Monday, June 18, 2018

What does it mean to get a degree in psychology these days?

(I was asked to give a speech yesterday at Stanford's Psychology commencement ceremony. Here is the text). 

1. Chair, Colleagues, graduates of the class of 2018 – undergraduates and graduate students – family members, and friends. It’s a pleasure to be here today with all of you. Along with honoring our graduates, we especially honor all the wonderful speakers today for their accomplishments – MH for his excellence in research and teaching, Angela for her deep engagement with the department community. You could be forgiven for thinking that there was some special achievement that brought me here as well. In fact, by tradition, faculty take turns addressing the graduating class and is my turn this year. It’s a real pleasure to have one last chance to address you.

Two weeks ago, my daughter Madeline graduated from preschool. There was cake; photos were taken. They broke a piñata. It was a big deal! Several of her friends will be going to different schools, some moving away to other states or even other countries. This is one of the biggest changes she’s ever experienced. I’m already worried about what happens next. Parents, I can only imagine what you are going through today – but at least you know that your kids made it through the first day of kindergarten.

Graduates - Your graduation from Stanford today is a really big deal. You also get to have cake and photos. If you’re very lucky, some special person has even bought you a piñata. But more importantly, just like for Madeline this is a time of transitions. You may be moving somewhere new. Even if you are staying here, friends will be further away than the next dorm or the next office. So do not hesitate to take a little extra time today to celebrate with the people you love and who love you.


2. I want to take a little time now to think about what it means to get a degree in psychology from Stanford.

When you sit next to someone on an airplane and tell them you are studying psychology, perhaps they ask you if you are reading their mind. Perhaps they wonder if you are studying Freudian analysis and have thoughts about their unconscious, or their relationship with their mother. Or maybe they are more up to date and wonder if you study psychological disorders as they manifest themselves in the clinic. But the truth is, knowing what you’ve done in your degrees here at Stanford, you probably haven’t done too much Freud. Or too much mind-reading. And although you may be interested in clinical work (and this is laudable), that’s not the core of what we teach here.

Gaining a degree in psychology also means that you have gone to many classes in psychology and learned about many studies – from social influence to stereotype threat, from mental rotation to marshmallow tests. Although this body of knowledge is a lovely thing to have come into contact with (and I hope that you continue to deepen your knowledge), knowing this content is also not the core of what it means to receive your degree.

What you have learned instead are tools; a specific kind of tools, namely tools for thought. These tools can be used to approach problems and construct solutions. This is what it means for psychology to be an academic discipline: a discipline denotes a particular mental toolbox. The university is the intellectual equivalent of a construction firm – different departments have the tools to solve different sorts of problems.

3. Like nearly all ideas, “cognitive tools” seem obvious – after you are used to them. Let’s take one example, a foundational cognitive tool that we use every single day: numbers. Because we are so numerate, a lot of people have the idea that numbers are easy and straightforward. But they aren’t.

Take the preschoolers in Madeline’s old classroom. Nearly all of them can count, at least to ten and maybe higher. But if you probe a bit more deeply, it all falls apart. If at snack time, you ask someone to give you exactly four cheerios, she’s liable to hand you seven, or a whole handful. Even when a child knows that “one” means exactly 1, it takes quite a few months for them to figure out that “two” means exactly 2, and more months for 3. When they finally figure out how the whole system works it enables so many new things! Madeline owes all of her dessert-negotiation prowess to her abilities with numbers. Seven gummi bears? No. How about six? This idea of exact comparison is a skill – even though it makes for tiresome after-dinner conversation.

Numbers are an invented, culturally-transmitted tool. In graduate school I worked with an Amazonian indigenous group, the Pirahã, who have no words for numbers. They are bright, sophisticated people who love a good practical joke. Many Pirahã can shoot a fish with an arrow while standing in a canoe. Yet because their language does not have these particular words in it – words like “seven” - and because they do not go through that laborious period of practice that Madeline and other kids learning languages like English do – they can’t remember that it’s exactly seven gummi bears. To them, six or eight seems like the same amount. They simply don’t have the tool.

4. So what are the tools of the psychologist?

There’s one tool that qualifies as the hammer of psychology – the single tool you can use to frame an entire house. That’s the experiment. The fundamental insight of all of modern psychology is that the puzzles of the human mind can be understood as objects of scientific study if we can design appropriately controlled experiments. As complicated and unpredictable as people are (especially when they are integrated into complex cultural systems), we can still learn about their inner workings via experiments.

This insight has spread far outside of psychology and far outside of the academy. Nowadays, Facebook runs a hundred experiments a day on you. Governments and political campaigns, startups and not-for-profits are all constantly experimenting to try to understand how to achieve their goals. There is a good chance that in the next few years of your professional life you will face a complicated human problem with an unknown solution. The psychologist’s approach will serve you well: formulate a hypothesis about how you should manipulate the world; then assess whether the manipulation has changed your measurement of interest. This strategy is shockingly effective.

But the serious carpenter has other, more specialized tools in the toolkit – the plane, awl, rasp, drawknife, jigsaw, bevel. Let me mention two more.

The first is the idea that our knowledge is not just a set of facts, but is organized into theories that help us understand the world. We call these theories intuitive theories – they are the explanatory frameworks that people carry with them to understand why things happen. What follows from this idea is that when you want to change people’s behavior, you can’t just tell them to change or tell them different facts. You need to change their theory. When I want Madeline to eat her vegetables, it turns out just telling her to “eat broccoli” doesn’t work very well – even if she does eat the broccoli, she won’t know what else to eat or why to eat it. And of course the well-known idea about fostering a growth mindset is precisely this kind of implicit theory: it’s a theory of whether ability is fixed or whether it can be improved with hard work.

The second idea I want to share is that our judgment is systematically biased. It’s biased by our own beliefs. Our minds are wonderful, efficient systems that deal with uncertainty – we piece together a sentence even in a noisy restaurant using our expectations about what that person might be trying to say to us. In most cases, this is an amazing feature of our own cognition, letting us operate flexibly using limited data. But this reliance on our own beliefs also has negative consequences: it leads us to stereotype, and to engage in confirmation bias, looking for evidence that further supports our own beliefs. Understanding of these sources of bias can help us avoid falling into this trap. A good grounding in psychology, in other words, helps us be more aware of our own limitations.

I’d love to tell you about more ideas. Every woodworker loves to show off their workbench. And the wonderful thing about tools is that when you use them together you can create new tools, in the same way the carpenter can first make a jig to make it easier to make a difficult cut. I could go on, but hopefully I’ve piqued your curiosity – and you have lots more to do today.

5. So. Make sure that you celebrate! Eat some cake, smash a piñata, and most of all, say your "thank you"s to the people who have supported you during your time here at Stanford. I speak for all of them when I say that we are very proud of you and cannot wait to see what you accomplish.

As this weekend passes and you head off for other things, it is all but certain that you will find yourself in new situations facing challenges that you have not considered before. (Life would not be fun without them!). But I am confident that your tools will be sufficient to the job. Keep them sharp and they will serve you well.