Empowering People through Behavioral Science

About The Project

There may be no greater resource for human achievement than the sense of purpose. Purpose is a stable and generalized intention to accomplish something that is meaningful to the self, and often is of consequence to the world beyond the self*.  Purpose provides a guiding light as we forge a path through the frenzy and chaos of modern life.  To move forward, leaders must offer a vision of the future that inspires.  Innovators must take necessary risks on ideas, methods, and collaborators.  People need to believe in human potential and act on our capacities for noble and responsible self-determination.  Yet lives of purpose are undermined daily by obstacles that we fail to anticipate, and thus to overcome.

To address this problem, the Center for Decision Research (CDR) at The University of Chicago Booth School of Business has launched “Enhancing the Human Experience through Behavioral Science: New Paths to Purpose,” a 3-year, $3.6 million project aimed at transforming how we think about and experience purpose.  At the heart of this effort is a determination to engage an ever-expanding community of minds addressing this central question: How might individuals actively shape—rather than merely inhabit—their environments, and thus become more purposeful, powerful creators of their destiny?

Over the course of the project, our core team of internationally renowned scientists will devote themselves to this aim through four focal initiatives:

  • Behavioral science research at the CDR that will help to reshape understandings of the human experience of purpose
  • An ambitious expansion of the behavioral study of purpose by supporting related research at other institutions
  • Translation of project insights into educational offerings that can inspire present and future citizens of the world
  • Outreach activities to help communicate with and involve external audiences

Leading this project are Richard Thaler, Ralph and Dorothy Keller Distinguished Service Professor of Behavioral Science and Economics, and Eugene Caruso, Associate Professor of Behavioral Science.  Backed by their vision, initiative, and outreach, the project has established its foundation in four ambitious research agendas, described here .

* Our definition of purpose comes from: 
Damon, W., Menon, J., & Bronk, K. (2003). The development of purpose during adolescence.  Applied Developmental Science 7 , 119-128.

Project Themes

NPP researchers are exploring the human experience of purpose along many different lines. Below the principal themes that guide this work, along with illustrative questions and topics of interest. Click on a theme to learn more!

Purpose in Goal Pursuit

The  Purpose in Goal Pursuit  theme focuses our attention on the situational or contextual factors that might influence people’s motivation to set, pursue, and accomplish their significant short- and long-term goals. How do such external influences (e.g., physical environment, social forces, peers) compare to and work with internal influences (e.g., self-control, moral identity, personal beliefs) in inspiring and facilitating the achievement of purpose?


Purpose Across the Lifespan

Sometimes people have the same goals and purposes for most of their life, yet other times they abandon some goals or adopt new ones. Work on  Purpose Across the Lifespan  considers the many implications of this fact, asking questions like: How do specific goals develop in children? What are the factors that determine whether and for how long these early goals will be pursued? What prompts people to abandon existing goals or adopt new ones? In what ways do goals change with various milestones throughout life (e.g., the birth of children, retirement)?


Purpose & Wealth

Work on  Purpose & Wealth  is grounded in the question of how one’s pursuit and achievement of purpose is affected by wealth. How does one decide how much wealth to devote to different kinds of significant activities, and how might the investment of wealth in the self vs. others relate to the experience and fulfillment of purpose? How does wealth relate to the pursuit of personal and prosocial goals? How are personal and prosocial goals affected when one has great wealth, compared to little wealth?


Practical Tools for Purpose

With work on  Practical Tools for Purpose , we acknowledge that although people routinely strive to achieve their intended goals and aspirations, they are not always as successful as they would like to be, and successful individual strategies for achieving intended goals are not readily translated to broader audiences. Accordingly, we ask: What tools would allow the benefits of purpose to be realized in policy, educational, medical, and organizational settings? What interventions—at the individual level, the group level, or the societal level—can best promote the adoption, pursuit, and achievement of purpose in human life? How can the impact of such interventions be quantified and sustained across time?


Purpose & Prosocial Behavior

Work on  Purpose & Prosocial Behavior   is centered on the discovery of factors that attract individuals to prosocial behaviors like volunteering, teaching, and serving others.  Here, we ask questions like: To what extent are the factors that promote the initiation of prosocial behavior the same as the factors which best sustain ongoing prosocial behavior? When are “push” factors more or less effective than “pull” factors in initiating and sustaining prosocial behavior?


Purpose & Well-Being

Work on  Purpose & Well-Being  recognizes that although purpose is commonly understood to be a source of deep personal fulfillment, little is known about just how individuals connect the sense, pursuit, and experience of purpose to their own well-being in everyday life.  To what extent do people accurately identify purposeful activities that are likely to improve their well-being? What factors promote the recognition of purposeful activity as an avenue to greater well-being? Under what conditions do people feel inspired and empowered to seek greater well-being through purposeful experience?


how can behavioral science lead to more purpose?



The Center for Decision Research

The Center for Decision Research is devoted to the study of how individuals form judgments and make decisions. Researchers at the center examine the processes by which intuition, reasoning, and social interaction produce beliefs, judgments, and choices. Understanding how and why people make decisions has important applications in a range of contexts, including management, marketing, finance, and public policy.

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Chicago Booth

We are the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. Since 1898, we have produced ideas and leaders that shape the world of business. Our rigorous, discipline-based approach to business education transforms our students into confident, effective, respected business leaders prepared to face the toughest challenges.

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The John Templeton Foundation

The John Templeton Foundation serves as a philanthropic catalyst for discoveries relating to the Big Questions of human purpose and ultimate reality. We support research on subjects ranging from complexity, evolution, and infinity to creativity, forgiveness, love, and free will. We encourage civil, informed dialogue among scientists, philosophers, and theologians and between such experts and the public at large, for the purposes of definitional clarity and new insights.

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If you are interested in funding New Paths to Purpose work or related projects, please contact us at purpose[at]chicagobooth.edu or (773) 702-1212. We look forward to hearing from you.


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