Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Lion. Intellectually promiscuous. A success. All of these words were used to describe Psychology Professor Barry Schwartz at the symposium to honor his 45 year-long career on Saturday, March 19th, also known as Schwartzstock.
Numerous past colleagues, professors and students recalled moments when Barry Schwartz changed their lives or inspired them to think differently, incorporating many witty Schwartzisms, such as “May the Schwartz be with you” and “Paradox of Schwartz.” Many made fun of the fact that in Schwartz’ world-famous TED talk, “The Paradox of Choice,” he presented in less-than-formal attire.
Some of the talks focused on research inspired by or conducted under his tutelage. Roseanna Sommers ‘10 talked about her work exploring public attitudes towards consent—specifically, whether people tend to view “yes” answers as real consent if the affirmer had been deceived with false information. (Ex. Rose tells her doctor she doesn’t want a surgical procedure she would have to pay for. Her doctor knowingly lies to her, telling her that it would be covered by insurance. If she says yes, did she consent to the procedure? Spoiler: No.)
Others used more whimsical data. Marty Seligman, Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania who taught Schwartz in graduate school, took a survey of people from different counties in Pennsylvania and compared them on a scale of being very “Barry-like” to “not Barry-like” at all. He also created a word cloud, shown at right, of words Barry most frequently uses (he did not specify whether this is fabricated data or not).
Adam Grant, UPenn Professor of Psychology and Wharton Professor of Management, charted how happy people tended to be as a function of how much time they spent with Barry (there is a drastic initial dip to represent the realization that your entire worldview is wrong).
Last to speak was Schwartz himself. He described the events of the day as “Rashomon-like” (or “Russia moan like,” according to the subtitles on the College’s video of Schwartz’ speech), in that he interpreted all the moments described in various accounts of his life during the symposium very differently from the speakers. He described these moments as moments in which he himself felt he had been greatly impacted: “All I can see in these interactions is the ways in which of these people have taught me things I didn’t know before.”
A running joke throughout the symposium was that Schwartz is one of the few people who has managed to have only one job and one wife throughout his entire life. But Schwartz pointed out that many of his so-called “accomplishments” were in fact the result of extremely good fortune, and allowed himself a moment of nostalgia in order to recount why. “Nostalgia is a nice thing if indulged in extremely small doses. A little bit like hallucinogens,” he said.
He first became attracted to his wife Myrna because “she was the first girl I had ever met who loved baseball. Specifically the New York Yankees.” He only got into one college, New York University, (“so I cleverly decided to go!”) and began taking psychology classes there because it happened to fit into his schedule his freshman year. When it came time to apply for jobs, it just so happened that Swarthmore had an opening at the perfect time.
His speech then turned towards a topic many in his classes are familiar with: college admissions. Specifically, he tied this in by recognizing the role of luck in one’s life by suggesting that we tie luck into college admissions in a very direct way: via a lottery system. Schwartz believes that this would greatly improve the lives of high school students applying for college, many of whom feel pressured to take on extracurriculars or jobs they aren’t actually interested in just to look good to college admissions officers.
Schwartz’ alternative: eliminate the guesswork and stress caused by these perceived unachievable standards and simply add all the students Swarthmore admissions officers think could do the work at Swarthmore to a lottery.
Ultimately, Schwartz made the point that despite the fact that his life’s work has been about how humans make decisions, many of his life’s successes were the result of luck and serendipity.
“I made the most of my opportunities, but I had little or nothing to do with creating any of those opportunities. They smacked me in the face, and I take credit for recognizing them as opportunities.”
Featured image courtesy of www.swarthmore.edu.