March 1, 2007
Vol. 26 No. 11

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    Templeton grants support research in Business, Psychology

    By William Harms and Allan Friedman
    News Office, Chicago GSB

    The University’s Graduate School of Business and Department of Psychology have received nearly $3 million in two separate grants from the John Templeton Foundation. The grants will support a new three-year interdisciplinary project by the GSB’s Center for Decision Research and also a study in language and spirituality in Psychology.

    The Templeton Foundation’s investment in the GSB will allow faculty members who are foremost researchers in the fields of behavioral economics, behavioral finance, cognitive psychology and decision-making to pursue an ambitious research agenda, said Edward Snyder, Dean of the GSB and the George Pratt Shultz Professor of Economics.

    The project, titled “Understanding Human Nature to Harness Human Potential,” will be undertaken by faculty members, post-doctoral fellows and doctoral students in the Center for Decision Research, one of the world’s oldest academic centers focused on decision-making.

    Snyder said the new interdisciplinary program will “advance the state of knowledge concerning human nature” and that this new knowledge may help determine what potential interventions might best improve society.

    Richard Thaler, the Ralph and Dorothy Keller Distinguished Service Professor of Behavioral Science and Economics in the GSB, will direct the project. Thaler, who also is the Director of the Center for Decision Research, is a founder of the field of behavioral economics and a recognized authority on potential applications for improving social life.

    Thaler’s work lies at the intersection between economics and psychology. He investigates the implications of relaxing the standard economic assumption about human nature—that members of the economy are fully rational and ultimately selfish—to utilize what is known in psychology about actual human nature.

    Thaler is widely recognized for the impact his Save More Tomorrow plans have had in encouraging savings in a wide variety of settings. These plans harness basic human tendencies to help people achieve their good intentions for saving money and increase their potential for financial independence.

    The three-year project, which will begin Thursday, March 15, will explore questions about human capabilities and tendencies such as:

    What is the effect of goal-setting on performance and levels of satisfaction, and how can both be optimized?

    How can the wisdom acquired through life experience among the elderly be harnessed to enhance their cognitive functioning and thereby improve their quality of life?

    Can a science of happiness and well-being as sophisticated and thorough as the existing science of economics be designed?

    “Our goal with the Human Nature/Human Potential program,” said Thaler, “is to better understand fundamental human capabilities and tendencies with an eye toward using these basic tendencies, which often are recognized as shortcomings, to improve human functioning. Only an empirical-based understanding of human nature can provide insights into such possibilities for improvement, and we will use rigorous scientific research to uncover these possibilities and develop individual and policy-level applications to improve human life.”

    Howard Nusbaum, Chairman of Psychology and Professor in Psychology and the College, is the principal investigator for a study of neural mechanisms that operate in social and religious language use and in spiritual experiences, as well as how spirituality and sociality modulate patterns of brain activity. The study results will provide better scientific understanding of the biological mechanisms involved in social interaction and spirituality.

    “It seems unlikely that language processing can truly be isolated from the meaning and personal impact of what is being conveyed,” Nusbaum said. “This research is intended to investigate the neural mechanisms that mediate the emotional and social aspects of language use, including prayer and religious speech.”

    Because people pray both alone and in groups, neural mechanisms may be influenced by both individual differences and social connectedness, he said.

    The project will first look at the neural mechanisms that mediate cognitive and emotional aspects of language use and the role of spirituality and social connection. The researchers then will look at brain activity in people experiencing more charismatic spiritual experiences, such as speaking in tongues.

    “This research is based on a positive understanding of humans as a social species that has evolved with the motive to form and maintain relationships, including a relationship with God,” Nusbaum said.

    The John Templeton Foundation has supported research and scholarly programs on a global scale for nearly 20 years. Its mission is to serve as a philanthropic catalyst for discovery in areas that engage life’s biggest questions.

    For more information about the Center for Decision Research, please visit: http://www.chicagocdr.org/ and http://chicagogsb.edu/capideas/sept04/sept04index.html.