About Professor Howard C. Nusbaum PhD
Howard C. Nusbaum is currently the Director of the Chicago Center for Practical Wisdom and Stella M. Rowley Professor of Psychology at the University of Chicago.
He has recently returned from serving as the Division Director for the Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences in the Directorate of the Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences at the National Science Foundation.
His research is on the psychology, neurobiology, and comparative biology of language use, the role of sleep in learning, attention and working memory, and the neurobiology of economic decisions. He is the director of the APEX Lab (Attention, Perception, and EXperience lab) where they study speech perception and music perception as auditory skills, perception as a cognitive system interconnected with other psychological systems, and how wiser decisions arise from experiences supporting an interaction of intellectual virtues such as epistemic humility, reflection, curiosity, and perseverance with moral virtues.
“The mission of the Center is to deepen our scientific understanding of wisdom and its role in the decisions and choices that affect everyday life. We want to understand how an individual develops wisdom and the circumstances and situations in which people are most likely to make wise decisions. We hope that, by deepening our scientific understanding of wisdom, we will also begin to understand how to gain, reinforce, and apply wisdom and, in turn, become wiser as a society.
The Center for Practical Wisdom connects scientists, scholars, educators, and students internationally who are interested in studying and understanding wisdom, and it provides guidance and support for learning about wisdom research, initiates new wisdom research, and disseminates the findings of such research. The Center works to increase public interest in wisdom, in increasing personal wisdom, and in the notion that our institutions could become wiser.
As a Center, we focus on both increasing an understanding of wise reasoning from a scientific perspective, as well as trying to understand how wisdom can have benefits for society generally. The Center supports research on wise reasoning and specifically focuses on how experience can increase wise reasoning. From this perspective, we believe that wisdom is something that develops with experience and that perhaps, almost everyone could be a little wiser.”
Lesson 1. It’s wiser to listen than to speak 07:33
Lesson 2. Asking questions is wiser than lecturing 11:24
Lesson 3. Wisdom requires understanding others 14:39
Lesson 4. Grasp the vastness of your ignorance. 21:08
Lesson 5. Curiosity fuels wisdom. 27:25
Lesson 6. Gratitude can lead to wisdom 33:48
Lesson 7. Try a little harder, try a little longer. 38:15
Lesson 8. Reflect before acting; reflect after acting. 41:42
Lesson 9. Think about making wiser decisions rather than being wiser 44:12
Lesson 10. Wisdom is a skill you can learn 47:37
Professor Howard Nusbaum – You won’t be wise without understanding others
[00:00:11] Duff Watkins: Hello. Welcome to the podcast. 10 lessons that took me 15 years to learn where we dispense wisdom for career in life. That’s a wisdom, not just information and that’s for your career in your life.
My name is Duff Watkins and I’m your host. Our guest today is Howard Nussbaum, who is director of the Chicago center for practical wisdom. Howard is also a professor of psychology at the university of Chicago. Howard. Welcome to the show.
[00:00:37] Howard Nusbaum: Thank you Duff.
[00:00:38] Duff Watkins: First question. What the heck is the center for practical wisdom?
[00:00:42] Howard Nusbaum: That’s a good question. the center is really. Kind of an organizational hub for two kinds of things. one thing is to support research on, on wisdom and wise reasoning, what is wisdom? How do we define it? How do we understand it? And so, we do research that ranges from behavioral studies to surveys, to neuroscience on their economics.
Just trying to understand how people, reason wisely and what, what wisdom might be, and, and ask questions that may challenge existing theories and conceptualizations. And on the other hand, there’s a, there’s a sense in which the center tries to organize discourse about wisdom. Some of that discourse is internal, where we talk with philosophers like, I Candace Vogler at the university of Chicago or the Nancy Snow at, uh, Oklahoma, where we talked to people who, who study medical education.
Um, and where we publicize wisdom research and thinking about research. And so, the two sides of the coin are that we support research. Some of it’s been collaborative with colleagues in Spain and colleagues in, um, Israel and some of its internal, um, colleagues in economics, colleagues in psychology and anthropology.
then we have this other side, which is to talk about wisdom and wise reasoning. Why is wisdom important? So, Monday, for example, there was an international summit on wisdom organized from university of Waterloo and Toronto, by Igor Grossmann and his colleagues and our center was part of it, and we helped support that.
so, we, we used to have a wisdom for, uh, where we would bring people into the university of Chicago to talk about their research on wisdom. Talk about the philosophy of wisdom. We haven’t done that for a few years, but this kind of summit is I think an outgrowth of that kind of thing.
[00:02:33] Duff Watkins: And here I was thinking that our podcast was the only vehicle by which people could pursue wisdom.
And it turns out you folks have been doing it longer and better. So very, and it’s interesting when I hear you speak Howard, it is an international pursuit of wisdom, both on an academic level of philosophical. You mentioned philosophers. Um, I know that you yourself are a psychologist, which leads me to ask if I understand that you’re a cognitive and behavioral psychologist by training, how did you get hooked on wisdom?
[00:03:02] Howard Nusbaum: That’s a good question. I, first thing I wanted to say, though, before I answer that question is there are other people. Promoting wisdom besides you and the center. Charles Cassidy has a website, uh, with animations and explanation of wisdom in, in London. Um, and he, and Igor Grossmann have a podcast also about wisdom.
so, there are some other venues where people are starting to talk about wisdom more generally, and the more the merrier, the more that people can talk about it more than we can understand it, the more we can, I think expand our understanding of its importance in relation to things like being smart or clever.
And I think that’s, that’s important for all of us. So how did I get started? Well, around 2007, the Templeton foundation, vice-president of Barnaby Marsh came to visit the university of Chicago and we had been doing some work with the Templeton foundation on a network that John Cacioppo was running on social connection, what does it mean to be connected to other people? And how does it benefit you? And Barnaby came in, he talked to us and said, what do you guys think about wisdom? And it turns out that I had just heard a talk by Bob Sternberg about wisdom and wise leadership and why wisdom was important, and foolishness was dangerous.
And so, I had been thinking about that and I had just read a book called collapse, which is about how civilizations
[00:04:29] Duff Watkins: Jared Diamond.
[00:04:31] Howard Nusbaum: Exactly. Um, and one of the stories in that, I mean, I may have even modified it over time. One of the stories was about the island of Hispaniola and the, the relative thriving of Haiti and Dominican Republic and the fact that they had different policies about their resources, their natural resources.
And then Haiti had essentially mined away all the trees, Dominican Republic had preserved their trees. And the question could be, was that because of wise policy in the Dominican Republic? I mean, certainly they’re not great. They’re not well off, in many respects, they’ve got a number of great problems, but they preserved their trees in that respect, uh, ecological disasters.
We’re not hitting them as, as poorly, as much as, uh, Haiti and the book makes clear that it was not, shall we say wise policy? And that started me thinking about. Society’s determination or, ascription of wisdom to something versus based on the outcome and based on a set of criteria versus thinking about what it means for a person to be wise.
And that may not always have a wise outcome. And so, I talked to Barnaby about that and essentially, uh, Templeton foundation gave us a grant, to give a couple of million dollars to about 23, uh, scholars and scientists to study a definition of wisdom. What does wisdom mean in the classics? What does it mean in history?
What does it mean in music? What does it mean in computer science? Psychology, neuroscience, political science, etc. And so that’s where I got started thinking about this, but the truth is that, actually when I went to college, I was interested in Abraham Maslow’s work on self-actualization and that Pete’s in the direction of wisdom as well.
And so, I’ve always been interested in learning and how experience has change us. And the work on wisdom and supporting the wisdom research from 2007, 2011 was an opportunity to think about this problem with a number of other people we weren’t doing at the university of Chicago. We weren’t doing any wisdom research then, just essentially giving away money for other people to study wisdom.
But in the quarterly meetings that I had with a diverse group of scholars and scientists and talking about wisdom was sort of the start for me of actually doing the research.
[00:06:45] Duff Watkins: And that was in 2007 is when it started, the center started?
[00:06:50] Howard Nusbaum: Well, the first grant proposal was then the center didn’t start until much more recently.
Um, I can’t even remember. The starting date is like six years ago, something like that. So, in all that interim, there was a grant called the defining wisdom project for four, till 2011. Then another grant from Templeton there was another case where we gave away $3 million to researchers called the science of virtues.
And then we started studying wisdom at the university of Chicago with funding from Templeton, but the century didn’t come, uh, for a number of years after that.
[00:07:26] Duff Watkins: Well, and our pursuit of personal applied, practical wisdom, let’s get on to your 10 lessons. It took 50 years to learn
[00:07:33] Lesson 1: It’s wiser to listen than to speak
[00:07:33] Duff Watkins: the lesson. Number one, it’s wiser to listen than to speak.
Now, this sounds like good, common sense to me, Howard, but what is the connection to wisdom?
[00:07:43] Howard Nusbaum: So that’s a good question. It is not on its own merits by itself necessarily wise, but I suspect you can’t be wise without that particular prescription. So, when I was a first-year professor, I think it was, I remember, being quite a bit argumentative with a number of people.
About their positions in psychology and thinking and so forth. And I remember a colleague telling me that it might be better to listen to what other people have to say and find what’s important in it and learn from it rather than trying to convince them that you’re right. And I think that was the start of my thinking about the role of epistemic, humility and wisdom.
So, we consider at the, at the center epistemic humility to be one of the foundations of wisdom and epistemic humility is knowing what you know, and knowing what you don’t know. And so, the reason it’s wiser to listen than to speak is because there’s a lot that you don’t know, but understanding other people’s perspectives is critical, I think to wisdom. And we often assume we know what people are thinking, but probably we don’t and listening to understand their perspective, listening to understand their concerns, listening, to understand their knowledge with both inform us for ourselves, but also in inform us about them. So that’s basically why that is there.
[00:09:04] Duff Watkins: I guess a good example of that nowadays is politics on almost any country. Cause I’m continually amazed at how very intelligent people, well-educated people who’ve gone to college university with me, how amazingly stupid they are because they don’t hold the same views that I do. And I try to correct them of course, because I’m a generous tolerant kind of guy.
And is surprisingly Howard, there was some resistance to this. So, the point being once you make the effort and it is an effort to try to understand what is important to them, it can be quiet. Certainly, in the U S and a lot of societies, people who, who hold the other view, the other side of view, it can be quite an affront to your own values for some reason. And people, react in a tribal partisan segregation kind of way, and just don’t even want to associate with those people.
[00:09:52] Howard Nusbaum: I think that’s right. I mean, one of the benefits of being around for a long time, uh, and being at the university of Chicago is I got to take a class from a colleague who studies, uh, things like negotiation decision-making. And when he was teaching his graduate class, I sat in on this class, which was about communication.
And every time the class would read an article, the graduate students would leave on the article, like hungry dogs and tear it to pieces. And finally, it was said, you know, It might be better to figure out whether the study is wrong or right. What you could learn from it. If it was right. That is rather than being concerned about proving that it had problems because every study has problems.
Yeah. Think about what we might’ve learned, if it was right. And how would that inform the next thing you want to do? And I thought that was pretty wise of him in the sense that one, it changed the tenor of the class. It had people working together instead of independently, howling like dogs at the moon.
But also, as a pack, you know, there was sort of leaping on things and tearing different parts off. When people started to think about what they learned, everybody picked up something different, but the synergy there were synergies to that. And so, I learned a lot from that class, but the most important thing I learned was that issue about trying to look for something that you can take away that’s positive rather than look for the things you disagree with.
[00:11:20] Duff Watkins: All right. We agreed that it’s wiser to listen then to speak, but when you do speak,
[00:11:24] Lesson 2: Asking questions is wiser than lecturing
[00:11:24] Duff Watkins: that takes us, to listen. Number two, asking is wiser than lecturing. Have you been talking to my wife?
[00:11:35] Howard Nusbaum: Well, more than my wife, probably. Um,
um, that issue is a corollary, if you will, as you point out from the first point. But it’s linked to Socrates notion of what wisdom is. So, the Socratic notion of education is to ask people questions rather than to give them information. And I think in my own experience, as an educator, I’ve found that lecturing usually bounces off of people’s heads, but asking questions makes them think about how to answer.
And if you ask the right question, you have to think in the right way. And so, the wisdom in that point is actually, how do you come up with the right question to make people think about the problem, the right way. There’s a study by, uh, by Ferenbach and Sloman. That, that I really like, that we’ve been following up on, uh, Steve Sloman is at brown university.
And what they did is they sort of asked people to give reasons for liking or disliking public policy. And political scientists tell you that when you ask people to justify their beliefs, those justifications lead them to be more polarized. So, you know, if I tell you why I like public assistance or why I don’t like public assistance for people that will polarize my opinion, I will become more extreme.
The second condition they had was to ask people to explain the policy. Don’t justify it. Don’t say why you like it, or don’t like it, explain how it works, explain how people get money and what they do with it. What’s the process? Well, people realized when they tried to explain it when they were asked the question, how do you, how do you do X?
They didn’t understand it. And when they reported not understanding it, that particular study they became depolarized. One of the things that we’re interested in is that sometimes when you ask questions, people can understand what they don’t understand, and that increases epistemic humility and increases our epistemic, humility, I think may lead to wisdom or at least are important for wisdom.
So, for us at the center, we have sort of latched onto this notion that Socrates put forward, aside from the fact that he taught by asking questions, which is the heart of this point too.
He also believed that epistemic humility, knowing what you know, and knowing where the boundaries to that can be is at the heart of wisdom. So, his definition of wisdom was actually epistemic humility. We don’t think that’s all of it, but we think that’s a big part of it. And so, you probably can’t take someone else’s perspective unless you’re willing to realize you don’t really know their perspective.
If you assume, you know, their perspective that can often get you into a lot of trouble. And in fact, there were psychological studies on something called the fundamental attribution error that suggests we make errors about assuming what other people, why people do things that don’t take into account sort of their internal states in relation to the context in which they would be.
[00:14:39] Lesson 3: Wisdom requires understanding others
[00:14:39] Duff Watkins: All right. Then lesson number three, wisdom requires understanding others. Now tell me why I have to understand those people, Howard.
[00:14:46] Howard Nusbaum: One aspect of wisdom and I, so I, first off, I had just alluded to this in the sense of epistemic humility and why understanding other people’s perspectives can be gained as a function of epistemic humility. That is listening to what people’s concerns are listening to what affects them, what their values are. That’s an important way to understand their perspective. Why is that important for wisdom? So, I think that’s important for wisdom because of one part of Aristotle’s notion of why wisdom is important, why Phronesis practical wisdom is important and that is Aristotle claimed the practical wisdom leads to eudaimonia, which is essentially human flourishing.
So, flourish. What does it mean to flourish? Well, one way of people sort of in the vernacular thinking about flourishing is if I get more money and I get more food and you know, I live in a great house and it will be a great city, then I’ll flourish. But the way that I understand and from conversations to reface, as I think about human flourishing, it really has to do with how well other people are doing in relation to you too.
That is that’s a strong prosocial content to it. Uh, orientation. Why is that important? No person is an island to bastardize a famous quote. And I think, Shakespeare had the idea, correct in the sense that we are connected to lots of people and our wellbeing is connected to their wellbeing in lots of ways.
And so, the notion of understanding others is that in order to make choices that lead to human flourishing, which is one way in which Aristotle defined practical wisdom, in order to make those choices, you need to understand the impact of your choices on other people. And so, Valerie Tiberius has actually written a book about reflective wisdom, essentially.
Where she’s arguing that in order to make choices that are consistent with your values, your values have to be somehow appreciative of other people’s values. That’s all about perspective taking that’s about understanding other people.
[00:16:48] Duff Watkins: All right. Well, let me, let me quibble with Aristotle. He said if wisdom leads to human flourishing, let me just go back to the old Testament. And the book of Proverbs in much knowledge is much vexation. And the other phrase in English is ignorance is bliss. And I believe I see a lot of people who, um, avidly pursue ignorance and avidly even aggressively become ensconced in positions of ignorance, because it makes them feel good.
It makes them feel better. what’s your reaction to that?
[00:17:23] Howard Nusbaum: I think that’s right. I think so. I have talked to some former colleagues in the psychological sciences, in the cognitive sciences and they told me they don’t read anybody else’s work. They prefer to like go it alone and they think their own brilliance shines more brightly and were they to be informed about other people’s ideas?
It would dim their own creativity. I think that sticking your head in the sand is a good way to get a mouth full of sand. I just don’t think that isolating yourself from understanding other people is a way to increase your own wellbeing. And so, in order to address that, I guess I want to make a distinction between feeling good now and flourishing in the long-term that is there a lots of things we can do to feel good now.
for example, eating a whole cake will make you feel good while you’re eating it. And the minute you’re done presuming you don’t throw up. You’ll probably feel pretty sick to your stomach. Anyway, there are lots of things you can do to feel good now, but the notion of. Flourishing has to do with longevity of feeling good.
And in the long-term, if you ignore the way other people are doing, imagine that you become an island isolated from others. If you were only rich and never gave away your money, there would be a lot of poor people in the world. But if you give away your money to a lot of people, you feel good doing it and other people prosper.
And when they prosper, perhaps that comes back in various ways to support you. But in other ways, at least if you give to your community, your community does better. So as my example of that, I actually chose to become the chair of the department of psychology at a time when the chair quit over attempts to make the psychology department better, he quit because people were upset, but I chose to become the chair of psychology because I thought I have to live in this department.
And it’s my choice to make it a better place to be. And I can tell you this stressful,
not the most fun I’ve ever had and yet the psychology department changed through the group effort, not just my efforts alone, but recruiting everyone together to work, to make it a better department, made it a better place to live. And indeed, the psychology department being a better place to live my life as a psychologist was better.
[00:19:45] Duff Watkins: You touched upon something that’s near and dear to my heart, the myth of the lone genius. It just, in fact, Leonardo da Vinci, there was a pretty bright, pretty skilled guy.
He had so many students in assistance in his painting laboratory, whatever you can’t even tell who put what stroke onto which of his masterpieces. Plus, even when he had the idea for the Vitruvian man, the famous painting or drawing of the human used in human anatomy. He shared it and discuss it with his friends and mates and they went over different versions of it.
And the whole point is that creativity is collaborative. Or as I like to say in the business world, innovation is a team sport.
[00:20:23] Howard Nusbaum: Absolutely. So, the MIT innovation lab that Eric von Hippel runs out of MIT is all about that. It’s all about open-source innovation. The more disseminated ideas are, the more people will add onto those ideas and new things emerge.
And I think that is sort of an intellectual version of what we’re talking about in terms of wisdom, which is a more social version, more functional version that is sharing your experiences with other people in, and sort of learning about other people’s experiences is in part of what enriches our lives.
Um, making choices that don’t just benefit ourselves, but maybe benefit others when appropriate. I think that’s something that adds to wisdom. I’m not sure that that’s wisdom by itself, but I think it’s a part of wisdom.
[00:21:08] Lesson 4: Grasp the vastness of your ignorance
[00:21:08] Duff Watkins: All right. Well, that takes us to our next lesson, which is wisdom is grasping the vastness of your ignorance.
Wait a minute, Howard. You have any idea how ignorant I am? I mean, how am I going to get my arms around that universe of ignorance?
[00:21:23] Howard Nusbaum: So, you know, a famous American politician talked about, the known unknowns unknown, oh, please just, he will remain nameless for our purposes, uh I’ll call him, Harry Potter. But, um, I think that the issue here is that we, it goes back to the other issue about asking questions.
It goes back to the notion that certainty in our knowledge might better be qualified substantially. And so, understanding that there is much more to be known. Leads us to ask more questions, which leads us to be more engaged with others, leads us to find out things that we don’t know about. If all you do is sit at home in the pandemic, your exposure to other cultures, other values, other visions, other ideas become minimal.
And if you’re sure that, you know, every answer, um, you are also assured to trip over the things that you don’t expect. So, I think that this issue is part of this notion of epistemic humility and that the things we don’t know are always, always, always much bigger than what we think they are. So, one of the things we found in a study that’s not yet published is that we found that, wisdom is actually correlated with tolerance of uncertainty.
It is your willingness to accept that you just don’t know things that there, there is more uncertainty than we’re willing to acknowledge. Um, typically is part of wisdom. And so, I think that’s important,
[00:22:56] Duff Watkins: but psychologically though, I crave, we crave certainty, and we’ll go to great links to make up stuff, to, to fill in the gaps.
So, so how do we resolve this creative tension? I mean, basically we know nothing. We’re not going to know anything. We don’t have a whole lot of time to master it, but I got to have certainty.
[00:23:15] Howard Nusbaum: So that, that’s an interesting issue because it’s something that scientists have to grapple with. So, one model of science is a kind of progressive, advanced towards truth.
And some people will think they got there and they’re sure they got, but I’ll tell you the wrong. I’ll just tell you with certainty. Here’s my certainty. They’re wrong, whoever they are. They’re wrong. One of my wise graduate professors said when it comes to theory, it’s better to rent than it is to bond.
Cause it’s the upkeep that will kill you. I think that this issue is an interesting one. What you’re pointing out is that people have biases. There are things we like, there are things we don’t like. And one of the issues about wisdom is maybe we have to challenge the things we like, because not all the things we like are good for us, or at least temper them as much as possible.
So yeah, I’ll take certainty that everybody’s wrong about their theories. I think it’s a safe bet. but I’ll tell you that I’m always hesitant to propose a theory. When I talk about science, I’m hesitant to even give the names theory to something, just because it gives it a little bit more inertia.
People are more willing to accept it. And I’d rather talk about frameworks for theories or foundations or axioms or assumptions, things that can still be tested and things that can be blown away by the wind that strong enough from empirical observation. So, I think that what you’re talking about is the kind of bias that we have in lots of ways.
And we have lots of biases. So Kahneman Tversky told us about lots of biases we have in decision-making, like the endowment bias, for example, you know, if I hand you a cup and say, it’s yours, you’ll want more money for that coffee, even if it’s not any different from a cup of the bookstore, that’s just the bias.
And that bias can be overcome by experience in say financial trading. So, some of the work that we’ve actually done that work basically shows that, you know, people who.
Have the endowment effect are malleable by experience. The more treating you do the lesson dominant effect you have. So, all of these biases can change with experience. And I think wisdom is benefited by changing some of those biases
[00:25:20] Duff Watkins: and these biases that you’re talking about, whether it’s confirmation bias or the depth, we have these biases.
Not because we’re so damn stupid and slow, but because that’s just the way the brain works. And we’re trying to make decisions, sometimes complex decisions under certain constraints a finite amount of time. We only have a minuscule amount of information. So, we have to decide something, and you see this in the commercial world all the time.
Having said that though, I’m a believer that if you’re not continually amazed at how stupid you were two weeks ago, then, then you haven’t, you haven’t moved on you. Haven’t learned something. And that to me, I would say is the abnormal state affairs.
[00:25:58] Howard Nusbaum: I think that’s right. I think people don’t attend to the moments where they have had learning occur.
And if they were to mark those moments, then they might be more appreciative of the fact that those are huge benefits to them, that they would look for those more rather than pass over them. And the truth is, I think, unfortunately that many more opportunities go unnoticed for that kind of enlightenment.
So, I mean, this is a conversation that I was having with my wife about a class that she’s teaching now, which is a core course at the university of Chicago. And basically, you can give students information, but you can’t make them think, you know, and they’ll, they’ll learn how to parrot it back.
They’ll learn how to reform it. And revise it, but to make them think about the correlates of it, the implications of it, to take fire up in the philosophers, view, the counter induction about it, and reason against it, that’s hard work and people aren’t always willing to do the hard work in all circumstances, were they to recognize those opportunities, they might do more of that hard work and they might have more of those opportunities again.
[00:27:05] Duff Watkins: Yes. That’s one of my takeaways from doing this series in my own life, wisdom requires a certain amount of exertion to acquire. Dilip Jest whom you know, is an eminent psychologist. He said, if you think you’re wise, you’re not, you know, you have to go after it. You have to, you have to make it some sort of a, a discipline.
[00:27:25] Lesson 5: Curiosity fuels wisdom.
[00:27:25] Duff Watkins: And that takes us up to your point number five, curiosity fuels wisdom.
[00:27:32] Howard Nusbaum: Yeah. And I think that’s, that goes back to the vastness of ignorance. That is, you can realize that you’re ignorant, but you can accept it, or you can realize your ignorance and be energized by it. And that energizing means you want to reduce some of that ignorance. You want to explore that ignorance.
You want to step into it. You’re not afraid of it. So, curiosity, and this is something that, that I’ve heard from other colleagues. We don’t usually talk about curiosity in the context of wisdom per se. And yet we need to talk more about motivational forces that lead to wisdom. And I think curiosity is one of those curiosity leads us to ask questions.
The questions of point number two, become fueled by curiosity. So, you can, you can ask those questions in a rote way. And can you ask those questions is because, you know, you’re supposed to ask questions or you can ask them out of a genuine motivation to understand other people, to understand other kinds of things that you have no experience with, to learn about the law.
Just because the law is mysterious, but interesting. people can say, well, you know, I don’t know anything about the law. I have to go consult with somebody about that. Or you can say, I’m curious, why is the constitution the way it is and why do we hold it in reverence in the United States? And why does it form the basis for a lot of law?
And those are basic questions. And if you get curious about them and start reading, you learn more than just about the things you’re reading. You learn how to ask questions, which you didn’t know the same way before you started reading. Take Nesbit who was a psychologist. Basically, wrote an article that he had a hard time publishing.
It was a kind of version of the Screwtape letters, but it was aimed at psychologist, and it was where a senior tempter was instructing a junior attempt or about how does the school, a graduate student in psychology. And one of the fundamental presets was don’t let them read anything outside their area.
And of course, the motto is read anything that’s outside your area, because what you learn always comes back to benefit you. The more curiosity you have about more things to better informs you in every think.
[00:29:43] Duff Watkins: Well, first of all, you must send me that article because I know the Screwtape letters as well.
What you’re saying, I used to give a lecture about mental health and one of the. Aspects characteristics of mental health myth, positive good mental health is curiosity. And the example I use again straight from the old Testament, Moses was out one day, and he saw this flickering burning thing on the horizon and said, what the hell was that?
I’m paraphrasing, don’t race to your old Testament and look that up either. You know? So, he says, I gotta check this out. So, it goes over there and it’s a burning Bush turns out to be God and the rest of the story. Well, you know, so, but it all starts with curiosity and curiosity is the, well, as you’re saying curiosity is what motivates the asking.
And it’s a form of seeking to understand and not just passively accepting. Is that a fair description?
[00:30:32] Howard Nusbaum: I think, I think that’s exactly right. One of the things that I, I think is really important for people is to be actively engaging with the world, as opposed to just observing the world.
And the reason for that is, if you actively engage the world, it causes you to question yourself as much as questioning the world. If you’re observing the world, there’s no reason to necessarily turn your eye inward as well. And to say, how does this change the way I think about myself? And so, the thing about the dynamic between sort of the inner self and the externalities, I think is part of that process by which people change.
I mean, one of the things that we study in my lab, I jokingly refer, and I don’t think any of my students would ever repeat this as learning the unlearnable. That is, we teach people to have perfect pitch, which is supposed to be something you’re like, they’re born. There you go. Um, we’ve been able to do it.
So that, I mean, that’s, that’s sort of in a, with a different hat on, I do that kind of work, but, but the notion of wisdom as a skill, the notion that wisdom wise reasoning is something that you can actually develop. That’s a little bit anathema to the sort of traditions of wisdom, which say either have to suffer or it’s, you know, you get to the right age with the right kinds of experiences.
And the thing that we explore is whether or not you can give someone certain experiences that can shape the way they can learn. And so, if you shape the way people can learn, curiosity, I think is a critical element. We haven’t explored trying to get people to learn curiosity, but one of the things that curiosity is intentioned with is sort of what, what is called in the psychological literature, effectance motivation.
When you learn a skill, when you learn to do something, it makes you feel better. Like learning to do something successfully is its own reward. You feel good doing something well, if you investigate something, if you learn about something, you feel good also. And that fuels curiosity. And so, setting up those kinds of dynamic relationships, wanting to know, learning, and then feeling good that you’ve acquired something new and that it’s changed the way you are, is a way of developing sort of that skill of questing seeking.
And then, enhancing what you know.
[00:32:48] Duff Watkins: So, the prime beneficiary from all of this, this curiosity and motivation and, and empathy basically is me the user, the seeker, the pursuer of wisdom, the person who wants to get better. And I think that point doesn’t get hammered enough. You do it because it benefits you.
[00:33:07] Howard Nusbaum: I think that’s right. It, you know, there are two models of generosity. One model of generosity is people give away things because of the reputation has improved. or there are other kinds of benefits to the crew, but there’s another kind of model, which is the warm and fuzzy feeling model, which is you give something because it makes you feel good.
And I think in this case, we’re talking about the fact that in some respects being wiser may make you feel good because it benefits other people. And that’s part of what humans flourishing is that sort of dynamic, that is the connection of making choices that affect other people positively also affects you positively
[00:33:48] Lesson 6: Gratitude can lead to wisdom
[00:33:48] Duff Watkins: well.
And that takes us to point number six, then gratitude can lead to wisdom.
[00:33:53] Howard Nusbaum: Exactly. I think that this notion of gratitude is where people think they’re giving away something like I’m giving something to you. When I express my gratitude. Obviously, gratitude comes in response to something, but to express gratitude is to give away something.
And yet, um, so Janice Kaplan has a book called the gratitude diaries, and she documents in that chapter-by-chapter different forms of gratitude. And each time she seems surprised and acknowledges that expressing gratitude actually benefits for as well. It can benefit her in the way she feels about herself and the way she feels about other people in the way other people treat her.
And so, expressing gratitude that is reflecting on the benefits. One, gets from giving I think ties, gratitude, generosity in some sense. And it ties a positive motivation, like curiosity to wisdom. So that’s where I think gratitude is important. That is connecting to other people, acknowledging what other people give to you when they answer your questions.
When you learn about their perspective and their experience, I think that’s an important part of wisdom.
[00:35:01] Duff Watkins: I heard a, a Zen story about gratitude that, influenced me greatly. Tell me if you’ve heard it. The Zen master was there and there was a rich man in town, and he decided to make a gift to the Zen master for his school.
So, he got a big sack of gold, and he goes there and the Zen master sitting there teaching it wastes has turned on the line and he puts down a big sack of gold and said, there that’s for you master it’s for you and the school. And the Zen master says, put it over there. And the guy says, okay, puts the gold there.
And he steps back. And the Zen master says, what is it? And the. Rich guys will see a lot of money, you know, it’s just, you know, just so you know, there’s a lot of gold inside the sack and the Zen master said. And so, and, uh, the guy said, well, I just, that it’s, you know, it’s more money than most people make in months.
And the Zen master said, so you want thanks. Is that it? And the guy said, well, you know, and the Zen master said, I thought it was the giver of the gift who felt the gratitude. And that is just really shaped my, my feelings about why I do things of generosity. What is the purpose?
What is the point behind it is to seek attention is to sort of big note yourself? Is it to say any of this it’s reminded me of what to, along the lines of what you were saying?
[00:36:19] Howard Nusbaum: And I think that’s, I think that’s right that, um, you know, other kinds of theologies, like in Jewish theology, for example, there’s this.
Kind of notion that giving charity without acknowledgement of its source is perhaps the highest form of given. you don’t give it for the recognition of the giving. You give it to be helpful. And so is it Nikki Sullivan, who I mentioned earlier, who is a faculty member at London, school of economics and John List and Ali Hortaçsu are economists in Chicago.
And I did a study about giving. And in in fact, you can see in the brains of givers, two kinds of responses, one kind of giver shows a response in what’s called the striatum. That straddle response is actually a positive, uh, effect of benefit. You get a dopamine reward, response. Other people have a response in prefrontal regions that are pro-social that are about the way you think about other people. And you might be thinking, how does this help my reputation? You know, et cetera, et cetera. And in this experimental studies that we’ve done, you can see that people who give for the, shall we say warm and fuzzy dopamine reasons continued to give, even when they could take, when there’s an opportunity for them to take from someone else.
Whereas the other people stopped giving. And so, the people who are only socially thinking about socially considerations, those people stopped giving when there’s an opportunity to stop giving, it’s almost like if you’re not watching them do this, they’re not going to give, whereas other people are giving because they feel the benefit of it. And perhaps they feel the benefit of it because they’ve seen the impact on other people. I do think that this issue about our internal states of motivation is important. Were people that have to keep doing things even when it’s difficult to do them. And so positive motivations are very useful for that.
[00:38:15] Lesson 7: Try a little harder, try a little longer
[00:38:15] Duff Watkins: Which takes us to the next point lesson, number seven, try a little harder, try a little longer.
[00:38:20] Howard Nusbaum: I mentioned the science of virtues project that I was involved in with Templeton. Um, and one of the groups that we funded, consisted of Jim Heckman, who was a Nobel prize, winning economist, Angela Duckworth was a psychologist and a MacArthur fellow. Uh, at Penn and Gabriel Lira was a philosopher at Chicago and the Angela Duckworth’s research has been about grit, and while there are questions raised about, of, uh, you know, some of the claims about grit and so forth, one of the things that is important, I think about it is the notion of intellectual struggle and the willingness to work at hard problems. So, I think wisdom depends on the fact that you don’t give up when you’re faced with a difficult problem.
The traditional Solomonic example of dividing the baby between two claimants, as parents, you know, the easy thing would have been to make a decision to give the kid to one or the other arbitrarily or to take the kid into public, care or something like that. So, it makes a hard decision to work
[00:39:25] Duff Watkins: just on that.
Let me just make that story clear. This is our third old Testament reference of the day. How would we have a new record? So, Solomon had to make a decision. Two women appeared before him at claiming that they were the mother of a baby and Solomon made the decision, uh, cut the baby in half.
Uh, but it was kind of a Fein decision because he knew the original mother would say, no, no, no, the real mother was saying, no, no, no, she can have the baby because the real mother would care so much for the baby that she would give it up because she wanted the baby to live. And thereby Solomon determined who was the proper mother and who was lying just to put that story in there because not everybody may be familiar with it.
[00:40:02] Howard Nusbaum: That’s a good point. Anyway, so I think these issues are that in wise reasoning, people may do the smart thing, which might be an easy thing, or they might do the cheap thing. To find the wise choice, it’s sometimes more difficult. one of the examples that was brought to me by student in class was a basketball coach at Michigan state, uh, who was offered a job coaching.
The Cleveland Cavaliers basketball team would have made an incredible amount of money. coaching, a championship basketball team professionally, and he didn’t make a decision right away. And he thought about it for a long time. And ultimately his decision was to stay in Michigan state and coached the basketball team for college.
And one of the things he said about it was, you know, basically there is boys that he has seen generation after generation grow up under his, his coaching and tutelage. And then another thing you said. My daughter said, she’d have to move to Cleveland and make all new friends. And they would be friends based on his reputation.
Not based on her, thinking about all those kinds of subtleties. That’s not something that comes to right away. I mean, even if your kid comes to you and says, dad, I don’t want friends based on your reputation to understand that deeply. And to make that a part of your choice about giving up a multimillion-dollar job, that means you had to think hard about it and think hard about the implications.
And I think that whether grit is the thing that determines people’s success in life, I think that perseverance with curiosity about solving problems that are very difficult as part of wisdom.
[00:41:39] Duff Watkins: And when you make those decisions, when you do persevere.
[00:41:42] Lesson 8: Reflect before acting; reflect after acting
[00:41:42] Duff Watkins: That takes us to lesson number eight, reflect before acting, reflect after acting.
[00:41:50] Howard Nusbaum: Yeah, I think that that goes back to this book by Valerie Tiberius a lot. So, there’s a notion that is, bubbling up. It’s got a lot of traction in psychology from Jonathan Haidt about having moral intuitions. That is a lot of his work has, has downplayed the role of thinking active thinking about moral choices.
But Valerie Tiberius, his book is about the importance of reflection. Not that we reflect about every choice. She makes the point that some choices are reflectable you could think about them, but then oftentimes, we need to think carefully and analytically, both about the impact on other people and the impact on ourselves, in different choices.
About the short term, about the long-term. There are a lot of things to consider for some kinds of decisions. And so, the reflect before acting the reflect before choosing is really about. Thinking through the type of alternatives of all the people that will be affected like your daughter, if you take a job in another city and what it means for her rather than your finances or your reputation. To reflect after is really to understand the consequences of having made a choice.
Things don’t always work out the way we think they will. So one of the things that I think is really important is distinguishing what wisdom is in a person from the way society, judges, wisdom, society says, this is a wise decision when things work out well, but when we make decisions, they don’t always work out well and understanding why they didn’t work out, whether it was chance or whether it was because you did the wrong thing or you misunderstood the situation.
I think that’s an important part of developing your understanding about how to solve problems.
[00:43:37] Duff Watkins: can you make a wise decision and have it still be wrong?
[00:43:40] Howard Nusbaum: I think so. I think that making a wise decision it’s about the process you engage in, and we don’t know everything. We’re not always right. If it was a sure thing that is, if there was a short bet, it probably wouldn’t require wisdom. If an outcome was certain, it wouldn’t require wisdom. If there was no uncertainty, no risk.
It wouldn’t be about wisdom. And so, I think there are plenty of times when we engage in a wise reasoning process and perhaps have a bad outcome or not a positive outcome.
[00:44:12] Lesson 9: Think about making wiser decisions rather than being wiser
[00:44:12] Duff Watkins: Well, and that takes us to lesson number nine. Don’t try to be wise. Just try to make wiser decisions.
[00:44:21] Howard Nusbaum: Yeah, I think that’s an important distinction in a couple of ways.
So, I don’t think a lot of us want to be wise necessarily. People don’t actually think about being wise. They think about maybe doing the smart thing, being smart, being rich, people don’t put wisdom on the table necessarily as the thing they want to do. But in philosophy and religion theology, in talking about wisdom, people talk about wisdom as a property of a person.
There is a wise person, there’s a foolish person. That’s the kind of discourse you hear in order to understand wisdom. And in order to give it, if you will, to the grasp of the average person to think, could the next decision you wiser, it may not be the wisest decision you could make, but could you take into account other people’s perspectives more so than you are currently?
Could you think a little bit more? Then you were going to, could you be less impulsive? Those are the kinds of things that if you start thinking about them might make decisions wiser. Even if the decision itself doesn’t reach the standard of the wisest thing one could do in that circumstance.
[00:45:29] Duff Watkins: So, it’s incremental progress towards wisdom, simply making a little bit wiser decision each and every time and incremental progress is the way basically pretty much happens in life.
[00:45:40] Howard Nusbaum: I think that’s right. I think that this goes back to something I mentioned about thinking about why is reasoning as a skill. You know, you’re not the best tennis player at the end of your tennis lessons. You’re just ready to start getting better by playing more. And I think that’s the same thing with wisdom that is making wiser decisions a little bit wiser each time taking into account more.
Those are the things that are important about, about getting a little bit wiser. And so. I, I think you can become wiser. And I think that we want to think about it as a graded scale. Not you’re either wise or, you’re not wise. And the, probably the reality is people might be wiser in some domains of their life than others.
So, you might have more expertise in one domain. You might have better insight. One domain might have more empathy in one domain based on your experiences, but you know, the mathematician may be great at solving mathematical theorems and very poor at solving her check book. and so, it may be the case that you could be wise in some domains or wiser in some domains than others.
[00:46:47] Duff Watkins: What is your definition of wisdom? Howard, if somebody comes off the street says, says you’re an expert. What is wisdom? How would you answer?
[00:46:55] Howard Nusbaum: Uh, I tend to shy away from trying to answer that question typically. Th that wisdom is, wisdom is practical. Decision-making that takes into account the concerns of others, where you have reflected on those concerns.
I think that’s the, the general statement that I would make. That’s not a complete statement, but, as a theologian once said, trying to recite everything from the Talmud on one foot, a form of the golden rule do unto others as you would not have them do to you, I think is probably the, the answer here for wisdom too.
[00:47:37] Lesson 10: Wisdom is a skill you can learn
[00:47:37] Duff Watkins: well, that takes us to the 10th lesson and I’m saving the best for last.
And you’ve touched upon this several times. Wisdom is a skill that you listener you viewer can learn. Okay. Please elaborate.
[00:47:50] Howard Nusbaum: So, I think that all the things we’ve been talking about are the elements that people can practice. You can practice trying to understand other people. And when you realize that there are limits to what you understand about other people, you can ask them questions.
So that’s a skill understanding other people is a skill that you can develop and by interacting with other people and ask any of those questions, you rapidly come to improve that skill. You need that skill for the skill of wisdom, starting to think more, taking a breath before you make a choice, maybe thinking about all the elements that go into that, and then thinking, what have I left out and asking somebody, what have I left out is a way to improve that skill. Each one of these parts is a skill, I think.
[00:48:36] Duff Watkins: And, and the key word is practice.
I mean, even, even your center, the Chicago center for practical wisdom, it entails practice, which means repetition, which means. Trying something new, trying it, something slightly different. I’ll use a basketball example. I can shoot basketball. I’m right-handed and basketball, but I can shoot left-handed it’s ugly.
My God is ugly, but I can shoot left-handed I use a left-handed mouse and it simply comes about developing a skill with practice. And so, you’re saying wisdom is no different. It’s just a series of practices that one employs in order to become wiser.
[00:49:12] Howard Nusbaum: That’s right. I think it’s maybe heretical, it falls under the learning, the unlearnable notion.
And I think it is something that takes practice, just like playing the piano or playing basketball. I don’t think it comes natively to us. I’m not even sure that wisdom is a natural kind like eyesight. I mean, people, people with sort of normal physiology anatomy, everyone can see, what the skill of being a radiologist depends on looking at, uh, a picture of splotches of gray and black images and seeing them as organs.
And you don’t do that the first day. You look at a rate, a radiological image. You don’t look at x-rays and automatically do that. You’d have to develop that skill. And in much the same way. I think wisdom is a kind of skill that you develop by practicing these elements and practicing them together. By trying to decide is this choice I’m making, going to affect other people.
How many times a day do you actually think about that? Like if you go have a cupcake after lunch to think, how is this going to affect other people? Probably not, but it could. And when you start practicing those kinds of, shall we say expansive thoughts. It becomes clearer to you when you have more appropriate situations that may be more dire and critical for wise thinking what you need to start thinking about.
[00:50:32] Duff Watkins: I’m really forming the impression that One cannot be wise alone. So much of what you’ve said, Howard, in emphasizes the connectivity of, tying in with other people, whether it’s empathy or simply, foreshadowing, what the actions, what effect it might have on other people.
So, it seems wisdom is a communal thing.
[00:50:52] Howard Nusbaum: I think that’s right. It’s an interesting conversation that has taken place. in the meeting in Toronto, of a group of people interested in wisdom is that one of the cognitive scientists sort of evoked the notion of this Sage on an isolated mountain top as a wise person.
And I think that hearkens to the fact that there’s the distinction between Aristotle made between Sophia and theoretical wisdom and Phronesis practical wisdom. So practical wisdom is the thing that leads to eudaimonia or human flourishing. How do you flourish you flourish when other people do better as well?
I think, um, I take that from Aristotle. I take that from the virtue Efesios and from Aquinas and the conversations about it, that wisdom is sort of orchestrating a set of virtues, but the virtues themselves lead to other people, um, doing better and therefore leads to you doing better. So, yes, I think about practical wisdom is something that is at least communally integrated in some sense.
Whereas I think about theoretical wisdom is something that could sit on a mountain top alone, and it might not make you feel worse, might not make you feel better, uh, for a lot of reasons.
[00:52:04] Duff Watkins: Well, um, let’s finish on one. I have one more question for you that is unscripted and that is this, we’ve talked a lot about what you’ve learned over the years and what wisdom is, but what have you unlearned lately?
And by that, I mean, something you absolutely positively knew to be true yesterday or last week or last year, but now realize is just not the case
[00:52:27] Howard Nusbaum: the clearest example is not actually in the domain of wisdom. Um, I don’t think we’ve done enough research yet to, to unlearn anything and so far. Um, I think a lot of the research on wisdom seems to be coherent with the kinds of thinking that philosophers and theologians have done for a long time, but it is true that, for years I wrote papers that basically argued that when we speak, we don’t actually need to use our knowledge of, of, I mean, when we listen to other people’s speaking, we don’t need to use our knowledge of speech production.
So, I asserted that many, many times. I raised it as a kind of question, but mostly I was arguing that speech perception, understanding other people’s speech doesn’t require modeling the way the speech was produced. And then we started doing neuroimaging and looking inside people’s heads when they were listening to speech and lo and behold, we could see lots of evidence that the MOBID system is active.
So, one of the things that I think I have unlearned is the fact that my certainty, which was there solid about aspects of psychology. Probably should not be so certain as it was. So maybe gaining a little bit of epistemic humility as a consequence of sort of increased methods and means of doing science, has been sort of an important lesson for me.
[00:53:49] Duff Watkins: An ongoing lesson for us all. And we will finish here on that note, listeners, viewers, you’ve been listening to the podcast and lessons, just took me 50 years to learn. Our guest today has been Professor Howard Nussbaum, who is the founder and director of the Chicago center for practical wisdom.