Dan Ariely tells NCSSM grads ‘May the force be with you’

Residential STEM school graduates 347
May. 25, 2013 @ 03:48 PM

N.C. School of Science and Mathematics commencement speaker Dan Ariely processed in among the caps and gowns wearing a brown “Star Wars” Jedi robe Saturday morning.

“Greetings. I want to talk today about the forces of evil and the forces of good,” Ariely addressed the blue-clad graduates at the residential STEM high school for North Carolina juniors and seniors. Ariely is the James B. Duke Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics at Duke University, just down Broad Street from NCSSM, which was once Watts Hospital.

The graduation ceremony was held under a canopy of tall trees on Watts Lawn on a breezy, cool morning. One bunch of balloons meant for a graduate took flight and remained tangled above in branches. Balloon bunches, flower bouquets and cameras aplenty were scattered among the family and friends at commencement exercises for 347 seniors.

Ariely talked about now versus later, and choices made regarding our future selves. Texting while driving and new versions of doughnuts, Facebook and smartphones will be more tempting and compete for “right now” attention, he said. The TED speaker and author of the best-selling book “Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces that Shape Our Decisions” said a solution to the problem is “reward substitution.” Ariely contracted Hepatitis C after a blood transfusion years ago, and joined a trial that involved miserable nightly injections, he said. The only one in the trial to take his medicine on time, Ariely said he reengineered his environment by tying something he wanted – to watch movies –to something he didn’t – injections.

Launching into professorial mode, Ariely asked the graduating seniors before him to call out ways to get people to care about global warming and the environment. Graduates shouted out “Pay them,” “Give them cake,” “tax them” and “give them compliments.” Ariely said that research shows people love compliments even if they know they are not sincere. He also talked about getting people to heed medical advice using the principle of loss aversion. He garnered laughs when he said, “No one in the world has ever woken up and said, ‘Today I want a colonoscopy.’”

More laughs ensued when Ariely talked about a college-student-designed clock on wheels, Clocky, that runs away when the alarm goes off. With Clocky running around the room in a slightly unpredictable way, the person chasing it wakes up, he said. The next version will be a clock that fights back, he said, or a “Snooze or Lose” clock with a snooze button attached to your bank account or a charity you hate.

“What kind of world are you going to design?” Ariely asked the graduates. He left them with, “May the force be with you,” and wielded a light saber as he was given art as a thank you for his speech.

N.C. School of Science and Mathematics does not have a valedictorian, as they consider all their students honor students, said NCSSM Chancellor J. Todd Roberts. The commencement student speaker is chosen through an anonymous essay contest. The winner, and speaker, was Shaza Gaballah, who is from Clayton. She is also president of the Muslim Student Association, part of a Disney movie club and an anti-drug group.

Gaballah talked about NCSSM as a home because of its people. She talked about meeting new friends and learning new things about themselves as a result, and memories like waiting under blankets while the fire department came out after burnt popcorn, and getting coffee at Joe Van Gogh. If the price for the family of NCSSM “is a little less sleep and a little more stress, I’ll take it,” she said.

Facing her fellow graduates, Gaballah said, “Home is wherever I’m with you.”

As diplomas were awarded, family and friends were asked to hold their applause and celebratory sounds until after all the names in the 32nd graduating class were called. Some called out a “woooo!” here and there anyway, as well as one sounding of an air horn and a proud parent’s “That’s my baby!”

After they tossed their mortarboards, the graduates arrived first at the reception at Bryan Lawn, looking back as the crowd approached with hearty congratulations. New graduate Matthew Ellis, wearing a Carolina blue bow tie, said he was exhilarated.

“This school adds so much to you. You go through so much, but it’s worth it,” he said. “It’s going to be sad to see people go.” Ellis, as his bow tie suggests, is bound for UNC Chapel Hill this fall.

Newly graduated friends Alex Elder and Casie Jingle are headed to Wingate University and Ohio State University, respectively. Elder said she was really, really excited about graduation.

“I’m ecstatic,” she said.

“It’s overwhelming,” Jingle said.

Elder said being a student at NCSSM “definitely was stressful, but it was so worth it.”

“So worth it!” Jingle said.