2010 Convocation address

Delivered at Convocation, Sept. 7, 2010

How We Decide

Faculty and staff, old and new; returning students; loyal alums and friends of Bates — welcome, and please join me in greeting and congratulating our newest colleagues, members of the Class of 2014 and our special band of transfer students.

We commend you on your admission to Bates and on all the work that went into successfully making one of the most important choices you have yet had the opportunity to make. There are of course many important decisions to come, and in fact if we succeed in the ultimate purpose of a liberal arts education, which is to complicate and ultimately deepen your understanding of almost everything, then making choices will in some ways just get harder.

Professor of Religious Studies Marcus Bruce ’77 and Bates President Elaine Tuttle Hansen share a word during the College’s Convocation ceremony.

With that in mind, this year the Office of the Dean of Students chose as the summer reading for incoming students Jonah Lehrer’s How We Decide, a book about how the human brain learns to make choices, and our first-night speaker was Dr. Jeff Belkora, director of Decision Services Unit at the University of California–San Francisco Breast Care Center.

This orientation theme was selected to help you learn more about the processes human beings use (or fail to use) and thereby improve your chances of making, as Dean Holly Gurney put it, “the best decision possible for a particular situation and day — or night.”1

Today I’d like to extend this discussion of personal decision making in a couple of directions. First, I’ll suggest that Lehrer’s overview of what neuroscience today tells us about decision-making is well-aligned with the fundamental educational principles of the liberal arts college model. Second and more briefly, to encourage you to think not only about your personal choices but also about the community you’ve joined, I’ll consider the relevance of what we know about individual decision-making to a topic Leher does not address — the question of how groups — teams, committees, organizations, institutions — make collective decisions.

A liberal arts college education, particularly as experienced at Bates, is connected to what Jonah Lehrer tells us about the way our brains work on four dimensions.

First, thinking well requires both reason and emotion. This is the central premise of How We Decide, and although the founders of Bates knew nothing about neuroscience, the very motto of the college — Amore ac Studio — suggests that they understood and privileged this balance between emotion and reason. Today we translate this motto into English as “With Ardor and Devotion.” A Latin dictionary tells us that the noun amore can also mean “with love,” and the noun studio is related to the verb studeo, which means “I study” — so it’s hard to imagine a motto that more perfectly expresses an educational commitment to developing both the capacity to feel and the capacity to cogitate.

It’s hard to imagine a motto that more perfectly expresses an educational commitment to developing both the capacity to feel and the capacity to cogitate.

To put this abstract motto into daily practice, the liberal arts college curriculum creates ample opportunities for what we think of as two different sides of your “enthusiastically plural” brains. You have already clearly expressed your own interest in exploring multiple ways of knowing by choosing to attend a liberal arts college rather than, say, a technical school or a conservatory. Some disciplines you’ll explore here are conventionally thought of as rational (math, science and many social sciences), while others are associated with ways of knowing often thought to be closer to the emotions — through narrative or visual and performing arts, for instance.

Recently revised General Education requirements at Bates further ensure that you encounter a range of disciplines and methods, each with strengths and weaknesses. And more importantly, as you explore different approaches to common themes and problems, you will also learn that these conventional associations — science and math are rational, art and music are emotional — are too simplistic. It has been said by Parker Palmer that scientific discovery, for instance, begins with “hunches, intuitions and bodily knowledge,” and there is a need for understanding and using both emotion and reason within every academic field as well as in the work we encourage at Bates between and among disciplines.

The critical balance between emotion and reason is also reflected at Bates in our principled belief that experiential learning and residential life are valid parts of a good education. You are also learning, all the time, outside what is usually thought of as the more cognitive realm of the classroom — through interactions with others in formal and informal social settings, and in more and less organized activities ranging from sports to other kinds of performance (music, theater, dance, debate) to volunteering and travel. As we have also reaffirmed in our new mission statement, “Bates educates the whole person….”

Second, the human brain’s ability to discipline itself, to organize and focus, is critical to good decision-making. How We Decide describes this ability to focus, to concentrate, as “one of the most mysterious talents of the human brain.” Our prefrontal cortex exercises “executive control,” directing our thoughts from the top down and functioning as a “bandleader”2 able at times to banish irrelevant thoughts and focus our attention only on what we need to think about rather than allowing us to be overwhelmed by incoming ideas.3 This ability to focus is particularly important, as Lehrer points out, given the super-abundance of information and sensation modern life offers.

Led by mace-bearer Sawyer Sylvester, professor of sociology, the academic procession enters the Historic Quad near Hathorn Hall.

The liberal arts college model provides ample practice in focusing, and Bates graduation requirements reflect this principle too. Your exploration across courses and disciplines will be directed by the organizing theme, again, of the General Education concentrations you select. Courses in the major you choose will exercise and strengthen your ability to focus in depth on the methods and content of a discipline or interdiscipline, and then, in the senior thesis, on a specific question within some particular subfield of your major.

Third, we learn by making mistakes. This is a principle I’ve come to appreciate more and more over time. How We Decide quotes Niels Bohr’s definition of an expert as “a person who has made all the mistakes that can be made in a very narrow field,” and I can only marvel at how much expertise, by this definition, I have acquired! Neuroscientific research into the function of the anterior cingulate cortext helps us understand why making mistakes is an essential part of the learning process and something of a two-edged sword. As Lehrer sums up the findings, “Negative feedback is the best kind”4; “When the mind is denied the emotional sting of losing, it never figures out how to win”.5 At the same time, loss aversion is such a strong emotion that it can get in the way of good decision-making,6 and because winning is such a pleasurable feeling, we tend to miscalculate risk. “The only way to avoid loss aversion is to know about the concept.”7

This idea, that despite our congenital aversion to being wrong or losing we need to take risks and make mistakes in order to learn, is reflected in another venerable educational idea that underlies the liberal arts college model. As educational philosopher Alfred North Whitehead observed a century ago, “The initial discipline of imagination in its period of youthful vigor requires that there be no responsibility for immediate action. The habit of unbiased thought…cannot be acquired when there is the daily task for preserving a concrete organization. You must be free to think rightly and wrongly, and free to appreciate the variousness of the universe undisturbed by its perils.” So this is why we have the pass-fail option, for example, and distribution requirements that force many students out of their comfort zones. As a recent graduate of Bates said to me, you’ll find here that “the risk of making mistakes is respected, so long as you own them and learn from them.”

The fourth and last point of alignment between good decision-making and the learning that goes on at liberal arts colleges is the most complicated: Ethical decision making requires the capacity to think of others, and debate and dissonance are a critical part of learning. What How We Decidecalls the “moral mind” requires active sympathy, the capacity to imagine and feel how others feel, mirroring their emotions, balancing selfishness and selflessness.8

As a recent graduate said to me, you’ll find here that “the risk of making mistakes is respected, so long as you own them and learn from them.”

At the same time, even the individual brain itself is always already divided and engaged in “an argument” — no decision is as simple as it appears; we are internally of more than one mind, so to speak, with vigorous cortical debate over every issue. And for this very reason — because it is so hard to know anything with certainty — once we make a decision we can get really stuck in our preconceptions.9 Because “so many competing brain regions” inside our heads leave us insecure and divided, the “lure”” of certainty and confidence prompts us to “trick ourselves into being sure.”10

But brains that can’t tolerate uncertainty or can’t really think about other perspectives risk fixating on the wrong thing — “shoddy top-down thinking”11dominates, for example, our political pundits — and this explains how often we rationalize, finding or inventing reasons to justify our bias: “We all silence the cognitive dissonance through self-imposed ignorance.”12

The residential liberal arts college model addresses just this problem in its insistence that learning involves not just exploring your own brain, understanding the strengths and weaknesses of reason, emotion and thinking about thinking, but also working with others, learning in what have been called “communities of practice.” As the new Bates mission statement puts it, we are a “collaborative residential” college and “we engage the transformative power of our differences.”

A Bates education offers you opportunities to develop active sympathy with others different from you through the scripted and unscripted encounters of small-college life and through outreach to communities beyond our campus. You will have abundant opportunities to form those deep and enduring relationships with peers and teachers, learning in a way that many fear is increasingly threatened by new forms of social networking and online “knowledge” delivery. Again, inside and outside the classroom at Bates, you will hone your ability to work in groups, often with people of different backgrounds and perspectives who can help us counteract our bias for certainty and learn to “pay attention to the data that disturbs our entrenched beliefs.”13

This fourth point, the importance and difficulty of learning to work with others, leads me to another question that I want to explore more briefly: What can How We Decide tell us about how groups small and large make decisions?

Human beings who work in collectives — from informal groups and loosely arranged organizations like Bates to tightly knit teams and highly top-down institutions — must make decisions all the time too. Just like individual brains, the associational or institutional brain somehow has to make hard choices, often among many competing goods. With more and less deliberation and reflection, we make hundreds of more and less institutional decisions at Bates every day — matriculating one out of every 10 or so new students who apply to come to Bates; hiring new faculty and staff from rich pools of applicants; selecting new books to add to the syllabus; deciding which courses to drop and which to add; choosing which grade to give and which speaker to invite; deciding what to serve for dinner in new Commons; developing policies and adjudicating disputes about how they should be implemented; responding to inquiries and preparing our communications to the world; and planning for the most prudent expenditure of resources going forward in a highly uncertain economic period.

In addition to all that goes into these often routine and invisible decisions made by individuals who have been assigned responsibility in particular domains, every so often institutions make a more conscious attempt to look in a more integrated way at where the organization overall is going. We have done this recently and intentionally at Bates in several areas. We have completed facilities planning, starting seven years ago when we developed a Campus Facilities Master Plan with three phases and continuing last year, when we returned to update Phase II.

We have engaged in curricular planning, when we revised the General Education requirements five years ago after three years of deliberation. And we have been thinking strategically about what makes Bates great and what could make it greater, in a planning process that began three years ago and resulted among other things in a new mission statement and a roadmap called —not accidently — Choices for Bates, with its focus on three broad academic initiatives in arts, sciences and learning.

The study of institutional or organizational decision-making is too vast a subject even to summarize here, but let me ask you to consider some intriguingly rough analogies between the principles I’ve just talked about and the decisions that we have recently made.

First, the balance between reason and emotion extends to institutions in interesting ways. At one level you could say we took this factor into account throughout the recent planning process insofar as we reaffirmed in many ways how Bates educates “the whole person” — mind and body, spirit and matter, reason and emotion — inside and outside the classroom. The initiatives we ultimately chose to foreground show this same “balancing/integrating” approach — be it in strengthening the arts and the sciences and math as two different but connected ways of knowing the world,14 or in stressing throughout the elements of the Learning Initiative the importance of helping students make sense of their options.15

At another level, it is interesting to think about the way making institutional choices must balance emotion and reason for progressive results. As academic planning expert Susan Frost has put it, “when we ask faculty, staff and students to help change the living organism that is a college in deliberate ways, we are asking them to risk longstanding certainties they hold dear.”

Second, the ability to focus that is crucial to good decision-making is also even harder for groups than for individuals for all sorts of obvious reasons. Nobel prize-winner Herbert Simon and James March argued in their pioneering work more than 50 years ago that organizations can’t be entirely rational in decision-making because the environment is so complex and they can never have all the information that would presumably be needed. So, like human beings whose prefrontal cortex helps them focus, groups and organizations must develop ways to work with a “simplified” model of the world16— but one person’s simplification is likely to be another person’s blindness.

Third, if individuals only learn by making mistakes, how do groups do this? Yet again this necessity to risk, to err and to self-correct is harder for an organization or institution, but it is unavoidable, and we see it happening all around us. Frost, again, notes that colleges in particular always evolve over time, “with the current status being the results of iterative courses of decision-making. Some of those decisions were brilliant and some not so strong. This means that current decision makers never start with a clean slate, and they are hardly ever positioned to make a clean and neat choice.

Risk aversion and fear of change are natural parts of any decision-making experience.

We are always crafting strategy on the back of past choices and trying to move forward well. Knowing the degrees of freedom that form our context is a part of the wisdom we must try bring to the table.” Like individuals, perhaps groups can only move beyond the limits of their risk aversion and fear of change by recognizing that these are natural parts of any decision-making experience. The best we can do is leverage uncertainty, not avoid it, responding creatively to new and emerging information and opportunity.

Finally, if the individual human mind is actually always having an argument within itself, and if debate and dissonance within and between individuals are a critical part of learning, how much more does this complicate decision-making for a group or institution? A community like Bates  intentionally comprises different individuals and groups with widely varying skills, values and purposes. Perhaps the hardest part of any group or institutional decision-making involves welcoming debate and dissonance, which we know are a critical part of learning and choosing well, without polarizing or paralyzing people, and then finding ways to converge around some elements of agreement, some next positive and active steps in which people can take up their parts and move forward together.

Before I close, I have to acknowledge what How We Decide reminds us: There is a tremendous bias toward certainty and sticking with our preconceptions. “We all silence the cognitive dissonance through self-imposed ignorance.”17 As you can tell from all that I have said today, I have a passionate bias toward the virtues of a Bates education and perhaps irrational faith in our model — so all that I have said today may be a classic case of rationalization!

But this does not invalidate, I trust, my warm welcome to you and to the new academic year, during which I invite us all to take up again the challenge, the complexity and the opportunity, as individuals and groups, of making better choices.


1. In June, Dean Holly Gurney wrote a letter introducing the common reading, How We Decide, to incoming students by noting the relevance of the topic to their new lives as college students: “Very shortly each of you will begin to make your own decisions about many, many things in your daily lives and studies. These decisions will be about everything from what major to pursue to whether and how much to study; from which new friends become influential in your life and decisions to how much and how often you eat the fabulous food Commons offers; from whether and to what degree you socialize to what and how you think about major philosophical, religious or cultural principles. And that just scratches the surface.” She added, “My goal is for all of us is to better understand the processes we use (or fail to use) that could allow us to make the best decision possible for a particular situation and day—or night.”

2. Jonah Lehrer, How We Decide (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009), 117.

3. Ibid., 131

4. Ibid., 51

5. Ibid., 47

6. Ibid., 76ff.

7. Ibid., 81

8. Ibid., 175

9. Ibid., 203

10. Ibid., 211

11. Ibid., 204

12. Ibid., 207

13. Ibid., 217

14. Choices for Bates: A Plan for Bates College (February 2010), 22

15. see Bonk, Choices, 31

16. Lee G. Bolman and Terrence E. Deal, Reframing Organizations: Artistry, Choice and Leadership (San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons Inc., 2008), 27

17. Ibid. 207