Catherine Sanderson gestures as she speaks from behind a podium.

“There won’t be a pop quiz, but there will be audience participation,” said Catherine A. Sanderson—and, pretty soon, she had the whole room chanting.

Sanderson, the Poler Family Chair of Psychology, gave this year’s DeMott Lecture at Johnson Chapel. It’s a welcome address for incoming students, and she offered welcome advice for getting the most out of college—advice she got the class of 2026 to repeat back, repeatedly.

She offered five bits of wisdom, all research-based, some personal, others pulled from her books, especially The Positive Shift: Mastering Mindset to Improve Happiness, Health, and Longevity. Its multi-colored cover could be seen in the pews: these students had all gotten a copy over the summer.

Student gathered in Johnson Chapel for the DeMott lecture.

Focus on Effort. That was the first piece of advice. “You are all sitting in this room, because you are plenty smart,” she said. “That is not the key to success here. It’s not how smart you are. At Amherst, effort is going to matter.” Go to class, she urged, go to office hours, the Writing Center, the Moss Quantitative Center.

“Focus on Effort!” chanted the students, at her urging, some laughing at the pseudo-silliness of the exercise.

The second piece of advice? Take a Chance. Sure, taking chances is scary, Sanderson said, because you risk failure, disappointment, rejection. “But if you refuse to take chances, this also means you miss out on experiencing something really great.” 

She emphasized that Amherst’s open curriculum is built for taking chances, but her example was more romantic than academic: As a Stanford undergrad, she told a guy that she had feelings for him. He was kind, but he only wanted to be friends. Later, she felt chemistry grow and confessed again. Same story.  After college, one day, he came to her apartment, kissed her, and said he was in love with her. “What was that?!” she said, which drew a big laugh. Then the punchline: “That guy became my husband.”

Students raise their hands in response to a prompt from the speaker.

Up third: Ignore the Crowd. Here, Sanderson recounted a study in which three students had to fill out a form, but two were planted by the researchers and told to just keep writing, no matter what happened. Then smoke was pumped into the space. It turned out that 90 percent of the remaining students did not speak up about the smoke. “In an ambiguous event, we look to other people for how to interpret this situation,” said Sanderson. “No one wants to feel stupid or embarrassed for overreacting—but then no one may step up.”

Then she had the crowd intone: “Focus on Effort! Take a Chance! Ignore the Crowd!”

Number 4: Get Enough Sleep. “Regular exercise is good, but regular sleep is a lot easier,” advised Sanderson. And it improves your daily life; she cited a study in which college athletes were given a number of physical tests before changing their sleep habits and after—in the second round, they scored significantly better.

Students line up to ask questions while President Elliott listens in.

The last and fifth piece of advice is “the most important,” said Sanderson: Build Connections. And the students now chanted all five bits of advice. Studies show that you enhance your physical and mental health by having a social circle: “You may not find your community your first day or week,” said Sanderson. “But the connections you make with the people who are sitting in this room will have greater impact on your college experience than grades or win-loss records—and will stick with you for the rest of your life.”

Then she asked these first-years to connect with staff and faculty at the College, and to stop by her office at the Science Center: “One of your connections can be with me.”


DeMott Lecture 2022: Catherine Sanderson

August 29, 2022

Catherine Sanderson, the Poler Family Professor of Psychology and Chair of Psychology presented the 2022 DeMott lecture based on her recent book: The Positive Shift: Mastering Mindset to Improve Happiness, Health, and Longevity.

Transcript of DeMott Lecture