Jonah Lehrer’s Metacognitive Guide to College
October 08, 2010
#3 Don't Push the Fat Man Off The Bridge
Using the popular hypothetical scenario of the runaway trolley, in which people are asked whether or not they would push a fat man off a bridge in order to save the lives of five people, Lehrer said people should listen to their moral feelings.
"When we make decisions and choices that involve the feelings of other people, it is our emotions that keep us from doing the wrong things."
#4 Make Friends with Lots of Different People
"This might seem pretty easy to most of you but it turns out to be really hard," said Lehrer.
He described the self-similarity principle as a natural tendency to associate with people who are like themselves and avoid people who are not them.
"This is something you're going to need to rage against. It will always be easier to hang out with people just like you but it's a big mistake," warned Lehrer.
Lehrer discussed a project by a sociologist from Princeton University, who interviewed 766 graduates of Stanford University, who went on to start their own business. He wanted to examine the structure of their social networks.
"His results were astonishing," said Lehrer. "He found that business people with diverse networks of friends were three times more innovative then people with predictable networks."
#5 Don't Eat the Marshmallow
In the 1970s, Stanford psychology professor Walter Mischel conducted experiments with four-year-olds at a nursery school to explore delayed gratification. The children were told they could have two marshmallows if they could wait 15 minutes to eat them. If not, they would only be given the one marshmallow placed in front of them.
Mischel's results were that only 20 percent of the children, unsurprisingly, waited the full 15 minutes. In examining video of the children as they waited, Mischel realized that the children who could wait, were able to distract themselves.
"These were the kids that would look at the marshmallow and realize if they kept looking at the marshmallow, they would keep thinking about it and want to eat it. So instead, they would go stand in the corner and stare at the wall," recalled Lehrer.
How does all this relate to college students? The answer didn't come until 12 years later when Mischel interviewed the same four-year-old children, now 16 and taking their SATs. It turned out the four-year-olds who waited the full 15 minutes for two marshmallows, scored 210 points higher on their SATs then the children who couldn't wait to eat a marshmallow 12 years ago.
Learning how to strategically allocate our attention is one of the most important mental abilities we have," noted Lehrer.
"If you only remember one piece of advice this evening make it this one: Your job for the next few years is learning how to allocate your attention. It's learning how control this ambitious super computer you have inside your brain. Why is it so important? Because our attention is the one feature of the world we can control. We can control what were thinking of. This is what it means to be educated and intelligent," said Lehrer.
"You are in the palace. You're about to have lots of epiphanies. You're about to meet your future best friends. You're about to discover all sorts of ideas that, at least for a few hours, will seem like the secret of the universe, but here's the secret. There is no secret. We haven't solved anything, and that's why we need you."
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