Celebrating Our Differences: Yale College Dean’s welcome to new students

Yale College Dean Marvin Chun told incoming students that seeking out differences is one of the university's bedrock principles.

Yale College Dean Marvin Chun greeted new students and their families at the Yale College Opening Assembly on Aug. 25 in Woolsey Hall. His remarks follow.

Good morning. Class of 2022, transfer students, and Eli Whitney students, welcome to Yale!

Joining me on this stage to greet you are President Peter Salovey, Provost Ben Polak, Secretary Kim Goff-Crews, Faculty of Arts and Sciences Dean Tamar Gendler, Graduate School Dean Lynn Cooley, Athletic Director Vicky Chun, officers of the university, the heads and deans of the residential colleges, and the deans and members of the Yale College Dean’s Office. 

We extend our warm welcome to the family members and friends who are here today.  It is thanks to your support and guidance that Yale has the privilege of hosting these impressive young adults.

I am Marvin Chun, dean of Yale College, and I am so pleased to be with you today. In my role as dean, one of my jobs is to support President Salovey's mission to maintain Yale as the research university most committed to teaching and learning, and what that means for you students is that I am here to make sure that you get the best of this place, whether you are in the classroom or out of it.

Before I address you as dean, though, let me first step out of that role and into another role I play here, as a professor of psychology. I’ve been a teacher and researcher of psychology and neuroscience at Yale for 18 years, and this spring I will be teaching introduction to psychology. As a professor, then, let me give you a taste of what might lie ahead, in any Yale course, by getting right down to business and giving you your first quiz  — a friendly one with no grading. To get started, take a minute and pull out the insert in your program. (See insert.) What I want you to do is look at the four cards in the first row. Now, you can see only one side of the card, but assume that each one has a letter on one side and a digit on the other. So far, so good; you're doing great. Now what I want you to do is to consider this rule: If a card has a vowel on one side, then it has an even number on the other. Again: If a card has a vowel on one side, then it has an even number on the other. Here's the quiz: Which card or cards do you need to turn over in order to determine if the rule is true or false?

The correct answer is to pick the A card and the 7 card.  In the original study (Wason and Shapiro, 1971) only about 1 out of 25 people got this correct. Now while I expect that many more of you got the right answer, I will not ask you to raise your hand because you don’t want to be bragging on the first day of school. And please do not feel bad if you didn’t get it right because if this demo were easy, it wouldn’t be instructive. Let's analyze it together. When people take this quiz, most correctly pick the A card because if you turn it over and see an odd number, you’ve disproven the rule. The D card is irrelevant, and almost no one picks that one. What makes this quiz interesting is that a lot of people DO pick the 4 card, even though they don't need to, because that card is irrelevant, too. But people still pick it because it lets them confirm the rule: if they find a vowel on the other side, then the rule is confirmed. But this card doesn't let you prove that the rule false. The 4 card can have a consonant on the other side, and the rule would still hold. The only card that lets you test if the rule is false is the 7 card because if you flip that one over and see a vowel, then that would contradict the rule.

The finding that people choose the 4 card and not the 7 card has a technical term: it is known as confirmation bias. What it means is that people lean toward validating their hypotheses rather than testing if they’re wrong. Put another way: people are drawn to evidence that confirms their beliefs.  

Audience of Yale students
The Dean told the students that they were a diverse group: "[Y]ou come from every possible walk of life, bringing with you every imaginable talent, every experience, every worldview." (Photo by Mara Lavitt)

If we want to counter confirmation bias, we have to look for information that goes against our preexisting views. It sounds easy, but the truth is that people don't like to do that. In another study (Lord, Ross, and Lepper, 1979), students were surveyed and divided into two groups: one that favored capital punishment and one that opposed it. Then everyone was presented with evidence suggesting that capital punishment is effective in deterring crime, as well as counter-evidence suggesting that it isn't. You’d think that seeing both sides would moderate each subject's view, but what the researchers found instead was the opposite, that the students dug in, favoring the evidence that supported their view, discounting the evidence that didn't, leaving both sides more polarized than before. What these researchers found was that being exposed to multiple views is not sufficient. Instead, one needs to see how opposing views are also valid.

Let me demonstrate again using the insert in your program.  Here’s your second exercise of the morning.  Look at the image in the middle.  Name out loud what you see. If you first saw a duck, raise your hand. If you first saw a rabbit, raise your hand,  Can you see it both ways? This simple demonstration shows a fundamental principle of psychology: we all experience the world differently. Our perceptual interpretations, our memories, and our thoughts, are all constructs of the mind, and they differ across people even when considering the same object, event, or evidence.

When exposed to views different from your own, it helps if you can find common ground with those with whom you disagree. Before you put away your insert, take one more look at it, this time at the cartoon on the bottom. Two armies face each other, and for the army on the bottom, find the general at the front of it, urging his troops, “There can be no peace until they renounce their Rabbit God and accept our Duck God.”  Imagine what happens when the opposing troops realize they are serving the same flag.

Ask yourself, “What is my flag?” Please shout out the answer to the following: What’s the best university in the world?  You are all now members of Bulldog Nation. With the sophomores, juniors, and seniors — and the faculty, alumni, and staff — and with each other, you will have common ground, an immediate shared bond that is more than tribal: it goes deeper, to the intellectual curiosity and the commitment to community that have brought you all here.

You have just arrived at a place that values difference and actively seeks it out. It is how professors and students find and test knowledge, and it is how the university equips its students — that's you — to become leaders and citizens of the world. But here, the value of seeking difference is even more than that: here it is taken as an article of faith, it is the coin of the realm, it is one of the bedrock principles that governs this place — in and out of the classroom.

Let me assume that you have come here not only to learn how to live lives of consequence but also to discover whole domains of knowledge. If that is true, you have come to the right place. As you take your first steps, then, you will need to become comfortable with difference, not just to accept it or tolerate it but to insist on it. You will find guides everywhere, in the classes you will take, the activities you join, and most of all from the people sitting around you right now — your peers and classmates. All of them are part of the liberal arts education that awaits you.

And what you will find is that you come from every possible walk of life, bringing with you every imaginable talent, every experience, every worldview. Almost half of you identify as a student of color, 12% African American, 22% Asian American, 15% Hispanic/Latinx, 2% Native American. About 1 out of 9 of you are international students from 57 different countries. You are of all genders and sexualities. About 2 out of 3 of you attended public high schools. To get here, you have overcome challenges and also disabilities.  You observe different religions or none. You are politically liberal, conservative, moderate. Over 1 out of 6 of you are first generation college students. Nearly 1 out of 5 of you qualify for Pell grants for low income families.

Your life at Yale has started, and in just a few days you will be enrolling in classes, joining organizations, maybe training with your team. And as you do that, here's what I hope you will do, armed with the knowledge you are learning here today. Stop whenever you find yourself falling prey to confirmation bias, when you are validating what you think you already know. If you are a duck person, go find those rabbit people, and find common ground with them. If you are studying all duck courses, go find the rabbit courses, and see what they can teach you. And when you find yourself rallying around a duck flag, take a good, hard look at that rabbit flag across the field and the people rallying around it, and remember that you are all Yalies.

Eli Whitney students, transfer students, members of the Class of 2022, you belong to Yale, and Yale belongs to you.

Share this with Facebook Share this with X Share this with LinkedIn Share this with Email Print this