Commencement Address

Mrs. Randi Warren

Human beings are “Social Creatures”.  It’s hard-wired into our DNA.  We instinctively seek companionship, support and love.  Deep in the folds of our brains we have mirror neurons that allow us to mimic and imitate each other.  We automatically smile back at someone when they smile at us.  We empathize with pain when we see others experience it.  I often joke with my students that we are not cheetahs roaming the jungle destined to live a solitary life.  We survived and thrived because we banded together, and created groups, that formed towns, that became villages, that grew into cities, and mega cities . . .  Yes, we are Social Creatures.

And this phenomenon explains exactly why the pandemic was so very devastating for all of us, but especially for you, as teenagers.  The teenage brain is absolutely perfect for what it was built to do.  You see, the teenage brain is specifically designed to seek out new experiences.  Just as your brain was transforming and unfolding from childhood to adulthood, just as your brain was ready to seek out new friendships and try new challenges, you were denied this opportunity—stunted if you will.  It hindered our connections, resulting in learning losses and increases in mental stress.

If you have not guessed by now, I teach psychology, and I love it deeply for all the real-world lessons that come with this class. When I get to the unit on Social Psychology, it is typically the students’ favorite because it shines a light on the many facets of human interactions.  We get to explore issues on conformity, obedience and prejudice.  And it is during this unit that we arrive at my all-time favorite study known as the Robber’s Cave Experiment. 

Now, this study took place in 1954, and has many ethical concerns, but it is, in my opinion, a masterpiece on the human condition--the good, the bad and the ugly.  Let me set the scene:

Eleven boys are invited to a sleepaway summer camp to partake in the usual activities that boys would normally bond over.  They eat together, sleep in the same bunkhouse, play games, go hiking and swimming.  They were encouraged to create their own group identity.  They decided to name themselves “The Eagles” and made a flag to unite under.  For a whole week, life was grand and happy.  Then later that week, their world came crashing down, because unbeknownst to them, there is another group at this very same camp!  (Crazy, right?) And they too have been bonding, and eating and sleeping together and doing all the same things except this group has named themselves “The Rattlers”. 

The two groups of boys did not know it at the time, but they were part of a larger research study specifically designed to create conflict and then to see what methods, if any, could be employed later to reduce tension.  Once the groups unceremoniously met each other, researchers cleverly created conflict in a series of pretty normal interactions.  For example, there were baseball games, tug-of-war and canoe races with winners and losers for the events.  The winners received treats and trophies.  The losers received nothing.  No runner-ups here.

Within a short time, things got quickly out of hand. Fights broke out and the researchers had to physically separate them.  They raided each other’s bunkhouses, stole each other’s trophies and burned each other’s flags.  Now this may seem like a disaster to us and by all accounts it was . . . these researchers had turned happy young boys into warring factions.  But that’s exactly what the researchers wanted to do.

Now here comes the hard part.  Can they bring peace or at least some semblance of it to this camp?  Well, miraculously they did.  In something we call “super-ordinate” goals, the researchers created a variety of situations where neither side could “win” or get what they wanted without a measure of cooperation. 

In one instance, a truck that was delivering food to the camp was intentionally stuck in the mud.  If the boys wanted to eat, they had to work together to figure out how to free the truck.  In another situation, the boys were given the option to watch a movie but again, they would have to pool their money together to watch it.  And while this may seem simple, the big lesson here is that to reduce tension, along with prejudice and biases, and yes, even hatred, we need to get our hands dirty and work alongside one another.  We need interdependent, common goals that force us to be social creatures together

And allow me to fast forward this story to more recent times when neighbors from a small village began to fight and sadly kill each other over a dwindling water supply.  Now the solution is an easy one.  Dig a well for more water.  And while that may solve the problem, it does not resolve the greater human conflict.  You can bring the water to the village but how do you re-create a village that was once built on trust, respect and empathy?   Luckily, we have the solution—use the superordinate goals from the Robber’s Cave Study.  Instead of outsiders fixing the problem by building the well for the villagers, the citizens from each village would dig the well together. They would relearn negotiating skills and develop super-ordinate goals, just as those boys did in the Robber’s Cave Experiment.

We live in tumultuous times both at home and abroad.  Many of us are no longer seeing eye to eye.  We view each other in “us” versus “them” realms, with a measure of suspicion and distrust.  Maybe we have unwittingly divided ourselves into two camps, much like the Robber’s Cave Study, where we are either “Eagles” or “Rattlers”.  So, allow me to ask ourselves, what lessons can we draw to stop the divide? How can we find common ground again?

It is my deep seeded hope here today, on the cusp of your graduation, that we can take this knowledge and use the Robber Cave Study for good and together, we can break some of the tension and discord that I believe has built up especially since the pandemic . . . when we were not allowed to be Social Creatures.  . . . when we forgot how to be interdependent and share common goals.  Let’s move from a culture of “me” to a culture of “we”, building on what we have learned. 

Here is my challenge to each of you and it’s twofold: And I know it will take a bit of effort, but I think stopping this Rattler v. Eagle cycle is absolutely worth it.  First, be a Social Creature this summer.  Get out there and be with people.  Do something, do anything to make new human connections. . . But second, find your super-ordinate goals.  What can you do that connects you to something bigger than yourself or your immediate social circle?  Something that will unite you with others in your community.  Maybe it’s the simple act of volunteering?


Starting tomorrow, on our school’s webpage we are posting a link to a Power Point presentation.  Now I am the only one with editing rights, but anyone with this link will be able to view it . . . I am asking you to email me your own slide that explains how you were a Social Creature. Let me know all about it and I will add your slide to record our collective efforts.

 I have a few ideas listed in this power point, activities maybe you have never tried before and places you can volunteer.  You can try spelunking, slam poetry, inner tube water polo. 

You will also see that I have a slide with some suggestions for a local website  They have hundreds of postings and there is something for everyone: from working in animal shelters or Food Pantries, to helping Veterans, and going into nursing homes. And by all means, email me your ideas and I’ll add them to these slides for others to see.

Now more than ever, we need good, open, honest, kind and compassionate people to lead us.  And I say this with all honesty and with great humility: I have taught many of you and I know we have them right here in front of me.  It’s not the adults on this stage, but it is you, the almost-graduates of Patriot High School who are going to do amazing things.  The world has put a lot on your shoulders, with many troubles prior generations have created and heaped upon you, but I have worked by your sides, I have seen your growth, cheered your accomplishments and marveled at your resilience to persevere when the world literally shut down.  You are nothing short of miraculous.  You are like the Phoenix rising from the ashes.  I am so very hopeful for a bright and happy future—we all just need to remember to be social creatures. 

You are all amazing!  And don’t let anyone tell you otherwise! 

Congratulations Class of 2023!