Swarthmore colleagues, students choose to honor an expert on choices

Barry Schwartz, a psychology professor from Swarthmore college, spoke at a symposium held in his honor at Lang Concert Hall Saturday, March 19, 2016. After 45 years of teaching, Schwartz will retire this spring. JENNIFER KERRIGAN / Staff Photographer

Having more choices can actually be a bad thing, says the research that changed psychologist Barry Schwartz's life, earning his TED Talk millions of views and turning him into someone "people all over the world . . . associate with a single important idea."

And coincidentally, Schwartz, who is preparing to retire from Swarthmore College, has made an illustrious career by sticking to just a few good choices.

He's been a professor at Swarthmore for 45 years - the only job he ever applied for, he said. He met his wife in seventh grade; they married their junior year of college. The couple never left the Philadelphia area after finishing graduate programs here in the early 1970s.

At 69, Schwartz has shaped nearly half a century of students and cemented his influential place in the field of psychology. He is retiring to spend time with his grandchildren, but otherwise would not have wanted to leave Swarthmore, a school that molded his career, he said.

"I'll be forever indebted to my colleagues," he said in an interview Friday. "I basically started my education when I got here."

His colleagues and students, in turn, feel indebted to him. On Saturday, they held an all-day symposium in Schwartz's honor on the Swarthmore campus.

More than a dozen people gave lectures about psychology and working with Schwartz, speaking with a warmth and gratitude that was a testament to his grand career.

"Barry has been a force in my life," said John Monterosso, who teaches psychology at the University of Southern California and took Schwartz's Introduction to Psychology class as a freshman in 1988. He has "really shown me a way that life can be fun and productive."

Once, Monterosso remembered, Schwartz jokingly told the class he had been quarterback on the New York University football team. (NYU has no football team.)

Monterosso fell for it. "I was just so taken with Barry that I believed he could do anything," he said.

A native New Yorker, Schwartz came to the University of Pennsylvania for graduate school and was hired at Swarthmore immediately after. "I was smart enough to recognize that I had found the perfect job, so I didn't ever consider leaving it," he said.

He and his wife, Myrna, who is a researcher at MossRehab, settled near the university and raised two children, later moving to Old City. After the school year ends, they will move to Northern California, where their children and grandchildren (four, with a fifth on the way) live.

Among the most satisfying aspects of his career, Schwartz names having an impact on young students' interest in psychology and interacting with colleagues in other departments, with whom he has taught courses and written books.

He has taught a variety of courses, even starting a new one this year because he did not want to "go slouching out."

Amy Wrzesniewski, a professor at Yale University who worked with Schwartz while she was an undergraduate at Penn in the early 1990s, recalled the start of a years-long project they began in 2002. He called her and said, "I have an idea."

"If we've all learned something, it's to pay attention when that happened," Wrzesniewski said, drawing laughter from the crowd.

In 2005, Schwartz published The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, which led to a blockbuster TED Talk. His TED Talks have been viewed more than 13 million times, and in addition to his books and papers he has penned op-eds for the New York Times. His fifth book, Why We Work, came out in September.

"I think it's important for people who think they know something to try and share what they know with a larger audience," said Schwartz, who calls himself a "teacher-slash-preacher." He plans to continue his work in retirement and said he will have a position in the psyschology department and business school at the University of California, Berkeley.

That his colleagues organized a symposium for his retirement was "incredible," Schwartz said. "It's almost overwhelming."

An audience of at least 100 laughed and applauded Saturday as speakers reminisced about Schwartz and thanked him for his influence.

"You do work that truly means so much to the field and to the world," Wrzesniewski said from the stage.

Roseanna Sommers, a 2010 Swarthmore grad, credited Schwartz with her decisions to become a psychologist and to pursue interdisciplinary work by getting a law degree at the same time.

"Technically," she said, "any research I do is inspired by Barry."

Schwartz said that he would be sorry to go but that having taught so many students was "good enough for me."

"I don't need a legacy," he said. "My legacy, if I have one, is in the students I've taught - and who knows how that's going to manifest itself?"

jmcdaniel@philly.com

610-313-8205 @McDanielJustine