Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Eloquence on class

Michael Lewis, the author of Moneyball, Liar's Poker, and The Blind Side gave the commencement address at Princeton University on Sunday. He spoke eloquently about the role of luck and privilege. He then described a behavioural experiment where subjects were divided into random groups of 3 and one of the three was randomly appointed to be the "team leader," though the title came with no additional duties. The teams were then given a moral problem to discuss. After 30 minutes they were given a plate of 4 cookies. The experiment found that the randomly assigned team leader felt entitled too, and took, the extra cookie.
This experiment helps to explain Wall Street bonuses and CEO pay, and I'm sure lots of other human behavior. But it also is relevant to new graduates of Princeton University. In a general sort of way you have been appointed the leader of the group. Your appointment may not be entirely arbitrary. But you must sense its arbitrary aspect: you are the lucky few. Lucky in your parents, lucky in your country, lucky that a place like Princeton exists that can take in lucky people, introduce them to other lucky people, and increase their chances of becoming even luckier. Lucky that you live in the richest society the world has ever seen, in a time when no one actually expects you to sacrifice your interests to anything.  All of you have been faced with the extra cookie. All of you will be faced with many more of them. In time you will find it easy to assume that you deserve the extra cookie. For all I know, you may. But you'll be happier, and the world will be better off, if you at least pretend that you don't.


  1. Loved the speech, but totally unable to find the research piece he is referring to. Does it exist for real or was it made up as a nice story supporting the main message?

  2. You know, I have no idea. I tried poking around for a while looking for the experiment as well, and have turned up nothing. I'd hate to be propagating rumours about false experiments. I'll post a link here to the actual experiment if I turn anything up. Thanks for pointing this out.

  3. Here is the link for the research paper:
    I found your blog while I was looking for it!

  4. Thanks Anonymous! If the experiment Micheal Lewis referred to was Ward and Keltner (1998), he seems to have gotten a few of the details of the study wrong (5 cookies, not 4), and that the leaders were more likely to take an extra cookie. Also that the participants were being judged on their public eating etiquette. But I think the point in his speech still stands.