Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Psychology Commencement Address 2015 at the University of Texas

I had the honor of giving the commencement address to the Psychology students at the University of Texas in 2015.  Here are my remarks.

Graduates, family and friends, faculty, Dean Flores.  I am honored to be speaking at today’s commencement.  Before I get started, I want you to take a second to drink this moment in.  In the rush of events this weekend, you run the risk of having your memory for the graduation feel like a blur.  So, just enjoy this feeling.  Feel the pride of your family and friends.  Bask in the glow of your accomplishment.  

Today, you are graduates in Psychology at the University of Texas.  At this time of transition, you are leaving the familiarity of the routine of the university for the uncertainty of the next phase of your life.  You might be worried about how your work here has prepared you to join the broader world.  You may not realize it, but as a result of your education, you are uniquely qualified to make the world around you a better place for two reasons.  First, you now have more insight into the human condition than most people, who live in blissful ignorance of the reasons why they act the way they do.  Second, you are now a trained scientist who can ask and answer questions with data.

For the next few minutes, I want to focus on three questions you can use as a guide no matter where your life takes you from UT.  These questions are the ones that will help you to improve the lives of the people around you.  

The first question is “Why?”  


Because understanding the way the world works is a crucial part of solving new problems.  Without knowing why the world works as it does, all you can do is to carry out procedures and hope they succeed.  Chances are, when you have a problem with your computer, you just restart it.  You do that hoping it will fix the problem so that you don’t have to call tech support or stand on line at the Genius Bar and talk to someone who does know how your computer works 

As it turns out, most people understand the way the world works far less well than they believe they do.  That is, they suffer from an illusion of explanatory depth.  This illusion is a problem, because you can’t solve new problems in new ways unless you understand the way things work.  And you won’t bother learning the way things work if you think you already know.  So, an important ingredient for success is knowing what you know and knowing what you don’t know.

The question “Why?” is the cure to the illusion of explanatory depth. By constantly asking that question of yourself and others, you ensure that you maximize the quality of the knowledge you have so that it will be there when you need it.  You have spent your time at UT honing your skill to ask and answer the question “why?”  Now, you need to keep doing it after you leave.  As an added bonus, by asking “why” of the people around you, you also help to cure their illusions of explanatory depth.

The second question is “What would I have done in that situation?”  Another important thing you have learned as psychology students is that the actions people perform involve a complex interaction between who they are and the situation they find themselves in.  

When you see somebody do something that you think is a mistake (or flat out wrong), it is tempting to conclude that there is something wrong with their personality.  Personality reflects the factory settings of people’s motivational system—the brain mechanisms that drive people to act.  We all have a tendency to act in a particular way, and that reflects those factory settings.  For example, I like to be on stage in front of people giving talks.  Other people find even the thought of giving a speech enough to make them ill.  In part, that reflects personality differences.

Often, though, the situations that people are in are a much bigger influence on what they do than their personality.  Before you conclude that someone’s mistake reflects some problem with who they are, ask yourself what you would have done in the same situation.  As you begin to think carefully about how you would navigate the circumstances of someone else’s life, it can give you a greater appreciation for the outside factors driving their behavior.

This matters, because if you think there is truly something wrong with another person, it undermines your trust in them.  For a social species like ours, trust is critical.  However, if there aspects of a situation that you believe are affecting people’s behavior, then you may not lose trust in them.  Instead, you can work with them to help them deal better with that situation in the future or to make sure that situation never happens again.  

The third crucial question is, “What’s the evidence?”  As a psychology student, you have learned that people will go to great lengths to preserve their existing opinions.  People interpret the world in a way that is consistent with what they already believe.  Through confirmation bias, they seek new information that would provide further support for their current opinions.  And, in the modern era in which there are hundreds of channels and thousand of websites, they can curate their life experience to ensure that they rarely encounter opinions that differ from their own.

But, you were trained as a scientist.  Science is one of humanity’s great inventions.  It is a system for helping us to change our opinions by looking for the evidence that would support both what we currently believe to be true and—more importantly—what we currently don’t believe to be true.  At the point where the weight of evidence argues against our pet theories, we have to give them up in favor of something more consistent with the data.

As an example, let’s look at biology.  After Watson and Crick published their work on the structure of DNA, the next great biological quest was to crack the genetic code.  The sequences of base pairs in DNA code for amino acids.  Watson and Crick figured out that sequences of three base pairs were the basic unit of genes.  The next problem was to determine how the various combinations of base pairs coded for particular amino acids.  

Francis Crick was part of a team that also involved mathematicians and cryptographers that came up with an elegant mathematical solution to the problem.  One commentator later called their solution “the prettiest wrong idea of the 20th century.”  In fact, scientists cracked the genetic code by brute force—synthesizing the amino acids from the base pairs.  And the actual answer was not mathematically elegant, though it was chemically stable.  

The wonder of science is that no matter how elegant and beautiful an argument may be, if it runs counter to the data, you have to reject it.  In the modern world, we face a lot of problems.  Some of them—like climate change—involve science that may fall outside your area of expertise.  Others—like the value of high-stakes testing in public education—may hit closer to your training.  Whenever you encounter a question in which data would help to provide a good answer, you should look for that data.  Ask for evidence.  Ideology and oratory are persuasive, but there is nothing better than good data for most of the thorny problems in life.

Of course, you should also use data only when you’re addressing questions that ought to be answered scientifically.  There is no amount of scientific data that matters when you decide that a particular musical piece is magnificent or that a sunset you are watching is stunning.   

The degree you receive today from the University of Texas demonstrates that you have learned a process for making the world a better place.  Whether you choose a profession that ties directly to your studies here or not, the insight you have about people combined with your knowledge of scientific method have given you an excellent basis to ask crucial questions.  Wherever you go, and whatever you do, keep asking “Why?”  In the most frustrating times, ask “What would I have done in that situation?”  And give yourself a chance to test your assumptions by asking “What is the evidence?”

As you cross the stage today, remember that you are walking into a future in which you will use the skills you learned here every day.  Find your way to make the world a better place.  And—every once in a while—reach back out to us here at UT and let us know how you’re doing.  

Congratulations graduates, and enjoy this glorious day.