant Professor, Psychology
Virginia Commonwealth University, United States
Wisdom as Learning from Life Experiences: Affective Forecasting for Benevolent and Selfish Behaviors

This project has focused on affective forecasting for moral behaviors. The research has found that individuals feel worse after competition and better after cooperation than they would have predicted. For example, members of couples who have sacrificed for their partner report feeling better than they expected. Forecasting errors may lead to choices that make the self and others worse off. This approach to wisdom is consistent with classical Greek and Hebrew approaches that emphasize virtue, as well as recent psychological approaches (e.g., Baltes; Ardelt) that address the pragmatics of living amidst uncertainty. Future research will examine whether accurate forecasters are more likely to choose benevolent behaviors.

Joshua Greene
Assistant Professor, Psychology
Harvard University, United States
The Wisdom of Moral Principles

People consider it worse to actively harm (e.g. drowning a person) than to fail to save (e.g. not throw a drowning person a life preserver). Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) revealed activation of dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) during the judgment of harmful omissions, relatively to harmful actions. This activity was greatest when subjects strongly condemned omissions, and least when subjects weakly condemned omissions. This suggests that the moral condemnation of harmful actions is relatively automatic, while the moral condemnation of harmful omissions requires effort and control, possibly explaining why it is less robust. This may cast doubt on the wisdom of a moral distinction between active and passive harm, depending on one’s assumptions about the relative reliability of automatic versus controlled processes in the context of complex moral decision-making.

Ankur Gupta
Lecturer, Computer Science
Butler University, United States
Wisdom Is Compression: Data Compression as a Mathematical Measure of Wisdom

The world is drowning in data, yet understanding this data quickly and well presents a serious challenge. This project explores the consequence of describing wisdom in terms of technical notions of data compression, combined with indexing. This has led to several (optimal) data structures for dynamic dictionaries, dynamic selection on unsorted numbers, sorted number compression, and related topics. These sub-problems are critical for more commonly-known applications, such as Google search, GPS applications, and contextualized information (such as recommendations on Amazon). The quantitative measure of wisdom for these results is the compression ratio achieved; the speed of query access is an approach at "in-time" wisdom. Further research on these topics may involve the development of wildcard (approximate) matching and computing on multi-core platforms, which are increasingly end-user machines. 

Ryan Hanley
Assistant Professor, Political Science
Marquette University, United States
Altruism's Wisdom

The Enlightenment, so far from dismissing wisdom in favor of scientific rationality, in fact actually sought to sustain a traditional conception of wisdom -- a project particularly evident in the Encylopédie and in Rousseau’s writing. Analysis of this concept is being evaluated against the model of sophia presented by Aristotle in the sixth book of the Nicomachean Ethics. Future work will examine the relevance of this concept for Kant's epistemology.

Matthew Jones
Associate Professor, History
Columbia University, United States
Formalism and Its Discontents: Mathematics and Wisdom in the European Enlightenment

“Formalism and Its Discontents” weaves a technical history of the development of calculus and mechanics during the eighteenth century into a rich account of debates over the exact sciences as sources of theoretical and practical wisdom. Enlightenment debates focused on the power of the different sciences for learning to reason in everyday life. These debates provide powerful ways for questioning the gulf between modern theories of wisdom that see it as an expert system (thus primarily intellectual) and those that insist upon the need for the development of a wise personality, in which knowledge plays a necessary but far from sufficient role.

Lauris Kaldjian
Associate Professor, Medicine
University of Iowa, Carver College of Medicine, United States
Wisdom, Ethics, and the Medical Professional

Using Aristotle’s phronesis and Thomas Aquinas’ prudentia, this project examines the role of practical wisdom in medical practice. It explores the interrelationship and interdependence among virtue ethics, practical wisdom, and conscience, especially when moral agency is understood as requiring moral integrity. Practical wisdom in medicine that draws from phronesis and prudentia relates to the goals that direct medicine and the vision of human flourishing that inspires those goals. The project also explores the extent to which the professional’s conscientious practice should override competing claims from patients or society.

Ute Kunzmann
Professor, Psychology
Leipzig University, Germany
Wisdom-Related Knowledge and Behavior during Social Conflict

This study predicts that wisdom (in this project defined as expert knowledge about real life situations) will be helpful in dealing with social conflicts. New video-based wisdom tasks involving couples discussing a serious conflict in their marriage will allow a third party adviser to assess the situations. These new tasks will be presented together with the more traditional hypothetical text-based wisdom problems to 200 adults between twenty and seventy years old. Future research will address the interactions between wisdom-related knowledge and emotional reactivity in the context of real social conflicts.

Michael Legaspi
Assistant Professor, Theology
Creighton University, United States
Wisdom as Skillful Interpretation: Scriptural Appropriation and the Hermeneutics of Recovery

The Bible operates at two levels in the formation of wisdom: 1) as the authoritative basis for large conceptual frameworks that organize metaphysics, morality, and communal identity; and 2) as a public site for referencing ideas, re-describing beliefs, and evaluating new information in light of practical challenges. This study presents wisdom as a pragmatic, cultural endeavor rooted in social identity, while acknowledging cognitive and intuitive approaches as well as communal and individual understandings of wisdom. Further work is required to understand, in theoretical terms, how the textual and scriptural properties of the Bible mediate knowledge and insight identifiable with wisdom.

Heidi Levitt
Associate Professor, Psychology
University of Memphis, United States
Principles Toward the Development of Professional Wisdom

The study examines wisdom in the context of the judge’s practice of hearing cases and the psychologist’s practice of psychotherapy. Many study-specific findings have recently emerged. However, cross-disciplinary findings suggest that wisdom occurs when actors set aside their own value systems and approach problems, either from within the value system of the other (psychotherapists), or from within a social value system (judges). The professional’s own values are still brought to bear at certain times, but professional training is an acculturative process in which the adoption of another value system becomes a deeply held personal value.

Randall McNeill
Associate Professor, Classics
Lawrence University, United States
The Price of Wisdom: Community and the Individual in Greek and Roman Poetry

Disparate literary figures constitute the primary focus of this study. Analysis of the choices and actions taken by these characters confirms that none of them can be considered wise participants in their communities. In each case, the character’s apparent “unwisdom" stems from his inability or unwillingness to balance personal desires with civic responsibilities, or allow for the adequate expression of both. All four characters thus serve as negative reflections of the traditional Greek conception of wisdom as being grounded in sophrosyne, a combination of moderation and self-knowledge. Future research questions include the role of empathy in determining an individual’s capacity for positive civic engagement as well as the overall societal health of a given community.

Seana Moran
Research Fellow, Stanford Center on Adolescence
Stanford University, United States
All the Wiser: Wisdom from a System Dynamics Perspective

Michael Connell
Institute for Knowledge Design, United States
All the Wiser: Wisdom from a System Dynamics Perspective

This research was conducted in response to Baltes’ call to study “wisdom-in-action,” and integrating models of wisdom related to individual competency, social interaction, and systems dynamics. In the course of this research, a computer simulator was built to study how individuals interact with data and with other individuals to make decisions within a complex situation. Mathematical equations were developed that represent the quantitative level of wisdom in the system, both instantaneously and long-term. These equations operationalize important issues in wisdom traditions and research, including the tension between collaboration and competition; long-term sustainability and short-term gains; and an individual’s versus the common good (fairness or distributive justice).

Shabnam Mousavi
Visiting Research Scientist, Center for Adaptive Behavior and Cognition
Max Planck Institute for Human Development, Germany
Practical Wisdom as Heuristic Processes

Research into heuristic strategies as practically wise decision tools has revealed evidence, for the first time, that “less can be more.” Whereas mainstream empirical wisdom literature has equated wisdom with expert knowledge, these findings suggest that under real life uncertainties, intuitive heuristics can allow for successful navigation of the state of ignorance, which entails partial but effective information. The next step of this project will specify conditions under which this counterintuitive finding is valid, and hence can be used to develop real-world decision aids.

Sendhil Mullainathan
Professor, Economics
Harvard University, United States
Wise Choices: The Interaction of Individual and Institutional Wisdom

Two experiments have generated results. One study has found that access to personalized prescription drug plans increases the number of individuals selecting cheaper plans without sacrificing quality. Secondly, the research has found that framing retirement decisions in consumption rather than investment terms can change those decisions significantly. These findings indicate that, contrary to the rational choice model, wisdom is not a quality that belongs to an individual, but rather wise choices are influenced by context. Future study will explore whether financial stability reduces material hardship and help to understand what non-financial levers may improve household well-being, if income and assets are held constant.

Eddy Nahmias
Associate Professor, Philosophy, Neuroscience
Georgia State University, United States
Free Will and Wisdom in the Age of the Mind Sciences

This inquiry continues to explore the connections between the capacities required for free will and those required for practical wisdom; the ways that psychology and neuroscience can help to explain these capacities; and the ways that these sciences may suggest limitations to humans’ possession of them. The relevance of this scientific research depends crucially on the target conception or theory of free will or wisdom. As a continuation of what conception of free will ordinary people appear to have, future study will explore folk intuitions about wisdom, and consider how they relate to the Aristotelian conception as well as other views of wisdom from philosophy and psychology.

John Pfaff
Associate Professor, Law
Fordham University, United States
Incorporating Systematic Sources of Knowledge into the Social Sciences and the Law

Many models define wisdom as the ability to draw concise, accurate conclusions from large bodies of information. This project begins to develop rigorous systematic reviews to help the social sciences extract such conclusions from growing masses of empirical claims, and examines how to introduce these reviews into legal settings. Preliminary conclusions indicate that the methodological plurality of social science research makes such reviews challenging to develop, but that history and doctrine suggest they can be incorporated into legal disputes. Future work will continue this project and examine how to reduce the complexity of systematic reviews without weakening their reliability.

Michael Sargent
Associate Professor, Psychology
Bates College, United States
D*A*R*IA: Testing Model of Principled Reasoning

This research work addresses one question: under what conditions are people’s judgments and decisions organized around the same principles that they consciously endorse? To the extent that existing models of wisdom suggest generally applicable principles of wisdom, this work may help indicate the conditions under which individuals can consciously apply those principles. Preliminary conclusions suggest that it is often difficult to resolve the discrepancies between principles that individuals consciously endorse and the principles they actually apply. Future research will strive to better understand how context can promote principled reasoning, as well as the conditions under which such principled reasoning is adaptive.

Valerie Tiberius
Associate Professor, Philosophy
University of Minnesota, United States
The Psychological Foundations of Reflective Wisdom

The articulation of an interdisciplinary methodology for defining wisdom is the most important result of this project. The proposed methodology begins with psychological research on the folk theory of wisdom. The folk theory is elaborated in light of theoretical desiderata and further empirical research on human rational capacities. This methodology is an updated version of Aristotle’s method for arriving at ethical conclusions and the resulting theory of practical wisdom is Aristotelian in spirit, though not in detail. A central question for future research is about the relationship between values and wisdom. Aristotle could presume widely shared agreement about some values. What should contemporary wisdom theorists do if such a presumption is no longer warranted?

Neil Tsutsui
Assistant Professor, Environmental Science, Policy and Management
University of California Berkeley, United States
The Wisdom of the Ant: The Role of Experience in Sociality and Aggression

This project has 1) identified, synthesized and tested the chemical cues that ants use to identify colony mates; 2) shown that individual ants remember aggressive social interactions and alter their future behaviors accordingly; and 3) initiated a series of laboratory experiments to test hypotheses about how the social environment of young ants shapes their behavior as adults. These findings show that, like humans, ants accumulate knowledge through personal experience during their lifetime and use this body of wisdom to direct future decision-making. In future studies, genetic, genomic and neurophysiological approaches should be used to rigorously test hypotheses regarding the development of individual wisdom.

Keith Whitaker
Adjunct Asst. Professor, Center on Wealth and Philanthropy
Boston College, United States
Wisdom at Work: An Inquiry into Wealth Counseling as a Form of Practical Wisdom

Scholars, business leaders, wealth-holders, philanthropists, advisors, and others have shown intense interest in our core questions: What is wise counsel? How can one find it? And how best can one give it? The interviews in this study (inspired by Aristotle’s vision of practical wisdom and Socrates’ manner of inquiry) detail answers within the field of wealth advising. The historical component of the research offers examples from literature, religion, and business. This study has also created a strong community, based at www.wisecounselresearch.org. In the future, this inquiry seeks to explore additional questions, including: What is the role of wisdom in the professions that give counsel? Can one speak about wisdom “professionally?” And what role does love, including love of wisdom, have within a profession?


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