Commencement Address: University of Pittsburgh

Commencement Address
University of Pittsburgh
Pittsburgh, PA
April 30, 2006

Commencement is a celebration for the entire university community. Chancellor Nordenberg. Friends and family of the graduates, faculty, the Board of Trustees, the administration, and especially, of course, all survivors of final exams and dissertation defenses – my warmest congratulations to you all!

I know many of you are sitting there wondering how you’re going to handle the important choices ahead.  Or maybe you’re just wondering how long I’ll speak. Briefly, I assure you. I can relate. It was exactly 40 years ago that I graduated from college and was asking myself the same questions. For those of you trying to calculate in your heads, I should probably mention I got my college degree when I was 10 years old! In the years that followed, my work as an academic psychologist revealed many striking and surprising facets of human nature. I’d like to talk about one of them with you today.

Not long after I graduated, I learned an important lesson about how we make choices. About the decisions – big and small, that one by one make up our lives. The lesson only took about nine-and-a-half minutes – but it has stayed with me a lifetime. I was in my first year of graduate school at Columbia University, working on a PhD in social psychology. Three years earlier, a hideous crime had shaken New York.  A young woman named Kitty Genovese was murdered in a quiet neighborhood in Queens. It turns out, a lot of the neighbors had heard her screaming for help, but they did nothing. When this came out in the news, all over the city, all over the country, people were shocked, they wondered:

  • Why did no one help that woman?
  • Are we a terrible society?
  • What would I have done?

To help think about some of those questions, we designed a study that looked at the conditions under which people reach out to strangers in distress. On the subway in New York City, there is a train that runs the full length of Manhattan and out to Brooklyn – called the A Train. A young Pittsburgh composer, Billy Strayhorn, even wrote a song about it. On that train, there’s a stretch between 59th and 125th streets without any stops. That’s 66 blocks without the doors slamming open and shut, without passengers shoving one another, without the scratchy overhead announcements, the noise, the aggravation. Nine-and-a-half minutes of uninterrupted time. Time to read. Doze. Daydream. Nine-and-a-half minutes to test what motivates people to help.

We hired actors to pose as passengers in trouble on the train. One of them would enter the carriage, start to wobble, grab onto the handrail, and then keel over. One of us was at the other end of the car waiting and watching for nine-and-a-half minutes, marking in our notebooks, and wondering who would step forward to help. We wanted to know what makes a Good Samaritan. What creates feelings of compassion? What determines moments of neglect?

On that A Train, we watched while the majority of people hesitated, looked around, then looked away. We were stunned as we watched the inaction unfold, but we learned that it’s not so easy to act with other people around. Even if our initial instinct is to step forward, we can quickly rationalize ourselves out of that impulse. The excuses play inside our heads, an internal chant of doubt, saying “no, no, no.” Don’t get involved.

  • Maybe someone else will step forward.
  • Maybe there’s something wrong with my judgment, and this person doesn’t really need my help.
  • Maybe there’s nothing I can do.

There’s no end to the maybes but in the end, they are all ways to diffuse responsibility and do nothing. Make no mistake: doing nothing is a choice in itself, and surprisingly, that choice gets more likely as the size of the group grows. We found that the more passengers on the train, the greater the potential to rationalize, and the less likely the victim was to get help. So for instance, if I keeled over in a crowd like this, I’d be in real trouble! But our research also showed that if you are the only person on that train, or one of very few then you will probably lend a hand. When we think it’s up to us alone, we tend to recognize our responsibility, and we act on it.

We called our study “an underground phenomenon.” Not just because it took place on the subway, but because it signified something beneath the surface, in the realm of psychological motivation and human emotion. To act on a stranger’s behalf, you have to feel individual responsibility. You have to envision links that are often hidden and obscure, and in today’s complex society, individual responsibility can be very hard to discern. We are more globally interconnected, yet more isolated than ever from the anonymous neighbor or even the classmate three rows over. Sometimes it’s hard to see the links between us, or, perhaps, it’s just become easier to ignore them. That’s the lesson of nine-and-a-half minutes – not much time, but enough not to act, or enough to do something that matters, to extend a human touch, change another person’s life.

What could you do with nine-and-a-half minutes? What about the nine-and-a-half minutes you slept through class? I know, I taught Intro Psych for twenty years! One thing you could do with nine-and-a-half minutes is go over to Freedom Corner – at the intersection of Crawford Street and Center Avenue – and learn about some of the people who made this city a better place through their fierce and selfless advocacy. This year the University of Pittsburgh helped fund a documentary called Torchbearers, about a remarkable group of people who stood up during the Civil Rights era and made a difference. These people put their lives on the line to integrate public facilities and open job opportunities in this city – in real estate, the school system, the labor unions, the athletic fields. Their actions changed race relations – not just in Pittsburgh but across the nation. Six of the Torchbearers had degrees from Pitt, and a seventh was a trustee.

One of them was Reverend LeRoy Patrick. On a hot Saturday afternoon in 1951, with 500 policemen standing guard in case a riot broke out – he jumped in the public swimming pool in Highland Park. The white swimming pool. Reverend Patrick jumped in that pool, even though he didn’t know how to swim, but he did know that African American kids had the right to swim alongside white kids. He stayed in the water just long enough to make his point. Probably about nine-and-a-half minutes. But it was enough to get Pittsburgh to integrate its public swimming pools. Reverend Patrick knew what he believed.

How do your actions reflect what you believe? The world will test your values and you have to be ready. Start figuring out now who you are, and what you stand for. Then, when the challenges come – and they will – you won’t flinch. You won’t rationalize your way out of action regardless of the size of the group you’re in. You will act as if the fate of those in need depends on you alone. I know many of you have already felt called to action. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina and the storms along the Gulf Coast, you stepped up. You opened your doors to students who were displaced and couldn’t go back home to their colleges and universities. You raised money for hurricane victims. Some of you went down to the Gulf Coast – just last month over spring break – to clear debris and repair damaged homes. These actions speak eloquently of your compassion, and you must continue to act, recognizing that everything you do affects other people. That is how incredibly powerful you are.

Last October, when the great playwright August Wilson died, he was working on a play called Radio Golf. Like most of his plays, it was set in the same Pittsburgh neighborhood where he grew up – the Hill District. Radio Golf follows the story of real estate developer Harmond Wilks. To revive his neighborhood, Wilks wants to tear down a blighted area and replace it with a huge development. In the end, Wilks makes a principled stand to stop the project in order to save a single house from demolition, because he came to understand its crucial link to the endangered values of community and family. He says: “If you look away from what’s right too long, you won’t turn back.” So he looks straight ahead at what’s right and steps up to the challenge. Wilson calls this “the warrior spirit.” He understood that the highest motives in life are those that compel us to stand up for our beliefs, and reach out to others.

That’s what attracted me to the Rockefeller Foundation. I had just finished a decade at one of these other Pennsylvania universities” and was looking forward to a little R&R. Brush up on my tennis. Perhaps write a few more books. But when I started to delve into the Foundation’s history and its trailblazing work pioneering the field of public health, bringing about the Green Revolution in Asia, savings people’s lives, I saw the potential for tremendous impact. The chance to take my warrior spirit globetrotting. To choose to act, every day, on behalf of the world’s most vulnerable people. And what I find most inspiring about this work is the ordinary men and women who are fighting disease, famine, and civil unrest every day to move themselves and their countries out of poverty.

I recall my first trip to Kenya, a country ravaged by AIDS. Elderly women would walk miles to hand out medicines in the villages, carrying their orphaned grandchildren on their backs. The children could have gone to the local shelter, but the grandmothers insisted on nurturing the next generation themselves, even as they worked tirelessly to make this one healthier. I saw this same indomitable spirit in Cuba, where I met with political dissidents. When I asked “why not leave?” they told me the government would like nothing better. One of them joked: “Castro would pack my bags himself.” But they choose to stay in Cuba and endure imprisonment – even torture – because they believe in democracy.  The fight for a better life for all Cubans, is worth the struggle.

But you don’t have to travel across oceans. You don’t have to fight a dictator. You can choose to act right in your own backyard. In small, meaningful ways. Every day. Make a difference. Reach out to a stranger on the train. Bear a torch. Be a warrior. Graduates. Dream great dreams. You can move mountains.

This was my nine-and-a-half minutes with you. I hope I’ve used it well. Congratulations.