Rob Henderson grew up in foster homes in California, joined the Air Force at 17, attended Yale on the G.I. Bill, and is currently a Gates Fellow at Cambridge University (UK).
Steve Hsu is Professor of Theoretical Physics and Computational Mathematics, Science, and Engineering at Michigan State University. Join him for wide-ranging conversations with leading writers, scientists, technologists, academics, entrepreneurs, investors, and more.
Steve Hsu: Welcome to Manifold.
My guest today is Rob Henderson. Rob has a very interesting personal history. He attended Yale University and is now completing a PhD in social and evolutionary psychology at the University of Cambridge in the UK. He has become well known, at least on the internet, as a kind of public intellectual. He coined a term, which we'll explore, called luxury beliefs. He is a faculty fellow of the newly formed University of Austin, which is an attempt to recreate our broken woke university system in the United States.
Welcome to the podcast, Rob.
Rob Henderson: Thank you, Steve. It's great to be here.
Steve Hsu: Great to have you, I've been looking forward to this conversation and you know, like normally I think of the podcast interview as, as an interview, but I feel like I really kind of know you because I've heard so many interviews, with you and in which you've, you've revealed aspects of your life story.
So, I almost feel like I'm your, you don't know me, but I sort of feel like I'm your friend, so we're just going to have a conversation.
Rob Henderson: Yeah. You know, I've had those, I've had those kinds of interactions more and more, especially within the last six months or so after I went on Barry Weiss's podcast and Jordan Peterson's podcast, and both of those have, you know, just, just a large audience. So now guys will come up to me, like I'll be working out in the gym and some young guy will come up to me and, you know, just ask me about luxury beliefs or, you know, just like ask, you know, like, like he already knows me, you know?
And it's an interesting experience. It's a, to be in a position where someone knows a lot about you, and I don't necessarily know that much about them. And, yeah, I'm still something I'm getting used to. So, but yeah, I'm happy, happy to talk about any, you know, any aspect of my story here with you today.
Steve Hsu: Yeah. You know, I, having written a blog for a long time with a, with a kind of niche following, I'm often in the situation where I meet somebody and I, I sort of find out, he knows a lot about me or him, or she knows a lot about me only later, or maybe they'll say it right front. But the problem is that I'm never quite sure, like, am I talking to somebody who has no idea who I am or I'm talking to somebody who's like read like a thousand blog posts that I've written or something, so that's the ambiguity.
Rob Henderson: Yeah, well, one, one thing that's, that's funny with me, like my girlfriend pointed out is, the strangers who will approach me tend to be like young guys and especially young Asian guys. And she says that it's probably like younger Asian guys because, you know, they're, they're better at telling Asian people apart.
Number one, and number two, like if a white guy or white person sees me, they're not sure, like they don't want to risk offense. And so, you know, there's like a selected pool of people who, who tend to, to approach, not that it's that many, you know, it's like once every few months or something, but, but yeah, there does tend to be like a certain type, more often than not.
Steve Hsu: Yeah. You, you just hit on a very sensitive topic, which is that we all look alike to them right.
And I guess that's kind of true because one thing I've noticed throughout my life is that I'll meet somebody for the first time and I'll be getting to know them and, and, and they'll say so, wow, do I know you have met you before?
And, sometimes they probably, maybe they have met me before, but sometimes I think like, no, you have another Asian friend that you're just, you can't tell me apart from,
Rob Henderson: Yeah. Yep. That's yeah, that's, that's, not, not an uncommon experience.
Steve Hsu: Yep.
So, let's talk about your early life, which, I think, is very unique and I, I think it informs you. I think you have a very insightful view of what's happening in American society. And, and part of it comes from having had a trajectory where you started out from, in a sense, very humble beginnings and now have reached some of the top institutions of higher learning. So maybe just tell us a little bit about your early life.
Yeah, I mean like you, like you had mentioned at the start of the podcast, I'm, you know, currently finishing up my PhD at Cambridge and before this, I studied at Yale, but before I entered these universities, my life was a lot different. So just backing up. I was born in Los Angeles in poverty. I never knew my father; my mom became addicted to drugs. And when I was three, I was placed into the foster care system in LA. And I bounced around different, different homes. I lived in seven different homes over the course of the next five years or so. And yeah, I mean, it was, that was a really difficult experience, you know, like my formative years, like, just as I'm sort of forming consciousness and coming online as a human being, like every, you know, six months or so, I'm moving to a new home, new family, seeing my foster siblings come and go sort of never knowing where, where I'm going to be next or whether I wake up tomorrow and one of my foster siblings is taken from me. So that was really difficult.
I was later adopted, right around my eighth birthday shortly before, by this family. And we settled in a kind of dusty, working -class town called Red Bluff, California.
Steve Hsu: Could I jump in there for a second? So, in your earliest memories, do you remember your mother?
Rob Henderson: Yeah. I have a couple of very vivid kinds of flash bulb memories of my mom. You know, the earliest memory I have, I'm like, literally, you know, I'm at that point. Yeah. Three years old, like clutching my mom's lap and these two. You know, so as a kid, I'm just seeing these two guys in like, just dressed in all black, standing over us.
And I instinctively know that they're trying to separate us. And you know, now I'm aware these are police officers. And, you know, basically my, my mom was doing drugs and, you know, guys were coming in and out of our apartment at all hours of the day and night. And one of the neighbors called the police and they took a look around and immediately knew what was happening. And so that was my first memory.
My second memory is of us sitting in a, like this long white hallway and I'm holding this cartoon of chocolate milk and I sneeze, and I spill it and I look over at my mom for help. She's sitting next to me, but she can't do anything because she's wearing handcuffs.
And you know, like this, this recognition that like, you know, that she can't help me. I burst into tears. And since then, so those are like the two memories that I'm, I'm pretty sure actually happened. I have these other, like, less, less vivid flash bulb memories of us living in a car. And like later I have these, you know, these documents now for my social workers who are responsible for my case, that we did live in a car in west lake in LA, this kind of rundown neighborhood, before we moved to that apartment.
But I'm not entirely sure how accurate those memories are, cuz they would've been before that. But you know, when I was two or something and memories are, they are especially unreliable that early.
So, those are my sum total of my memories of my mom. I have zero memories of my father who left us. I think even before I was born.
So, so yeah, then, then, then later on I was adopted and my adoptive parents, they had a daughter, it was their birth daughter. She became my younger sister. And for a couple of years, we had a relatively stable family. And then my adoptive parents divorced, and my adoptive father was, you know, he was, he was angry at my mother for leaving him. And so, he decided to stop speaking with me as a way to, to, you know, get revenge on her. And this was really difficult on me, which, you know, it was difficult for my mom too, to see that. And so, you know, after not knowing my father, then all the foster homes and then losing contact with my adoptive father who by that point, like, I, you know, as far as I knew he was my dad, I called him dad.
Rob Henderson: I thought of him in that way. And so at that point, yeah, I was, I was feeling extremely angry and betrayed and yeah, I was, it was, yeah, I was just a really angry kid. You know, my grades in school were, you know, plummeting and just, just, you know, a lot of emotional turmoil that I didn't understand at that age. And yeah, that was a major reason why I was such a poor student at that time.
Steve Hsu: At, at this stage in your life, you're in Northern California, is that right?
Rob Henderson: Yeah. So Red Bluff is about two hours north of Sacramento. It's, I mean the closest city or town that anyone may have heard of in that part of California is Chico, which is about 45 minutes away. So, it's way up north, closer to the Oregon border than it is to San Francisco or the Bay Area.
So, it's, it's pretty, pretty far up and not a lot of people know about Red Bluff, but it is like, you know, it's, it's, the crime rates are, are especially high. The poverty rates are high. If you look at the rankings for like the most, like the highest crime rates in California, Red Bluff is consistently ranked around number three and number four, usually right behind Oakland.
Steve Hsu: Yeah, I'm kind of familiar with Northern, like north of the Bay Area, California, because I used to be a professor at the University of Oregon, and I used to run a startup in the Bay Area. So, I used to go back and forth. Most of the time I would fly, but occasionally my wife or my girlfriend wanted to drive. Because she, we were actually interested in that part of the country. The Southern part of Oregon is really nice. It has a California like climate, and you know, beautiful trees. And there's a national park there called Crater Lake. But yeah, when you get across the border into California, it's like almost nothing there, just some small towns. But the terrain is very beautiful. It can be very beautiful.
Rob Henderson: Yeah. I mean, it is a gorgeous area. I mean, Mount Shasta is up there Mount Lassen a lot of greenery at least like, yeah, that, that is a little bit further north of Red Bluff than that. Red Bluff itself is actually extremely warm. The climate is dry.
Yeah, that was, it was different. I mean, it was kind of a different environment compared to LA. I mean, I saw a lot of things like the school system that I was in the LA county foster care system and the, the, the school system, there was a lot of poverty and drugs and crime and so on. I mean, I was a little kid, so I didn't see a ton of it, but I was aware of it by the time I left Red Bluff, it was kind of the same.
Rob Henderson: It was just like, you know, kind of almost like urban versus rural poverty. And in Red Bluff, I saw a lot of the same things. I mean, one, one difference that was interesting to me at first was that my favorite Red Bluff was whiter. I mean, Red Bluff itself is probably, I mean, it was, you know, mostly white with, like a, a sizable proportion of Hispanic students.
Whereas the schools and my foster siblings in LA, it was overwhelmingly Hispanic with some black kids, a few white kids and like the occasional Asian kid, at least like the environments in the schools that I was in. So Red Bluff, it was like, you know, mostly Hispanic few white kids, or yeah, no, no, sorry.
Sorry. It was mostly white and then like some Hispanic kids and then like, you know, a sprinkling of black and Asian kids. So it was, like, an interesting transition for me.
Steve Hsu: Did people often think you were Hispanic when you were really young?
Rob Henderson: I don't think so. Yeah, I don't think people were confused or anything. I mean, there were some casual jokes and things about me being Asian, but none of it was severe or like really bad or anything. I mean, the friends that I had, especially by the time I got to high school, it was like, you know, my friend group, I had five guys there.
So out of my friend group, the five, there was one guy who was Hispanic and one who was half white and half Hispanic. And it was me and the rest of the guys were white. And so, yeah, I mean, race was not treated as a particularly big deal. Yeah, it just wasn't, at least the way that I recall it was, yeah, it wasn't a big thing.
Steve Hsu: Now, as you were going through all this process of foster homes and being adopted, were you ever given IQ tests?
Rob Henderson: Yeah. So, in my final foster home, I was doing so badly in school. I mean, I was changing schools, you know, like I said, like every six months, sometimes even more frequently than that. And so, the state of California mandated that I take an IQ test. I think they were concerned that I had a learning disability or, you know, some, some sort of, you know, mental, you know, challenges that prevented me from doing well.
And so, they sent this psychologist over and I took this test. I mean, I remember just being, kind of annoyed. That you know, I was out of school, right. I didn't want to have to like to read and solve math problems. And it's just like this random woman who I'd never seen in my life, you know, coming over and, and, and having to take these tests.
Rob Henderson: And I scored below average. So, later on, I actually got the documents from my social worker, and I scored below average. Overall, my reading score was, was really, I think my, my verbal IQ was, I know I was like 83 or something like that. I mean, it was, it was kind of a mess. I mean, my math score was relatively high.
I think it was around like 117 and it was just like a scatter shot. And, and part of the reason for it was because I was selectively motivated to answer the questions depending on whether they interested me and how much I cared and that specific moment. And yeah, it was, you know, just, just the emotional turmoil led to just my, my scores and my, my, engagement in academics in general to be very, sort of haphazard and sporadic.
Steve Hsu: This is one thing that people often neglect is that motivation plays a role in terms of how well you score, whether the score reflects your actual ability. Later on, when you were in the military, I assume you probably had to take something like the, AFQT?
Rob Henderson: That's right? Yeah. So, when I was in my final year of high school, I took the ASVAB during the AFQT. And yeah, I remember my, my recruiter, he pulled up these charts and he was giving my, my, my results. And he was like, oh, you know, you can, you know, he was just playing around his computer. He pulled up these charts saying I could convert my results into an SAT score.
And yeah, I noticed like, oh, that would've been like a really good score. And it was actually the same score as one of my high school friends who was going off to college. He was going off to Cal State Fullerton, but at least like, as far as me and my friends were concerned, he was like the smartest kid we'd ever met, like a genius-level kid.
And so, to see that my scores were, you know, basically the same as his was really shocking to me, because my GPA was extremely low. I think I had a 2.2 when I graduated. and I took like, I intentionally tried to like to get out of the classes. They placed me in. They consistently placed me in the upper-level courses, and I would like to forge my mom's signature to get into the lower-level classes.
Right. So, they put me in chemistry and then I would go to my high school advisor, a counselor and say, oh, I want to take nutrition science instead of chemistry. And he would say, oh, your mom asked to fill out this form and I'd go home and just sign it and come back. And then I'd, you know, get outta chemistry and take these easier courses.
And even then, I barely passed because I, I never did homework and, and barely paid attention in school.
Steve Hsu: The. Why, why did they initially place you in the higher-level courses?
Rob Henderson: I think about the strength of my grades and test scores from middle school. So, my early life was just a series of reversals. You know, I had mentioned before my, my adoptive parents splitting up and my grades plummeting and not doing so well. And then my mom met a woman named Shelly. They formed a relationship.
They bought a house together and raised me and my sister, you know, my sister would move every other week with, between her dad, and, and, and our mom. And, and so those years from around like nine or 10 to about like right before high school to like 14, those were the years that I recall being like, sort of the most stable and the most sort of, satisfying and, and warm in my, my early.
And so those were like my middle school years essentially. And so, I actually did pretty well. I got mostly ass and BS and did well on my test scores. And yeah. He was a pretty good student. I had the capability to be a decent student if you know, the things around me were generally going okay.
but then right before I started high school, Shelly was shot and, you know, that just sort of put my home life into a tailspin and, you know, really affected me. So, then my performance in high school suffered as a result of that. So yeah, I was, I was sort of almost responsive to how chaotic and disorderly my surroundings were and, and my, my sort of general attitude towards people and towards school and everything.
you know, it was a reaction to that.
Steve Hsu: It's kind of interesting to you. Very nonchalant. We say that your, your, your mom's partner was shot. And like, like without, without elaborating, I mean, was that was.
Rob Henderson: yeah, it was, it, it was just a, a, a crazy accident. I mean, they were at a shooting range with some of their friends and one of their friends, you know, her, her weapon jammed. And she was attempting to, you know, UNAM it and figure out what was going on. And she was carelessly, you know, aiming it around and, yeah, it, misfired and hit, you know, my mom's partner Shelly in the back, and yeah, so she had to go through a series of extensive surgeries and treatments and physical therapy, and she ended up surviving.
but there were, you know, early on, we weren't sure. And then we weren't sure if she was going to be able to walk again. And so, yeah. And then, and then, you know, on top of that, on top of, you know, just the, the, the challenges of, you know, her injury and trying to recover, there were financial difficulties and cuz Shelly was no longer able to work.
Rob Henderson: And so, you know, the bills were piling up and that added another layer of stress in our, in our house and just kind of everything off, and so, yeah, it was, it was tough for me. It was tough for my sister. I noticed, you know, around that time my sister stopped visiting as much. She mostly stayed with her dad and, you know, in, in high, like at the time, I, I wasn't entirely sure why.
I mean, it was, you know, we, we talk on the phone a lot, but you know, now I sort of realized like she probably sensed what was happening in the home and wanted to just sort of withdraw from it. And at that point I too, I mean, I was kind of withdrawing from it and spending more and more time with my friends by that point.
I mean, I was, yeah, I was 14. And so generally that's the age when, you know, kids sort of take on this rebellious attitude and start sort of testing boundaries and, you know, on top of that, there's like puberty and all the hormonal changes. And so even in the best of circumstances, that's sort of a transitional period for any kid.
But then on top of everything I had been through and then the situation at home, just sort of amplified everything and, and dialed it up even more.
Steve Hsu: Right. So, this is a pretty tumultuous time for you in high school. And it sounds like you weren't interested in school very much. So, when you were hanging out with your buddies, what were you guys mainly doing?
Rob Henderson: I mean, mostly just like the dumbest, you know, dumb things you could think of. I mean, at that point we were smoking a lot of weed. We were taking pills. I mean, we would take a generic Vicodin, but we would also, at this point we were, we learned that you could take cold medicine, like large doses of SUDAFED and some of these other pills. And if you took like 10 of them in a row, like DXM, you, you basically get a pretty good high. We'd play the choking game. I don't know if you're familiar with this. I mean, it's basically like this game where you cut off oxygen to your brain by pressing the carotid arteries on your neck.
And what else? I mean, we were getting into fights, drinking, and driving, vandalizing buildings. I mean, it got, it got pretty out of hand. I mean, there were some close calls. I mean, fortunately. I can't recall any specific life-or-death situations. But it was a lot of just recklessness and irresponsibility.
Rob Henderson: And later on, one of my good friends, his younger brother, tried to join a gang and he was shot to death. Like they killed him because they were, when he was trying to join the gang, they had to play this. They had to play Russian roulette and he failed, you know, whatever. Like he got, you know, he, he, you know, got the barrel of the gun and, they, they, yeah, they killed him.
And so those kinds of things were like, those stories were not uncommon, at my high school where I was growing up. And so yeah, I mean, all around me was like this. So, you know, I had my childhood with the foster care system and everything else, but like all of my friends were raised by single moms. One of my friends was raised by his grandma because his dad was in prison and his mom was hooked on drugs.
And, you know, other friends raised, you know, just, just all these kinds of like, what, what do they call them? Like all alternate family arrangements or something where nobody I knew was raised by both of their birth parents. And so, yeah, it was, a lot of, sort of, in addition to like the, the sort of whatever, lower middle class or working-class kinds of poverty, there was just a lot of like dysfunctions too.
Steve Hsu: So, when you decided to join the army,
Rob Henderson: The Air Force, it was the Air Force.
Steve Hsu: I'm sorry, the Air Force. Was it mainly to get out of your situation or was it, did you have some actual goal within the Air Force that you wanted to achieve?
Rob Henderson: I had no specific goal other than to get out of there. So, I was 17 when I enlisted, I had to talk my adoptive mother into signing some documents, to let me go. So, you, you know, you can join when you're 17, you can enlist at 17, you just need a parent or guardian signature. So, yeah, right after high school, I talked to my mom into signing them.
But my only goal was just to get out of there, get out of Red Bluff, get away from everything. It seemed like every few years, just another, You know, tragic or, you know, severely upsetting event happened. So, yeah. I remember even talking to my recruiter and I was like, I don't, you know, I was like, whatever job.
I mean, I, whatever, even the Air Force, the only reason I did that was because one of my teachers was in the air force and one of my friends' dads was in the air force and they were like, oh yeah, you should, you know, join, if you're going to join the military, join the AirForce. I'm like, all right, I'll join the Air Force.
It was like, not, not a ton of thought put into it. and then, yeah, I just wanted to get out of there. And I had some inkling in the back of my mind that maybe someday I could go to college. That was something I think that attracted me probably as far back as middle school back when I was doing pretty well in school, but I never really saw myself on that track.
I knew my grades were bad, but you know, I knew a part of me thought, well, maybe this could be a path out of here. And the recruiter, you know, one of the main incentives they try to use to recruit kids out of high school is the GI bill, which pays for tuition and provides a living stipend. And so, he was talking that up a lot and I thought, oh, maybe someday, especially once he showed, you know, showed me my test results and how well I had performed.
And I thought, well, maybe someday I can, I can give this a shot, but for now I just need to get out of here.
Steve Hsu: Now the test results have opened the door to a good specialty already at that time for you in the Air Force.
Rob Henderson: Yeah. So, my recruiter told me, I qualify for basically every job available. And so, there was, you know, there was like a variety of jobs that looked pretty, mundane, like security forces, or I don’t know, just like a lot of, you know, jobs that didn't seem particularly interesting. But yeah, the job that I chose was electronic warfare systems.
and that was, you know, just the, because it had that warfare in it and I was 17 and I was like, oh, electronic warfare. What's that? And there was a lot of technical jargon in the description, but, you know, essentially what I did later, once I trained and everything was, repairing radars and missile warning systems, anti-heat, seeking missile systems, those kinds of things.
And so, it opened me up to do that. You know, it was this, it was real, it was a technical job, and, and I had to go through two different phases of training. I mean, right after basic training in Lackland air force base in Texas, I went to Keesler air force base and Mississippi, and then I had followed on training at sheppard air force base.
Rob Henderson: So, it was. A lot of training, a lot of going to different bases just to sort of gain the skills necessary. And then once I got to my duty station, it's almost like anything else where I get there and they're like, yeah, forget everything you learned in your training. Like here's how, how the jobs are actually done.
And, and then it was like another year of, of, of training from there, like on the job training. So, it was a lot of, yeah, it was a lot of sorts of building the skills necessary to do that. Unlike, you know, being a military cop or something like that, where maybe there the training isn't quite as intense.
Steve Hsu: So, do you know your way around, like a voltmeter and a CSCOPE stuff like that.
Rob Henderson: Yeah. Yeah. I mean a little bit. I mean, I'd forgotten a lot of it by now, but yeah. I mean, I know I'm, I'm somewhat familiar with, like, you know, all that stuff. We took electronic principles and, you know, shooting wires and those kinds of things.
Steve Hsu: And how are you with an AR 15
You know, I don't think we ever actually used AR fifteens. We trained with M sixteens, M 16 S and M nine S in basic, and then we had to qualify. Whenever we deployed, I deployed twice. So yeah, the air force is, you know, it's sort of them, you know, it's not the most, it's not, it's not like inventory, right.
Rob Henderson: Or, or the Marines or something. It's like, we have to sort of know the basics, but it's not a key part of the occupation, the way it is like for the Marines. Right. They're like riflemen first, the Air Force. It's like, as long as you sort of know the basics of a weapon, then that's, you know, that's all they care about.
I find it funny because I grew up in Iowa hunting and stuff like this, and I have guns when, when I mention that to any other professor there, just their eyes bug out, like you know, you have an AR 15, what? So, yeah. You know, I, I have like these pictures, you'd all go out with my friends. Sometimes when I go back to hobo, we'll, you know, we'll go to the shooting grade, you something, we'll take pictures. And I'm like, I, I don't know if I put these on Instagram and all my academic colleagues are going to see this they'll freak out.
So, I'm, I'm like, I try to be careful with like, you know, how much of my familiarity with gun culture that I, that I, you know, post online.
Steve Hsu: I, I was blogging about at one point, and I said something like, you know, I, I got to teach my kids this stuff as just a basic life skill and people freaked out. They're like what? Handling guns is a basic life skill. And I was like, what else is a basic life skill? I mean, other than learning how to like to choke a guy out with jujitsu and fire a gun.
Rob Henderson: Oh man. Yeah. I'm sure they love that.
Steve Hsu: Yeah. But, anyway, so you're, you're in the air force and you're stationed in Germany? In Europe?
Rob Henderson: Yeah. So, okay. I was first stationed in McCord Air Force base in Washington state now it's they, they, they merged with, the military base Fort Lewis since, since I'd left. But, yeah, so I was in Washington state first. Then I was stationed in Germany, at Ramstein air base and did a couple of deployments.
So, I was in Qatar at Al Udeid. I was in Kyrgyzstan at Manas air base. And yeah, I spent a couple weeks in Italy and yeah, I was just kind of, spent most of, most of my enlistment actually was, was abroad in Europe and in the middle east.
Steve Hsu: And were you, was this sort of, you know, this, the standard description as young man leaves his small town in America and sort of sees the world through the military and, and maybe through the eyes of the other enlisted men or even officers that, that you're spending time with.
Rob Henderson: Yeah. I mean, I met a lot of good friends and sort of, yeah, that was, it was. A, an illuminating experience, meeting people from all over the country, all over the world. just like re recognizing the diversity of interesting perspectives and experiences people had. I mean, one thing that was kind of interesting to me was when I was in basic training, I, I realized like, just.
I guess my impression was that I would just meet a bunch of people like me who were just like right out of high school, you know, sort of aimless and lost and maybe didn't have the best home life, but it wasn't really like that. I mean, I met guys who, of course, had similar experiences to me, but I met, you know, guys who already had bachelor's degrees and people who were a little bit older.
I mean, the oldest guy that I knew of basic training was training with, he was seven. No, no, no. I was 17. He was 27 years old. So, he was 10 years older than me. And he'd already like, you know, to me, like he was like a, you know, he'd already lived life like 27 years old. Wow. Like tell me what, you know. And he would like to tell us about college and about, you know, what it was like to, I don't know, just, like move away from home and study and like all his plans and everything.
And so, it just helped me to mature and helped me to understand that, you know, the possibilities that I thought that I had were. You know, they were broader, they were broader, there was more out there that I could accomplish, could achieve.
And so, yeah, it was, I yeah, in many ways, yeah, that experience, I was really grateful. even though I didn't quite understand what I was getting myself into. And, and there were a lot of, you know, periods of misery and, and unhappiness and so forth, but generally speaking, it was, it was probably the smartest decision I'd ever made.
Steve Hsu: Now, when you were in high school, I'm guessing you didn't really buy into the system, but when you got to the military, did you, did you sort of buy into it and say like, well, this, this is maybe it's, it's, you know, structured in too rigid a way, but at least there is a system here that I can understand and I can operate in and, you know, it's, it's somewhat fair or something.
Did you, did you, get to that point of view?
Hmm. Yeah. I, I don't know if I was quite that sophisticated in my thinking at that time. I mean, I, I generally, I don't know if I thought in terms of like the system, but I thought in terms of like adults and rules and those kinds of things, and I thought they were ridiculous. And I didn't really take it that seriously.
Rob Henderson: I mean, one of the reasons I even joined, I had this sort of, what disagreeable kind of personality, where I would tell people I was joining. Like, I would tell adults like my mom's friends or something, or, or teachers, you know, that I was planning to join the military. And they'd like to react with horror because this was 2007 and this was, you know, the height of the Iraq war in Afghanistan. And, you know, this sort of at this point, the sentiment against George Bush, even among Republicans was turning, right. Like, you know, this was like right before Obama came on the scene and like, people just wanted to, to just forget all about Bush and the wars and everything.
And so, yeah, there were a lot of the like, why, why would you do that? You're going to get killed. This is terrible. And to me, I was like, good. Like, if you don't like it, then I'm, I'm, I'm going to do it. It just made me want to do it even more.
And then yeah, the military experience, it was, at first, you know, the basic trading and everything, all that stuff sucked. But that was like the first time in my life that I really felt like this, sort of respect for rules in the system. And that I understood that-- you know, I mean, the military is a very unique environment where, you know, upfront, right. Like right away. You're sort of, yeah. You're learning how to shoot M-16s and M-9s and like, literally these are life and death situations. Even things like repairing radars, and missile warning systems. Like if you, if you fail to perform your tasks, people can actually die. And so, the gravity of the situation hit me, and I realized like, oh, these rules are in place for a reason. And, and even just like the camaraderie and seeing like, guys, I respect, respect that structure probably, you know, that, that rubbed off on me too then, and had an impression on me.
Rob Henderson: And, you know, the, the, the basic trading instructors and stuff, like, they were well aware of like, oh, these are a bunch of like dopey young guys that like, they'd make jokes about, like, I know two weeks ago you were jacking off on your mom's couch, but those days are over and like, you know, get on your face.
And it's like, you know, let's do push ups for the next two hours while I like to insult everything about your appearance. And like, you know, there was, but that, that sort of shared misery, yeah, I mean, there's something, something strangely enjoyable about it.
Steve Hsu: When I was in high school, I loved movies. Like, this is dating me of course, but like an officer and a gentleman or tapped or, you know, stuff about military life and my brother and I both actually thought about applying to the service academies, which I would've probably hated had I gone there, but we were seriously thinking about it.
Rob Henderson: Yeah, it's one of those things where you're in it and you hate it. And then like, as soon as you're out of it, you're, there's like this immense sense of relief. And then for the rest of your life, you just laugh about it. Like, that's sort of my impression of like talking to other guys too, is like, you know, it's like a memory that you laugh about cuz it was, so you know, so unpleasant.
Steve Hsu: So, at some point while you were on active duty, you, you, you decided you were going to apply to college? Is that right? And somehow you actually applied to
Rob Henderson: Yeah. That was a weird, transitionary period. I mean, I had no idea what the process was of even going to college. I, you know, I'd taken some night classes. I mean, this is sort of how. I guess I was unfocused. I took night classes at a local community college when I was, I think, 18 or 19, you know, one of the classes I took, I took like a writing composition, or it was like English 101. One of those is a very basic low-level kind of class, like intro courses. And I think I got a B in it or a B plus. And I, I actually, like, I think I, as the way I recall it, I actually put in some effort, and I tried to pay attention. I probably didn't go about it the right way. And yeah, I mean, getting, getting a, be in a community college writing class is not necessarily the sign if someone's going to go to Yale later, but I was just such a, an undisciplined kid and I had no idea like how to, how to actually study and focus, for, for material at that level.
And so, yeah, fast forward, I'm like 24 years old. My enlistment is about to end and I, Yeah, I, I was just doing online searches for how to get into college. Eventually I found this program called the Warrior-Scholar Project, which is, yeah. Program designed to help veterans, get into college and then, succeed, you know, sort of, improve their academic skills that may have become rusty, you know, throughout their, throughout their military enlistments.
Rob Henderson: So, I managed to get into that program, and it was two weeks, and it was sort of a crash course and, you know, here's how to fill out a common app and here's how to get recommendations and here's how to write a college essay. And then, you know, once you're in college, here's sort of the expectations. And here's, I mean, even though I like the most basic things, like here's what the purpose of office hours is when a professor offers them, here's what, you know, the kinds of questions that are appropriate to ask.
So, it was like, you know, very much hand holding throughout like people, you know, for a lot of people, none of us had ever, you know, considered college before. So it was, it was very helpful.
Steve Hsu: This was a program run by the military with maybe civilian instructors or?
Rob Henderson: No, no, no, no. No. So, this was actually started by two students at Yale. surprisingly enough. So, so they, one of them was, in the Marine ROTC program at Yale, he played football, and he injured his back in the Harvard-Yale football game. So, he was disqualified from service. So, he still wanted to sort of be involved with the military in some way.
So, he started it with a guy who was actually an Australian military vet and they started this program and now it's at multiple campuses across the US. But at that point, when I was in, they had a workshop at Yale, a workshop at Harvard and a workshop, I think at the University of Michigan. And it was just random, like, where, like if you applied and you got in, they just assigned a campus to you.
I just happened to have gotten into the two-week workshop at Yale. And while I was there, I was like, oh, I wonder if I could go to a school like this. And I would sort of, cautiously bring it up, you know, typically bring it up with the instructors there who were Yale students. The tutors were Yale students at the program and the instructors were actually, some of them were Yale professors like John Gaddis ran some of the seminars, Charles Hill taught a seminar. We had writing instructors who were also like, you know, Yale lecturers. And I would bring this up with them. Like, you know, I'm thinking about maybe applying here, next year as, as an actual student and they encouraged, they were very encouraging. I was surprised. And so that was, you know, sort of my, at the beginning of my plan to, to actually seriously apply for Yale. And yeah, I actually managed to get in, to my surprise.
Steve Hsu: Did you apply to multiple schools or just Yale?
Rob Henderson: Yeah. I applied to multiple, but my sites were set on Yale. I mean, really, just because of that two-week experience. I didn't really have, you know, strong preferences for like, what the other schools I wanted to get into were. I mean, you know, I applied mostly to top tier schools.
I was, you know, even in this case I was, I was a bit irresponsible because I had no backup plan there. Like it is, it's entirely within the realm of possibility that I wouldn't have gotten into any of them, and I didn't know what I was going to do if I didn't. And so, yeah, it was all, you know, at the time, I didn't know this term, but, you know, they were all quotes, like reach schools. No what's like safeties or, what match schools or anything. It was all reaching schools. And I got into a couple of others, but I really wanted to get into Yale. And yeah, I managed, managed to get in for the fall term of 2015.
Steve Hsu: Now why, why do you think you got in? Was it because of your unique story or was it because of your high SAT score or your essay? What, what do you think made them?
Rob Henderson: Yeah, probably all of it. I mean, I, by that point I had built up, like I, I cobbled together like a year's worth of night classes at community college and yeah, by that point, I think I had like, you know, mostly A's, maybe one or two B's. I had a really good SAT score. I took it at the SAT at, at a high school in, Ramstein air base Germany.
So, there's a high school on the base for like, you know, like the, the, the sons and daughters of like the high-ranking officers and like some of the older senior NCOs. So, there's actually like an American high school on the military base and they offered the S a T and I remember showing up there at like 7:45 AM and it was like, you know, a bunch of 16- to 17-year-olds within me.
And I felt extremely awkward that it, like, I had to go to this high school class with like, you know, the, the desk had one of those tiny little desks attached. And I tried to like, squeeze dead there, like, damn, this is, these desks are smaller than I remember. And I just felt super self-conscious being in that environment with all these kids, but then realizing, oh, like my classmates, aren't going to be that much older than them, you know, they're going to be 18.
Like they're not that much older. And it was, you know, realizing like, oh, I'm going to be, you know, like this, this old guy in the class, like a mature student. So that was probably it. And I had, I had good recommendations, I think from my community college professors. I had one letter from one of the Yale instructors at the Warrior-Scholar Project. And yeah, my, my, my unusual background, my, my college essay, I think probably also, played, played a pretty big
Steve Hsu: And at this stage, you're 24, 25. By the time you get there.
Rob Henderson: Yeah. Yeah. So, how old am I at that point? I think I'm 20, 25. 2015, right? So, 25. Yep.
Steve Hsu: Right. So, you know, it's funny because I lived in one of the Harvard houses, Dunster House on, which is one of the river houses when I was a postdoctoral fellow. I was a Harvard junior fellow after my PhD at Berkeley, and I was 24. And I was just a little bit older than the kids, but I just enjoyed it.
It was like going to college again, because I, you know, would eat in the dining hall with the kids and hang out with the tutors and the kids. And it was, it was like, you know, college is better if you're a little bit older than the other kids. Cause you kind of know what the whole thing is about and you, you could kind of just enjoy the atmosphere more. And I, I wonder if you had that feeling at all?
Rob Henderson: Yeah, I did in the sense that I had maybe more of a sense of purpose. I knew why I was there. I wasn't just sort of ticking the next box. I mean, and, and I was the other part of, it was just like the feeling of awe that I managed to get in there at all. I mean, I knew a lot of, you know, and I became friends with, with a lot of students there too.
And like, I, I recognize that a lot of these students, they trained their whole lives to get into a place like Yale. Right. Like, you know, you know, kids who go to Andover, Exeter and like, you know, just, just, they were on that track to get into a school like that. And so, I, you know, it seemed like for many of them, it was just like one more box on the way to law school or medical school or whatever sort of lucrative career, whereas for me, it was like, how did I get in here? It was like, the first couple of weeks was just a feeling of amazement.
And then, yeah, the classes and. yeah, just generally it was better. I mean, I think the entire time I was at Yale, I may have missed one or two classes, whereas like I knew, especially for lectures, students don't go to class, especially nowadays with, even pre COVID, even pre COVID. You know, professors would put all the slides online, students would share notes with everyone, but I was so grateful and so serious about doing as well as I could that, yeah, I went to every class possible and yeah, maybe missed once or twice. So, yeah, it was, as an older student, there's a, there's definitely a difference in, in, I think in terms of like, at least for me, my, my perspective and how seriously I, I took the, the whole experience and, and, yeah, the, the education and everything.
Steve Hsu: And what was your impression of the, you know, the, the level of the courses, the challenge and the, the seriousness of the students around you?
It was so let's see, I got there. I mean, I, yeah, I got there in September. So, for the first eight weeks I was there, I was very impressed, with these students, with the level of the coursework. I mean, I struggled honestly for this. For that first semester, I remember it was pretty difficult for me to keep up with everything just because, you know, I'd been such a poor student in high school and it had been, you know, several years since then.
Rob Henderson: And, you know, yeah. I took that two-week workshop, but that was, you know, two weeks can't really make up for years of bad habits. So, you know, I'd befriended a lot of the students and they would just teach me very basic study skills. I mean, spaced out repetitions and like, you know, pulling up the slides and, you know, trying to match them with the notes and just like all this very basic stuff that I just like, you know, didn't even occur to me.
And so, you know, going to like these study sessions and stuff really helped, the classes, the professors, just everything about it was, was, extremely enjoyable. And it was really like, like a, yeah, just the, the contrast between that and the military. By that point, I mean, I was so ready to get outta the military and to be in an environment where like, it was all about sort of learning and curiosity was, yeah, just, just incredible. I'll never forget, like those first few weeks that I stepped on campus.
Steve Hsu: Would you say by the, would you say by the end of the first year, you were pretty confident that you could compete on equal terms with the other kids there?
Rob Henderson: Oh, yeah. I mean, yeah. So, I mean, as an example, I took a, like my first semester I took a cognitive science class. And so, I had never before read any kind of scientific paper in my life. And this class was assigned multiple times per week. And I had no idea how to even read one, you know, like, you know, I didn't even know the basics of what an abstract was.
That's how naive I was. And so that, you know, I like the midterm. I remember they put the, the, the scores broken down by quartile or something on the, on the slides. And I saw mine and I was like, you know, in the bottom quartile, I was like, you know, I started to have these doubts, like, do I really belong here?
And, you know, I, then, then that was when I started to, to attend study sessions and ask students and ask for help going to office hours and all those things, and just sort of filling in the gaps in my knowledge and habits and skills. And then, yeah, by the end, I did very well in that course. And then by the end of the first year, yeah, I was, I was fairly confident.
I think like the, you know, my intellectual ability was probably always there, but it was just sort of weighed down by the, you know, very unusual and chaotic experiences of my entire life up to that point. And, you know, the military helped with like, sort of, I mean, one thing the military did was like taught me, like, you know, you should ask for help, you know, have structure, have a routine, build good habits, those kinds of things.
Rob Henderson: But I just had to know how to do that in the academic environment, as opposed to the military one. And so, yeah, by the end of the first year, it was all sort of coming together.
Steve Hsu: I'm guessing overall, you did well there to be admitted to Cambridge for graduate school?
Rob Henderson: Yeah. I mean, I, I did well, I, you know, did well and got good, good grades. Did well on the GRE and yeah, I, I think everything was fine. I got good recommendation letters and yeah, I mean, I made the most of the experience and took it as seriously as I could. And, you know, very much the opposite of my attitude in high school.
And I was a research assistant in a psychology lab and spent a lot of time doing that, you know, sort of helping to run participants in studies. And I was working in a developmental psych lab and, and so we would go to schools, we would go to the museums and, you know, just sort of have kids play these games on iPads.
And basically, these were sort of studies in disguise, and I did an internship at Stanford, before my senior year. So, I was out there in California, which was nice because my family wasn't too far away from me by that point. So, yeah, I worked in the department of psych at Stanford and worked at the B nursery school there.
And yeah, I sort of threw myself into that environment and, and really was, set on going to grad school and sort of continuing in psychology.
Steve Hsu: Now, when you, because you were older, were you, were you dating, older students, at the college? Or what, how did that work? Were you, were you more, you felt like more in common with the grad students than the undergrads. How, how did it work?
Rob Henderson: Yeah. I mean, well, it was so the first year there, I mean, it was, it was difficult because the people that I got along with were like the older undergrad, like seniors, essentially. Right. Cause I was 25 and they were 21 or 22. So, you know, like me, I could speak with them. I just could not hold conversations for very long with actual freshmen.
I mean, they look, they're just kids. But then, you know, they left, right. They graduated that first year and then I was like, oh, like most of my friends are gone. And so it was, it was hard. I mean, I ended up befriending some grad students. One of my best friends now is a student there. He, you know, he was in the Marines, and he sort of had a somewhat similar path to me. And he was a little bit of an older student too. So, he and I became good friends. yeah. And then, yeah, with dating, I mean, I dated [a woman]. She was a master's student at the Yale school of public health and yeah, we were together.
And so, yeah, I guess like, you know, I, I ended up finding friends and girlfriends and whatever, just from people who were slightly older, maybe a little bit closer to my age. And yeah, I mean, it was, it was a little bit challenging at first, but once I sort of had my social circle and my peer group and, you know, started dating and everything, it was, um, yeah, it was, it was fine.
Steve Hsu: When I was there, I remember the pain, Whitney payne Whitney. Is that the gym?
Rob Henderson: Yeah, that's right.
Steve Hsu: It was, it was pretty run down and, I, I was. I was the faculty advisor to the judo club, and we actually started a Brazilian, I started the Brazilian jujitsu club at Yale.
Rob Henderson: Oh, nice.
Steve Hsu: I don’t know if it's still running, but I think they remodel the whole thing probably by the time you got there was really probably [unclear].
Rob Henderson: What years were you there? And how long?
Steve Hsu: I was there as an assistant professor from around 94 to 97
Rob Henderson: Ah, okay.
Steve Hsu: When I moved to Oregon. So, you were just a little kid when I was in
Rob Henderson: Right. Yeah. So, at that time, how was New Haven in the, in the mid-nineties? You know, was it, was it okay? Was it, you know, what was your impression of the city?
Steve Hsu: I, you know, it's funny. I could, I could go into a long conversation with you about that. I'm very curious about it because when I was there, it was pretty nasty. I mean, outside campus, it was nasty. I lived on Whitney Avenue toward a park. That's something rock. It's got big. Gosh, it's just, I think it’s what direction was that north of camp?
Well, toward and away from the main campus toward the science hill. And you just keep going on Whitney avenue, east rock park.
Rob Henderson: Yeah. Yeah. Rock that's right? Oh yeah. The PO yeah.
Steve Hsu: So, I lived, I lived like just a few blocks, maybe half a mile toward east rock park from the physics building. And I was a fellow at Silliman College, probably, you know, residential college. That's the closest one to the science hill.
And I enjoyed it. I liked it. I mean, I had a pretty good social life but, but the, the area was pretty nasty. And I, I remember like sometimes if I was taking the bus to the airport, like I was going to, like, I forgot my JFK, the bus would stop at like Bridgeport or some.
There were some really nasty areas that we just, just very close to Yale that you didn't really want to spend a lot of time there.
Rob Henderson: Yeah. Yeah, it was, it was, I mean, my understanding is like, it got a little bit better. They sort of, you know, the situation improved, but even, you know, when I was there, yeah. It was still pretty rough. I mean, I lived on chapel street, you know? Right, right in downtown. And to get back to my apartment. Yeah. I had to walk through the green and there's just a lot of poverty and mental illness and, you know, addiction and so on.
And it was really, yeah, it was, it was a very sharp contrast, you know, walking from, you know, like, you know, these ivory towers at Yale to, you know, going back down, going through the green and seeing like, you know, downtown New Haven and just the, the situation, of the, you know, what was happening. And so, yeah, that was, it, yeah, that, that the, the dynamic, I think, between Yale and New Haven, that is, you know, very interesting.
And, and I, you know, sometimes wonder how much that plays into, you know, a lot of the campus politics.
Steve Hsu: It, it, it's interesting, you know, a lot of the Harvard kids are unhappy. Like you talked to them later and they complain about their Harvard experience. And at least in the era, when I was around the Yale students all seemed to really like it. And, and I think partly it was because there isn't that much more than the campus. So, it tends to be a little more inwardly focused. Like your whole, your whole world is, is Yale university. Whereas, you know, Harvard is next to Boston and there's just, there's just more stuff. And, you know, so people, people would, I, I just found the Harvard students more likely to complain about their college experience than Yale's all seem very happy.
Rob Henderson: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, it's, I think maybe like that that's true that, yeah, I think that generally speaking, I've, I've, you know, spoken to a few Harvard students and grads too, and it does seem like Yale, you know, Yale's have this, you know, more, more of an affinity for the, for the college and for the campus and yeah.
And, and I wonder if, yeah, if that's, that's a part of it, right. Because a few students venture off campus, right. They stay very much in the Yale bubble. And there's yeah, I could, I could see them, you know, cuz sometimes I could, you know, I'd walk off campus with some of them and hang out or whatever and, and I could see them like steal themselves like, oh, you know, going into New Haven and you know, they, many of them would, would would’ve be much preferred to stay, stay on campus.
Steve Hsu: Yeah. I think my impression is that, you know, maybe some areas right, just adjacent to the university are kind of cleaned up and gentrified, but I don't think the university can really fix the town. So, I think it's just going to be, it's not going to be solved anytime soon.
Rob Henderson: Yeah. Yeah. I, I think that's, I think that's right. And you know, every once in a while, you know, I think, you know, the students use it against one another. I think too about, you know, how bad New Haven is and how they should do something about it or how the administration should do something. But yeah, I'm not, I'm not entirely sure that's going to be like a quick fix solution.
Steve Hsu: Now, were you there when the Christakis incident happened at Silliman?
Rob Henderson: Yes, I. I was
Yeah. Yeah. That's I, I think, yeah, I brought this up earlier, like, you know, the first eight weeks it was, you know, it was, an extremely enjoyable experience. And then when that happened, my, my entire sort. The impression of Yale was permanently altered, like to this day, because I think probably because of the extreme contrast of what it was like, and then what it had become.
Yeah. I mean, I uh, I wasn't actually, that was my yeah. Freshman year, my first year, that was the fall of 2015, you know, the infamous Halloween costume controversy as a, you know, many people now know it. I wasn't actually in the Silliman courtyard, you know, there, but I was, you know, aware, that, you know, this email had caused some, you know, discontent and that the students were upset.
And then I saw, you know, hundreds of students marching around campus with a list of demands with their megaphones, you know, calling for Erika and Nicholas Christakis to be fired, you know, the, the conversations on campus, you know, always revolved around what was happening there and how they should be fired.
And, you know, there were pockets of students who were, you know, quietly dissenting or, or speaking reasonably about it. But the dominant feeling on campus was like, you know, President Salovey needs to respond to this, and something has to be done.
Steve Hsu: So, was that whole kind of woke zeitgeist totally alien to you coming from the military? Or had you already experienced some of these things in the military before you went to. Yale?
Rob Henderson: I mean, it's like not, not at all. I mean, it's funny. The months leading up to when I was, you know, transitioning to Yale outta the military, I would occasionally like, you know, so I mean, one of the things I picked up from, from that experience, the warrior scholar project, those two weeks, and that workshop at Yale was, you know, like I, I would ask like, what can I do? What should I be reading? Like what, you know, just basically like, what are things I can do to prepare after I leave this program? And, you know, they say things like, oh, you should read The Atlantic, or you should read The New Yorker. You should keep up with current events in education and so on.
And so, I'd like, you know, I'd never read The Atlantic before in my life. I never read the New York Times. Like I just, you know, keeping up with media stuff was not a part of my cultural outlook. And so, I would read it either, oh, I'll go to the Atlantic, like, oh, here's something about universities. And it was like, you know, that was like the beginning of like, oh, snowflakes and free speech debates. And I didn't quite grasp what it was and, you know, it was just sort of alien to me. And then I got on campus, and it wasn't like that, you know, those first eight weeks, like, I felt like no, um, like none of that social pressure and no wokeness. At least that I could tell. I mean, maybe it was there, and I was just blind to it.
I remember, um, You know, this must have been, I don't know, about a month into, into that, you know, my first semester, Jonathan Haidt came to, I saw flyers, Jonathan Haidt was coming to campus to give a talk and I had just read the Righteous Mind and I was a big fan of his work in moral psychology. And so, you know, I went to this talk and I assumed it was going to be about the book and about his research in moral psychology.
And instead he gave this like, at least to me at the time, what I considered to be a very strange talk, which was about like, you know, the aims of a university and whether it should be truth, whether it should be equipping students with the ability to pursue knowledge, or should it be about, protecting feelings and sensitivity and, you know, all the things that we're sort of familiar with now, but at that time, you, it was just totally, it was like gibberish to me, like, what is this about?
And then like a month after that was when, you know, the protest kicked off and I thought back like, oh, that's what that was about. And then it all sort of clicked for me that like, oh, that's like, this is, like this isn't the university. I'm not at the place that I thought I was. I'm not where I thought I was. These people are different from what I expected them to be. And, you know, politics play a very big role here. And I just have to like, sort of learn more about this. And in the meantime, I lost friends, you know, I remember asking, you know, some students like, like, can you just explain to me why this email, from Christakis was bad?
You know, what do you disagree with specifically? And then they would just like, you know, just completely shun me for even asking the question and a couple of experiences like that. And yeah, mm-hmm,
Steve Hsu: Did you check any gradient in the way that people reacted to that email? And I'll explain to the listeners just in a moment what it was, but, but did they, were the younger students more likely to be offended by it than the older students or, or was it uniform?
Rob Henderson: That's interesting. I don't recall interacting with, you know, first year students or freshmen. But, you know, the people that seemed particularly upset to me at least seemed like older students, the grad students. In subsequent years, I wasn't interacting with many grad students that first semester I was there. But later on, you know, that became like a conversation piece for my remaining years on campus. And the grad students were very much on the side of, you know, like the social justice wokeness is a good kind of thing. So, yeah, it seemed like there was a, there was a, you know, maybe a, a sort of noisy correlation between being older and being sort of more in favor of, you know, sort of implementing social justice policies.
Steve Hsu: For, for the listeners. this was an incident that happened, I guess, 2015 at, in, at Yale. And Nicholas Christakis was the, I, I don't know if they still use this word, but I guess he was the master of Silliman house or Silliman residential college. Is that, is that the right
Rob Henderson: Well, that was the right term. There were a lot of changes in the, in the, in the subsequent years they changed master to head of college. But you know, he was, he was the master, and he was, yeah. When he stepped down, they were still using that term.
Steve Hsu: So, Yale is organized into residential colleges. And, so, each residential college is actually its separate kind of little kingdom. It's got a, in the case of Silliman it's got a rot iron gate that you have to have the right kind of key card to get in. And I was a fellow of Sion. So, we used to, I used to always go through that courtyard to have lunch, cuz it was the closest college to the physics building.
So that's why all the physics professors were fellows of Silliman. And so that's why it was quite jarring to me to watch this YouTube video of these students castigating Christakis and his wife, and the whole incident started because I think some people had been wearing inappropriate costumes on Halloween. And somebody in the higher administration had sent out some kind of email warning students to not wear inappropriate or, you know, offensive. And, and by offensive, we mean like maybe containing some kind of ethnic or racial caricature,
Rob Henderson: Cultural appropriation.
Steve Hsu: Cultural appropriation. And what happened is that, was it Erica Christakis, the, the wife of the then master of Silliman, wrote an email kind of, I think actually on very principal grounds and in a very sensitive way, questioning whether the administration should be regulating Halloween costumes of Yale students.
And I think that just is the, that was the thing that blew up into a huge crisis.
Rob Henderson: It was incredible. Yes. That, that was, yeah. That was accurate, yeah. I mean, that's, it was incredible what happened, you know, just the level of coverage it got. I mean back then it was bewildering to me, because like, I don't know, everyone kind of knows like, oh, Yale, it's this famous university.
But like the fact that, you know, I'd open up my Facebook page or something and like, you know, undergrads and like everyone affiliated with Yale was like, you know, sharing New York Times articles, the Atlantic, like every single, like legacy media outlet, like had something, some kind of take on what was happening on campus.
And it was just, yeah. Unbelievable though. Just, yeah, that was, I guess, yeah, the early days of, of, you know, what we now kind of see regularly, these kinds of campus controversies and cancellations or attempted cancellations or whatever. And so, yeah, that was an extremely dark period, I think, for, for, for the university.
And I mean, yeah, it was just, just shocking how quickly people seemed to. Yeah. I mean, people who I, who I, before that I, I thought were reasonable. Open-minded. And thoughtful. we're very much either, either for, you know, firing these professors or at the very least like neutral and wouldn't stand up for it.
Like very, very few people were willing to actually say like, this is wrong, and we don't agree that people should be fired. And that, you know, that the university is fundamentally racist or that Peter Salovey should, you know, denounce the email and the, you know, the Christakises. So just the level of cowardice was, was, was pretty unreal.
Steve Hsu: As I mentioned, it had particular resonance for me because the video of him being attacked well, verbally attacked by these students is disrespected by these students. That courtyard was very familiar to me. And secondly, my father used to tell me when I was growing up, the cultural revolution was actually going on in China when I was growing up.
And my father would tell me all these stories of things that were happening to his family, because his family was still in China, and they were from a kind of elite background. So, they suffered a lot during the cultural revolution. So, this idea that students in particular could go crazy and, you know, you know, abuse people who maybe didn't deserve the abuse was very vivid in my imagination from my, my, from my childhood.
So, when it happened at Yale, I made that connection immediately. And I maybe, maybe nowadays I think you're considered a right-winger if you want to equate this kind of woke campus protests with culture, the cultural revolution in China. But, but that, that connection just spontaneously occurred to me just on seeing the video.
Rob Henderson: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, it, it, I under, yeah, at that point, I, I had no familiarity with what had happened during the cultural revolution, but since then, I've, I've read a bit about it, and I can see some of the parallels. And yeah, just the, the, the ability for a handful of students. I mean, it was, it was a man, it was a numerical minority of students.
I mean, I would say the vast majority of the students were probably neutral. Like they didn't really care one way or the other. It wasn't big, they didn't have a strong opinion on it. And so, this sort of strident minority of students, a small group managed to create this feeling of discomfort on campus, to the point where no one was willing to speak out.
Steve Hsu: And they were, you know, whatever, they were half successful, right? Like Nicholas and Erica did step down from Silliman. Erica withdrew from teaching altogether and Nicholas, he still teaches and does research there, but, you know, they were, they were sort of half successful in their aims. And yeah, it was just unbelievable to me, like to this day, I still don't quite understand how, like a group of undergrads can wield so much power. And how, like an administration, like a, like a university administration, one of the top universities in the world and, and the faculty could all be just so timid in response to like, you know, a bunch of 20-year-olds. It makes no sense to me. Yeah, it's I mean, I can comment on that having been a senior administrator. The issue is that the people who make it to that level are primarily careerists and they don't want to risk their careers to stand up on principle.
And they're just a complete lack of courage, I think on the part of most administrators at universities.
Rob Henderson: Yeah.
Steve Hsu: It's pretty, it's pretty sad.
Rob Henderson: That makes so much sense. I remember I had this conversation with a professor about two years after those events and he said that he, he tweeted something and basically in like this sort of very vague general statement in support of freedom of speech. And, you know, I mean, it's very easy to interpret a post like that.
He tweeted this, around, like during the period of the protests. So, he tweeted in 2015 a, you know, something in favor of his speech. And he told me that, you know, he got this immediate backlash, comments on the tweets from Yale undergrads saying, you know, how could you do this? You know, we thought you were, you know, on our side we thought you were one of the good ones. He was getting these nasty emails. And he was telling me how much this hurt him. And, you know, at the time I, you know, I just sort of nodded politely, but in my mind I was thinking to myself, like, how is it possible that like, you know, professor at, at the Yale would care about like, oh, you get a couple of nasty emails and some mean comments on Twitter, but like you, like, you're a professor you have tenure. Like, you should be able to say what you want, right? And, yeah, I think there's just this. Yeah, it'd be career risk, maybe a sensitivity. just, yeah, I, it really was confusing for me.
Steve Hsu: One of the things I tell my students, or, you know, guys who are working at my startup or something, and who might be trying to model like how, how government works or how some big corporation that they're negotiating a deal with, works is you always have to look at the individual incentives. You know, there might be some stated quote, purpose, or mission of the greater institution.
But in fact, what really happens is determined by individual incentives. So, you have to say what Salovey's incentive is for making a strong stand here. He, he, he could take on a lot of trouble, if, if he, you know, is wrong footed, whereas it's much easier for him just to kind of give in to the students.
And unless there's a countervailing group, like alums or rich donors, or, you know, the federal government trying to force him to quote the right thing or the other thing, it's much easier just to, just, to kinda, just to kind of give in.
Rob Henderson: I have a friend. He's a Naval officer now, but he used to work at alumni reunion events as a server, to make a little extra money on the side. And he told me that whenever he, work at these events Salovey would spend about half the time sitting at tables with wealthy alums, trying to convince them that there was no free speech problem on campus, because that was all they wanted to talk about was what, what the hell's happening here at this university and Salovey's like, ah, it's all fine. It's all good. Like basically trying to convince them not to, to pull their donations.
Steve Hsu: Yeah. I think it's a big generational thing because even if you're like myself, I, I was, I was a center left person am a center left person and a big look for example, Obama supporter. But I'm very concerned about freedom of speech, freedom of expression on campus. And, you know, I've stopped giving money to Caltech over this. And, you know, I would guess most, most of the alums are the same way they would, my age, would say I'm very concerned about the intellectual climate on campus. But then it's Salovey's job to just smooth them out and kind of convince them. It's not a problem, even if it is a problem because he can't solve it.
And it's very similar to why in the military, you, you know, I don't know how many Marines or special forces guys you associate with in the military but think how gung-ho those guys were and how serious they were about war fighting. And just imagine like, somebody comes along and says, well, now, now we're going to just remove the fitness, the, you know, the 60-kilogram backpack, you know, force march requirement to become a Marine or special forces combatant be because we, we need more, we need more gender equality. And you can imagine these hardcore guys are going to say no way. I, I don't. I think you need, you know, upper body strength to be a Marine, or I think you need the ability to carry those 60 kilograms up that hill to be a Marine. But the guys who feel that way just don't get promoted. And the ones who don't make the waves, they're going to get promoted.
And so, when you have career competition for, you know, fewer spots, then there are aspirants, then you're going to get people who just kind of, you know, do what, whatever they think the prevailing condition is. They're just going to blow with the wind. And they're the ones who are going to get promoted. So, and the hardcore guys who say, no, this is really going to cause problems with our war fighting capability. They, those guys are gone, you know, they're, they're out.
So, it's the same thing at the university. If you're very adamant that just to take an example, you know, someone like Charles Murray should be allowed to come on campus, even if you did know that if you disagree with him, you should argue against him and use facts against him. But if that's a very unpopular position and you're the Associate Dean, and you're the only Associate Dean that stands up for that, you're the Associate Dean that's not going to become a Dean. Right. So, that's, that's, what's actually happened at our universities.
Rob Henderson: That makes sense. I mean, I, I remember after the fact hearing that, you know, during the, the Silliman courtyard, event with, with, Nicholas, when he was, you know, being denounced by all these students, that there were actually like faculty and administrators in that crowd too, like silently and passively watching, as you know, all these students were, were yelling at Nicholas and none of them did anything.
And yeah, I guess like from a careerist point of view, you know, running the cost benefit analysis, you know, there's, you know, very, very little upside, at least within that organization, to draw negative attention to yourself and take a stand against, you know, against the students. And for whatever reason, I guess we've all sort of collectively agreed that, if you're, you know, if a group of 19-year-olds is angry enough, then they must be right.
Steve Hsu: Yeah. You know, it's funny as an administrator, I always felt because we would have, quarterly, or maybe every two months, we'd have the board of trustee’s meetings where the senior administrators would meet with the board of trustees of the university. And part of the meeting was public. So, the, the, the, the general public and students could come and express whatever sentiments they wanted.
And so, there were often protests over various issues that happened in, you know, in this big board room, you know, at the university. And I used to always have mixed feelings. Like part of me would say, oh, I can't, it's kind of annoying that they're disrupting this meeting. But then on the other hand, I, I would say, well, you know, I mean, when I was young, I, I wanted to protest against, you know, whatever apartheid or, or this or that. And it's good that young people are idealistic and maybe they're a little unrealistic in their idealism, but it's, it's, it's, it's natural. It's good. It's part of being in college that you express your political beliefs and you protest against things that you disagree with.
So, I always had mixed feelings. Like I was annoyed that I was inconvenienced by what they were doing, but then I always used to say like, well, but it's a good thing in general in society that we allow this. But then I always thought that the senior people should have the courage of their convictions and say, if I disagree with the position of these students, I'm not going to knuckle under to it. But that's the part that seems to be a little bit absent these days. I think mainly because of career careerism, just because people don't want to stand up for their principles and just would rather do what's convenient for their own personal advancement.
Rob Henderson: Yeah. Yeah. That helps to make sense of a lot of what's going on yet. Not, not just with universities, but with, yeah. I mean, even in the military there are a lot of interesting changes occurring with fitness standards and gender equality and so forth. I mean, it's sort of creeping everywhere in, in corporations too, that, yeah.
Steve Hsu: It doesn't even have to be, it doesn't even have to be woke, woke stuff. It could even be weapon systems. Like if you're a critic of the F 35 and you say, well, this costs way too much. And it doesn't actually do what they promised, but the, you know, if you're a general and you, and you, you know, oppose the program too much, you still could get cashier because, you know, you know, Lockheed Martin is very politically powerful and you know, the senators supporting the program are very powerful. So even there, you might have some principled view on things, but be very afraid to assert it, even if it's for the good of the country, just because it's not good for your career.
Rob Henderson: Right. Yep. Yeah. That's sort of, what is that? yeah, I mean, yeah, just, just a sort of, misaligned incentives. So that makes sense.
Steve Hsu: Let me, you know, I want to come back to the state of higher ed because I, I know you're involved with the University of Austin and, which is, I think maybe an alternative model that emphasizes freedom of expression and ideas and things like this. But before we leave the wonderful environment of New Haven, I wanted to ask you, because I heard you mention this in another interview. So, you, you talked about your Twitter experience while you were in New Haven and, how, if you put the geographical restrictions, so it's mainly students.
Rob Henderson: Tinder, Tinder, right? Not Twitter. Tinder.
Steve Hsu: Oh, I'm sorry. I'm sorry. Did I say Twitter? I met Tinder. Sorry about that. Yeah, no Tinder. I was, I was, I'm curious. Maybe you could repeat what you've said about the difference between what you find on Tinder if you stay really close to the campus, versus if you broaden out to the rest of New Haven.
Rob Henderson: Yeah, well, so this wasn't actually, so a friend of mine was, was describing, his experience using, I think it was Tinder. It wasn't actually in Yale, New Haven. It was at another, elite university, but in a kind of a similar situation where the university itself was extremely affluent and the students came from, you know, wealthy backgrounds, but the surrounding area was very much the opposite, you know, sort of run down and stricken by poverty.
And he told me that when he put his, Tinder radius to, I think it was like one mile just basically right around the campus, and he would look at the profiles of the female students, he said like, you know, a, a large percentage of them had, you know, poly or, you know, open relationships or, you know, casual. Basically like, you know, you know, championing sexual freedom and these kind of things in, in their bios.
And then when he extended the radius to. Like five or 10 miles just outside of the university to encompass, you know, the rest of the town. He said that about half the women he saw on Tinder were single moms and it was the same age group, right? Like I think he had it at, you know, college age, 18 to 22. And for the 18- to 22-year-olds who are studying at a top university, you know, they're poly, casual, open. And then the 18- to 22-year-olds who aren't in a university who are living in rundown neighborhoods. You know, there, there have, you know, children without fathers present, perhaps multiple children with, with multiple different fathers. And so sexual freedom looks, looks different depending on, your social class and your sort of, background and life experiences.
Steve Hsu: Right. So, one of the things I find interesting about you is you, you know, you are still very focused on class, which, you know, in previous generations, you know, many social analysts were focused on class. I mean, Marxist for example, whereas now things are very focused on racial identity and things like this. And this, this difference is, you know, I, I think in this case, probably primarily a class difference, although I guess there could be some racial aspects as well.
But I did this, is this the thing that led you to formulate the idea of luxury beliefs that this kind of, the idea that, sexual freedom could be, you know, okay for certain elite groups, but maybe have a lot of damaging consequences for people that are, not from the elite social
Rob Henderson: I mean, that was, that was one, experience that informed my idea of luxury beliefs. There were some others. I mean, I, I met multiple students for example, who would, you know, on the one hand, they would say that they thought that marriage and monogamy were outdated, and you know, like marriage itself was this sort of oppressive patriarchal institution. And then, you know, then when I'd ask them about their own family background, they would tell me, you know, they were raised by both of their birth parents and then I'd ask them what they planned to do in their own future. And they would say, oh, I, I plan to have a family, you know, basically like get married, settle down and have kids and follow that sort of traditional typical model of marriage that they themselves had been raised in. And then I would sort of question further and ask, well then why are you saying marriage is outdated? And, you know, we should move beyond it. And they would say, you know, well, I mean, just because that's my personal preference that shouldn't have to be imposed on anyone else. And that, you know, marriage does have these patriarchal roots and that it's not right, that we should try to impose it on all of society.
And so interactions like that, where people would sort of live one way and experience the benefits of, you know, sort of one kind of lifestyle, but then promoting a very different one. That was what led me to, so I came up with the idea of luxury beliefs.
And then in addition to that, in addition to these personal experiences and interactions, I was reading at this time, you know, this was like my final year of Yale. I mean, I didn't coin the term luxury police and start writing about it until 2019, but basically the 2018, 2019 period. I was reading a lot of books, like Thorstein Veblen, the Theory of the Leisure Class, his sort of, you know, satirical book lampooning, the upper class of his time in the late 19th century.
And I was reading Bourdieu and, his idea of social distinction and cultural capital and, Paul Fussell's book, Class: A Guide Through the American Status System, and a, you know, a lot of these guys like Bourdieu was himself like a pretty hardcore Marxist. And so, yeah, a lot of the class analysis came from the left, but I didn't care, you know, I didn't have, any, any kind of a partisan bias. I was just looking for interesting thinkers who were commenting on these kinds of class divides. And a lot of it helped me to make sense of what I was seeing at both Yale and Cambridge and how, you know, by like the sort of this punchline of, of the ideas that luxury beliefs have replaced luxury goods.
Steve Hsu: You know, I'm really, I'm really glad to see you mentioning Bourdieu because I really feel like he's underappreciated in the Anglophone world. Like there's some, like, you know, people who, academics who appreciate French theory would know who Bourdieu is, but by and large, I think most American intellectuals don't know who Bourdieu is or aren't familiar with his work.
And I, when I first read it quite a while ago, it, it, it actually helped me understand the dynamics of academia because he analyzed French academia in great detail. And even the lineages of who advised who, and who studied with whom and all these things. And he pointed out that the main thing academics are competing for is the power to consecrate.
So, if you become a super influential academic in your field, anything that you are interested in suddenly becomes consecrated as an important idea and worthy of effort by other people. And, and that's in, in the era of, when I was coming up as an academic, string theory was very prominent in theoretical physics. And I could see that Bourdieu's model for how these things worked perfectly describes how string theory became like the trendy hot thing for theoretical physicists to study.
And so anyway, I've, I've been a, I'm a big fan of Bourdieu and I think all, any academic in America who wants to understand how academia works should read a little bit of Bourdieu.
Rob Henderson: Yeah. Yeah. I mean these sorts of fashionable trends. Yeah. Like his idea helps to illuminate yeah. A lot of what you see in academia. I mean, I see it in psychology too, where every few years people, you know, like the, the, the dominant sort of thing people were interested in studying from like 2016 onwards was like, how did Trump get elected? And like trying to study the psychology of the Trump voter. And then, you know, a couple of years later it was all about sort of fake news and the, you know, how like the psychology of people who were susceptible to it, and then, you know, it became about sort of misinformation, you know? So, you sort of see these, these, these patterns, and these trends, depending on, you know, what's fashionable and, and yeah, whether the sort of highest status members of the community, consecrate those, those, specific, research ideas and topics.
Steve Hsu: Now, when you, in your idea of, luxury beliefs, the idea is that these are beliefs, which maybe are false. They're not true descriptions of how the world works or what's best for people. But if you are well off enough, you have the luxury of holding these beliefs, they don't harm you. In fact, they may help your social status.
Rob Henderson: Yeah. So, yeah, I mean, I define luxury beliefs as ideas and opinions that confer status on, the upper class will often be inflicting costs on the lower classes. Yeah. So, it's, I mean the beliefs themselves, they're, they're not necessarily, reflective of reality sometimes they can be, but, but they're more so, sort of expressions of, of preferences.
And so, you know, I gave the example earlier about like, championing sexual freedom and, you know, sort of eroding the underpinnings of, of monogamy and romantic relationships and the example of, you know, marriage and those kinds of things. I mean, there, there are other examples of this as well. I mean, even, you know, there, there are sort of like less.
What, like, I guess less overtly political examples too. Like, you know, spreading, spreading, addictive technologies, for example, where there are a lot of tech entrepreneurs who will, you know, advertise, and promote, you know, phones or screens or tablets or apps. but then, you know, famously many of these same entrepreneurs will not allow their kids to have iPads or use phones or have like, you know, carefully monitor the screen time, or send their kids to schools where they're not allowed to use screens.
And so, you know, on the one hand, they're sort of, obtaining status through amassing a lot of material wealth. While on the other hand, you know, sort of spreading a technology that may not necessarily be beneficial for, for, less, less fortunate people.
Steve Hsu: How much of, you know, obviously there maybe, maybe this differs, across different examples, but for particular luxury beliefs, how much of it is signaling to increase your own status versus just being clueless and, you know, sincerely believing something is true about the world. One, in fact, in fact, is it a mistaken belief?
Rob Henderson: Yeah, I think that, a part of it for the most part, it's probably, not deliberate or calculated in any way, where people think like, oh, if I say X, then I'll boost my status or something along those lines, but they, they sort of recognize almost to what we were, we were speaking about earlier that if you say certain things, you may thwart your prospects somehow and your reputation. And if you say other things, you can, you can either maintain or boost it. And in the aggregate, you know, this, this can have harmful and detrimental effects for, for less fortunate people for, you know, sort of lower income, less educated people.
But I think like other others, you know, these sort of, activists and people who are very interested in, in sort of shifting culture, they, sort of intentionally will take on views that are at odds with conventional opinion in, in order to sort of signal there, their distinction and to signal that they were educated at a top universities and that they can hold these sort of unusual and peculiar and, you know, sophisticated sounding opinions. I mean, I, I re I read a book last year called, Wasps: The Splendors and Miseries of an American Aristocracy.
You know, it's funny, like you think you have a unique or original idea, and then you start reading, you know, about previous eras and, you know, nothing, nothing in like sort of sociocultural commentary is ever really new. And so, the author, Michael Knox Barrett, and he writes about, you know, how the wasps in the early and mid-20th century, you know, even viewed ordinary Americans as yahoos. That was the term he used. You know, yahoos are stuck in moronic darkness. And that, many of the upper wasps of that era, they, they took on, causes because they experienced glee at the thought of the, the vulgarian, you know, reacting with horror, you know, the fact that, that someone would, would promote this, this, these kinds of ideas or, or these kinds of policies.
So even then the sort of upper class of that day would, you know, engage in this sort of practice of, you know, taking on peculiar beliefs, fashionable beliefs, just to sort of stand out from, from the masses.
Steve Hsu: Well to take the example of, of marriage and two parent families. I think probably you're more familiar with these statistics than I am, but I, I think that actually among elites, the rate of divorce or the fraction of families that, you know, in which they're both parents are, are present, you know, that, that hasn't declined at all in the United States, like in the last 50 years, or maybe it's even gone up, whereas for the lower classes, middle class and below, it, it, it it's skyrocketed.
Is that a fair description of the statistics?
Rob Henderson: Yeah. Yeah, that's right. I mean, these stats have been reported by Robert Putnam at Harvard and, and Charles Murray too. That, basically if you look at the, if you break down by social class, the family structures, for, you know, upper- and lower-class families in the 1960s, it was virtually identical, less than I think it was less than 5% or about 5% of kids, across social classes were born out of wedlock. And the vast majority were raised by both of their parents.
And then if you fast forward to 2005 for the upper classes, it had dropped slightly from 95% to 85% of children raised by both of their birth parents, whereas for the, the, the working class and lower class, it had dropped from 95% to 30%.
And that that's very much sort of in line with my own personal experiences where, you know, I've told this story before, but like, there's this, there was this, moment where I realized just how different the social environment at Yale was not just in terms of, of, you know, the sort of economic, benefits and, and just a sort of like overt, economic class differences at Yale. Cause I kind of knew like, you know, a lot of these students are going to be rich. But there's a, I was in a class and the professor administered this anonymous survey, basically asking how many of you were raised by both of your birth parents and out of 20 something students in this seminar only me and one other student, answered yes.
So, you know, more than 90% of the kids in this class were raised by both of their birth parents. And that just stunned me. That like that was, you know, just, just the fact that, that, that so many students were, were raised in that kind of a home environment, because like, literally nobody I knew when I was growing up in my high school, had that kind of home life, you know, like I was familiar with it. I saw it on TV and stuff, but in terms of reality, that was the first time I'd seen so many people who had that kind of stable family structure.
And so, yeah then I started digging into the statistics and the data. And yeah, if you look at, you know, like college educated women, the divorce rate for them is like less than 10%. But if you look at women who are in high school only, and especially for high school dropouts, it's, you know, well above 50%. And so, you know, we have these, you know, we look at these aggregate statistics of, oh, the divorce rate in America's 40% or 50%, or what have you. But if you look, if you break it down by class in education, you know, it's, it's, it's completely different. The experience is based on, yeah, education, income, and so forth.
I remember I had a conversation with a friend recently. He has a master's degree and he's like, you know, lives in the sort of upper middle-class neighborhood. He's in his forties. And he was telling me, you know, he and his other friends were like, how come none of us are divorced yet? You know, we're all married. We've all been married for more than 10 years. And none of us are divorced. And, my friend, you know, sort of, he and I talk a lot. So, he told his friends, you know, that's because like, we're all educated in the upper middle class. Like people in our class strata, seldom get divorced. So, it's possible that, you know, none of us will ever get in. And so, like the whole, like, you know, the, the, the, the snapshot statistic of 40% very much does not necessarily apply to, you know, to, to certain groups.
Steve Hsu: Yeah, I want to, I want to drill down on this a little bit. Now, when I was growing up, I grew up in a town in the middle of Iowa with a population of like 40 or 50,000 people. And it was a little college town. At that time, you know, I was a little kid in the seventies. I remember that a very small fraction of the kids, like at my elementary school, were children of divorced parents and people would often, at that time, the whole thing was very stigmatized. People would say, well, of course, Johnny has a behavior problem because he's a child of divorce. You know, it was, it was so unusual and, and regarded quite negatively in the community I grew up in . You know, it was, it was quite remarkable.
But I always thought, you know, because America was getting more and more liberal, over time that the, and you would read in the paper that divorce rates were skyrocketing. So, I just assumed before I actually saw the, the official, you know, sort of more, explicit statistics about the upper classes I would've expected if you had just asked me to make a guess that the divorce rate was much higher, even among the elites than it had been when I was growing up. But apparently it hasn't really changed.
Rob Henderson: No, no, no, no. It really hasn't. Yeah.
Steve Hsu: But what's interesting is that when you talk to other people from elite backgrounds, say my age, like in their fifties, it isn't that I would say the stigma against divorce has completely vanished so that if my kid were playing with a neighbor's kid and that kid came from a divorced family, there would be no sense of, oh, we expect that kid to be a juvenile delinquent because, or badly behaved because he's a child of divorce that whole language and viewpoint is just gone.
So, there isn't really any stigma. So, the question is, why do the elites manage to stay married to each other? If it isn't some kind of social stigma, that's, that's, that's keeping them in their marriages. It's kind of interesting. It's almost as if they are just maybe better at finding the right partner or something about the way they do it allows them to stay married or maybe about their character allows 'me to stay married.
I don't really quite understand it. It's not, it's not social. It's not that the church is forcing them to stay married. If you see what I'm saying.
Rob Henderson: Yeah. Yeah, I get it. I mean, I think that if you remove the cultural guardrails, you know, a certain subset of the population will continue to adhere to customs and habits and practices that are advantageous for themselves and for their families and for their children. Right. I mean, I, yeah. I mean, it's, it's, it's pretty clear that marriage in the aggregate on average, right? Like it's, it's beneficial for children. It's beneficial for adults too, right? To have a sort of forming a pair of bonds, stable, monogamous marriage, having kids, that's like the best environment for, for everyone.
And if you're, you know, highly educated and have some money and you're sort of aware of, not necessarily of the statistics, but you know, just broadly understanding of, of the benefits of marriage and, and often many of these people themselves came from, I mean, nowadays we're, we're, we're at the point now where like people who are, who get married in stay married today, came from stable family homes in their own lives, whereas many of the people getting sort of divorced or never getting married or having, you know, children out of wedlock today came from those kinds of homes, right? Like we're sort of a generation or two removed from it now. So, if you're raised in that environment, I think that also helps to have those sorts of models too, to imitate.
Whereas I think like broadly speaking for most people who are not as fortunate, not as educated, you know, don't have the, the dispositions and traits that, that lead to, forming a marriage, you know, maybe absence of conscientiousness and so forth, then it helps to have those sort of social pressures in place to, to guide you to do the right thing and to help you, too, to make decisions that are in the long run advantageous.
Rob Henderson: So yeah, I mean, we, we completely remove the stigma and you're right that, you know, nowadays, upper middle class and upper-class people are, you know, the elites, there's no more stigma and no more judgment. And, to me, that's actually part of the reason why we're seeing a lot of this sort of family breakdown, because those are the kinds of people who get to decide what behaviors are considered prestigious and worth imitating and pursuing. And once they decided that broadly speaking family formation is not, you know, generally important for society, family stability is not important, you know, gradually, and, and they stopped upholding that norm. Then, then gradually. Yeah, it sort of had a long-term effect on society as a whole.
Steve Hsu: Now is, this topic, the, the same thing that you're, doing for your PhD dissertation, or are you doing something completely different?
Rob Henderson: No, no I'm doing something completely, unrelated. Yeah, I mean, by my whole, public presence and online presence, it was sort of a, it was, it was not about promoting my academic work or anything. It was almost sort of an accident. The fact that I managed to get somewhat of a following on Twitter and, and on Substack.
But my academic work, yeah, it's, it's, roughly sort of building on Jonathan Haidt's work on moral foundation theory. My PhD supervisor has worked with him on a lot of the research on sort of the psychology we've discussed. So yeah, I'm working on sort of related topics of, you know, how certain kinds of, you know, for example, like individual differences in moral judgments and moral foundations theory in.
And so right now I'm working on a paper on age, age, and moral judgements. And so, I mean, for, you know, simple finding that I'm, I'm, I've, consistently found not only in, sort of these online studies that we're running, but also in like bigger data sets the European value survey, in the world value survey is that, consistently, younger people are more permissive in their moral judgements, than, than older people. And this has held across time. I mean, you know, we have these sorts of studies dating back to 1981. These are cross-sectional studies, indicating that across multiple time points, older people basically rate moral violations to be more objectionable than, than younger people. And, you know, we control for all of these, socio demographic variables, education, income, and so on. And so, yeah, that's the kind of work I'm, I'm working.
It's funny earlier, you mentioned that, you know, young people, they tend to be sort of morally idealistic and so on, but actually, you know, I, I cite a lot of work in this, this paper I'm working on that that indicates the opposite, that actually older people, score higher, at least on these sort of scales of moral idealism that, that psychologists have come up with that actually young people are less morally idealistic, they tend to be more cynical too. So, I think this all kind of fits together. You know, young people are sort of more morally permissive, less idealistic, more cynical. And so, yeah, this is, this is kind of in line with my, my general thesis project.
Steve Hsu: You know, I would say, just to clarify what I said earlier, what I meant by that was within their life cycle. So, for a fixed individual, when you're young, you tend to be more idealistic and then as you get older, you realize how you get more cynical and realistic about the world. I don't know if that's true though. I mean, I, I think intuitively that makes sense and I would have agreed with you, but yeah, I, I guess I'm becoming a little bit more, more skeptical. I mean, cuz if you look at like just generally, like even moral behavior, right? Like older people are actually nicer, they donate more, they're less likely to commit crimes.
Rob Henderson: Like just everything about older people, they seem to be just like better than younger people. So yeah.
Steve Hsu: Yeah, I guess there's, there's several aspects to this, but one, one is that I think there has been a secular trend that at this moment in time, the people that are young are different from the people that are old. Not just as part of their life cycle, but because they're the different generations differ in, you know, how they were, you know, what, what values predominated.
So, there's two different effects here. So, if you would like to have a bunch of cohorts where you could follow them throughout their entire lives and just see what the gradient is like, do, do you become, you know, when, when you're young, are you more idealistic and when you are old, are you a little more hardheaded? I think that's a very kind of old bit of folk wisdom.
Rob Henderson: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, it's interesting, right? Like, I, I think like, this is why I looked into, these, these cross external studies, dating back to the 1980s. And, and so this is specifically just for, for moral judgment, but I mean, there are other studies too. So, the moral idealism studies, those, those weren't, those aren't my work. But, the dark triad, for example, you know, the dark triad personality traits, those, peak. So there have been, I think there have been some longitudinal studies on the dark triad and those peak in the, in, in early adulthood and then gradually taper off throughout one's life. And I mean, you know, people who are high or high on the dark triad, they don't tend to be particularly morally idealistic.
So, but yeah, I agree with you too, that there's also secular effects. There are probably, you know, in addition to, you know, if there are age effects, but there are also probably cohort effects as well. And so, yeah, I mean, it's, I think it's, it's kind of an interesting question. My, basically my, my whole kind of view of young people has changed quite a bit since, since, since doing some of this research, and not necessarily for the better.
Steve Hsu: Have you ever heard this old aphorism, when, when you are young, if you are not on the left, you have no heart. And when you are old, if you are not on the right, you have no brain. Have you ever heard this?
Rob Henderson: Yeah. I remember something Winston Churchill said. But I've heard it attributed to others. I'm familiar with the phrase.
Steve Hsu: Yeah, it's very old and I at least, you know, having passed through, at least my lifetime, you know, my particular life stream, that rings very true to me because when I think about my peer group and, you know, when we were young, we were idealistic, and we were more susceptible to believing in kind of leftist, utopia and ideas. And then as we've gotten older, we've realized, wow, this, this, this, these market forces are really hard to beat people. You know, people really are self-interested and oh, you know, all, all kinds of all kinds of observations about human nature, gradually take hold. And then you, you end up sort of being more sympathetic to, right of center ideas as you get older.
So at least, at least in my peer group, that seems to have been true.
Rob Henderson: Yeah. I've, I've seen that I've, I've experienced that in my own life and, and with my friends and, and yeah, I mean, there's, there's interesting data on this. I think it's, some of it is a little bit inconsistent, but broadly it seems to point in that direction that people do tend to become more politically conservative over time.
And yeah, I think there is something interesting about that. And, and of course, like, I think a lot of, yeah, more people who are a little bit more cynical would say, well, that's because, you know, as you get older, you, you accrue wealth, and you accrue status, and you want to hold onto those things and fend off any challengers. And so that's why you become this sort of conservative person because you want to, mean, you know, retain your power. I don't think that's, you know, I think that's, that's a little bit overly cynical. Not that it's totally untrue, but, but yeah, I mean, I think there is something to this fact, like, you know, you tend to become wiser when you get older and, you know, so.
Steve Hsu: I, I think there is definitely something to it because in my, just studying my own psychologist, like after you've been paying taxes for time. And once you're in a high-income group and you own an expensive house, you start thinking like, what, where are my tax dollars going? Whereas when you're young, you, you don't think about
Rob Henderson: Yeah. you
don't pay taxes, right? Yeah. Well,
There are these. I remember it was really funny. So, so, you know, my, my, I was an older student, right. And I was at Yale my first semester, first year. And I see these students go off through their first internship. Right. Like they've never had, they never had to work in high school. Like I was, I had to work in high school. I had part-time jobs. But, you know, these kids didn't have to work, but then they'd go off and like, you know, do their internship at Goldman Sachs or something. And then they'd realize, like, oh, like I have to pay, you know, some huge chunk of my summer internship salary is going to be taxes.
And so, there were these like memes going around at Facebook and stuff about like, you know, like pre pre-internship you're like this, you know, hardcore, Marxist, and then poster internship. You start reading Ayn Rand and like becoming more a libertarian.
Steve Hsu: Yeah. And also, when you're young and you see a kind of idealistic political leader, whether it's JFK or Obama, you can really buy into the whole thing that you're going to change the world. But then once you've seen this happen again and again and again, then you, and, you know, some insider details about, well, what was that administration really like?
And what did they really do? Then it's much easier to just be cynical and say, well, I'm not going to be, I'm not going to be, I’m not going to buy into, you know, it's morning in America or whatever.
Rob Henderson: Uh, but, but Steve, you know, older people are far more likely to vote than younger people too. Right. Like, you know, young people want to change the system or something, but they don't vote, you know, like they don't.
Steve Hsu: But they may, but they may be voting with a much more jaundiced eye, of what's accomplishable by their vote. Like they may be just voting to like to block a reduction in their social security benefits or something, as opposed to the morning in America, we're going to create the utopia now, which, which a young kid could actually believe is going to happen.
And, the old guy is just like, no, let's, let's just not spend more of my tax, but let's not raise my taxes. Okay. So, the internal monologue of why they're going into the voting booth could be different. And also, you're, you're, you're more conscientious when you're older. So, like going to the voting booth on the voting day is easier for you than when you're like a, you know, hormone, adult, youth, or something.
So also, on the, on the dark triad stuff, I think the hormone levels play a big role because, you know, when I was a younger guy and I hired testosterone, all kinds of behaviors where I not only couldn't avoid, but you also know, I was literally out of my control like that. I would do certain things like meet girls and, you know, whatever.
Now I'm an old guy and I just want to have a nap or something. So, I don't, I'm not going to express my dark triad traits very much. So, there are a lot of factors involved.
Rob Henderson: Oh, sure, sure. Yeah. Yeah. I mean, I, yeah, I think that like all of those things definitely play a role and just like the sort of stage in life. I mean, I think there's a reason why, you know, testosterone peaks. I mean, there's all these sort of evolutionary, psychological reasons we don't have to go into, but I think even that is tied into the dark triad to some extent that if you want to, you know, obtain a partner and obtain some success in your career and, you know, it's just sort of like advanced in the world, I think it helps maybe to have like a little bit of that sort of strategic and calculating frame of mind, that's often associated with a dark triad.
And then once you're sort of settled and established, like you don't necessarily have to, you know, enact, or implement, dubious strategies or something, you just can kind of, you know, chill out and be a little bit more relaxed.
And so, yeah.
Steve Hsu: I think the thing I discover as I age is that to some extent it's even outta my control. Like I just don't have necessarily the energy to engage in these shenanigans that I might have, you know, like spending all Friday night, cruising around clubs and stuff. I just couldn't even do that now. Whereas it was an imperative when I was 19, I had to do that. So,
Rob Henderson: Yep. Yep. Absolutely. I mean, even I feel it out. I mean, when I was in my early twenties or late teens, early twenties going out, I mean, now I, and I would have a hangover and then I just like to drink a cup of coffee and have a shower. I'd be good to go. And now, like, if I have a hangover, like the day is gone, you know, and I'm only 32, so yeah.
That's aging, aging, yeah, that's PO positive and negative effects there.
Steve Hsu: You know, I'm kind of the opposite of you. I went through college between the age of 16 and 19 and. My hormone levels were so high that I just can't believe I even got through it because I, you know, my brain would've been on girls the whole time. And it’s amazing I could study physics and get through Caltech at that age, just, you know, unbelievable.
Rob Henderson: Yeah, no, no, I think I was the same kind of way. I think a lot of guys, right? Like that's just the natural age, but you know, there was like what I mentioned before, like there were many aspects of misery to, like military life and being stuck on an air force base when you're 19 years old is like, you're just surrounded by a bunch of other, like, you know, desperate 19-year-old guys.
And you, especially, you can't drink yet. You know, you're not old enough to drink. You're not allowed to go to a bar. You know, it's just like a lot of drinking, cheap beer you sneak in and like playing video games and just like sad that you don't have a girlfriend. Like that's a lot of, that's a lot of those, those early years that I could remember.
Yeah. Not, not, not, not necessarily happy memories. but I get it though, like the military does that on purpose. Right. Cuz, they know that like what girls are involved and you know, just guys can do very stupid and reckless things. And so just sort of locking them away and preventing them from getting into trouble.
You know, that's sort of how they, they, get the mission done.
Steve Hsu: Yeah. Whereas in our case, we were on a nearly all male campus, but in Los Angeles. So, we would get in our cars and spend every Friday and Saturday night trying to meet girls in Los Angeles. So, a lot, a lot of the, a lot of the early pickup artist stuff was, sort of, I don't want to say completely invented, but a lot of the stuff was pioneered definitely by guys from Caltech in Los Angeles.
I don’t know if there's any real connection between the modern PUA stuff and the stuff that we used to do, but, in at least until conceptually, there is a connection.
So, I wanted to ask you about your career goals. Are you hoping to become a professor of psychology or are you thinking you might, I mean, it's funny. I was pretty much set on completely withdrawing from academia. I mean, I just saw too many things, you know, we, we, we've gone, you know, in depth into what happened at Yale. I saw similar things happening here at Cambridge. And, you know, after, you know, after these events, I was just ready to, to leave.
Rob Henderson: And then, yeah, the University of Austin, this new project launched. And they invited me to, to become a faculty fellow and maintain some, some role in affiliation with this new university. And so, I agreed to join.
And yeah, I mean, I, I very much agree with the mission. I mean, the mission, it's funny, the mission they have is the mission. I thought that every university had, which is like free speech, open inquiry, you know, rising truth above all else and, you know, free, willing conversations and exploring interesting ideas. And so, it's just, you know, it, it's funny like, oh, there's a university to have the thought that all the universities were going to be like.
Rob Henderson: And so, I haven't, yeah, so I have this position with them. I. But it's mostly an advisory role, right? Because the university is still, you know, in the preliminary stages. I think we're not going to have undergrads until, you know, the fall of 2024, maybe 2025. But in the meantime, you know, between now and then, you know, finishing up my, my degree program here, continuing to write on Substack, I'm working on a book, I'm writing a memoir based on, you know, my, my path from foster care and all through the military, into higher education and all the lessons I learned along the way. And, you know, just going sort of in depth into, you know, my most vivid memories of those years and what I took from them.
And so yeah, between the book and the Substack and, you know, whatever else I, comes up on the horizon, that'll sort of occupy maybe the next two or three years.
Steve Hsu: So, I mean, University of Austin, I would kind of characterize it as a reaction against what traditional academia has evolved into. And so, I'm not surprised that you're involved with that project. I was kind of curious as to whether you would consider traditional academia, like when you finish your PhD, will you apply for a position?
Rob Henderson: No, no, not, not, not at all. no, I made up my mind on that, I think. But two plus years ago, yeah, it's, I, I could not imagine. I mean, well, just, I mean, first of all, like the difficulty of getting it, like you, like, I love research. I love psychology and the stuff that we do, but, you know, the difficulty of getting a decent postdoc is, you know, it's getting harder and harder. And then after COVID became, you know, that much, that, that much more burdensome. And just all of the, the, the political climate in the universities. I don't really see that shifting anytime soon. And yeah, I just, I, I would never I would never stay. and yeah, it's not a good environment. I think for me, for some people maybe it's better.
Steve Hsu: If Jonathan Haidt offers you a postdoc, would you take it?
Rob Henderson: No, I've had, I've actually had offers from, you know, other, other sort of prominent academics to work in their labs and I've, I've declined all of them. I would, I would never do it.
Steve Hsu: Wow. So that's, that's very principled of you. I admire you. so, you're, you're definitely, you're going to, you're definitely going to separate from academia after you complete your PhD.
Rob Henderson: Yeah. I mean, I, you know, not to say that I'll completely stop doing academic research. If interesting projects come up or, you know, collaborators want to work on something and I just sort of remain independent of any particular institution, that's fine. But as far as like, actually having, you know, any, any tie with any, you know, current, you know, university, I just could not, yeah, I would never do it.
As to your memoir, do you have a contract already? Do you have a publisher?
Yeah. So, Gallery Books, it's an imprint of Simon and Schuster. I signed with them. And I'm actually in the final stages. So, I'm waiting on my editor to get back with some notes, but you know, it's basically, you know, it's just about finished, and it should be launching, I think we're tentatively thinking, the fall of 23.
Steve Hsu: That's great. Congratulations on that.
Just before we started our recording for this interview, I was discussing with you, you know, maybe these are superficial similarities, but similarities between yours, what your memoir might be like. And Hillbilly Elegy by JD Vance.
Rob Henderson: Yeah, I'm aware. I mean, I read the book, back shortly after it came out and I can see the overlap and yeah, there's, there's some, you know, the sort of chaotic childhood and going to Yale and military then Yale, and there's some similarities. And, but yeah, I mean, I think that, you know, JD Vance, to my knowledge, at least that I can recall he wasn't in foster care, it was a little bit of a different situation. Yeah, I mean, I, I think like me, my book is going to take maybe a little bit of a different perspective on, on, you know, childhood and the education system and, and general sort of cultural commentary. It's going to take a different, a different point of view.
Steve Hsu: I, I think what I found most valuable about, you’re thinking when I, you know, first either read something you had written or heard some interviews with you was, you know, coming from that background, you were much better able to judge what elite culture in America or elite higher educational culture in America has become, you know, you have a sort of outsider's eye and also you're, you're very insightful yourself.
So, I, I think, I really look forward to reading your memoir.
Rob Henderson: Yeah. Yeah. Thank you, Steve. Yeah. Yeah. I mean, it's been a, yeah, it's been a very interesting, last what, seven years now, and yeah, I never really intended to have any kind of public presence whatsoever, honestly. I mean, I enjoyed writing. I probably would've done it in some capacity, but yeah, I never really expected to, to write a memoir so soon.
But when I, I started writing, public essays about my early life experiences and then that in addition to sort of, you know, social commentary, seeing people connect with it and, and seeing it help them understand, a lot of the sort of cultural trends we're seeing, it's been, it's been encouraging.
Steve Hsu: Now when you, when you finish up at Cambridge, are you going to move back to this side of the pond or are you going to stay in the UK?
Rob Henderson: We, yeah, I don't know yet. So, in about what, like two weeks I'll be going to visit my girlfriend's family. I'm meeting them for the first time in Malaysia. So she is, Chinese Malaysia, you know, her family, they, they, you know, her ancestors came from, from China to Malaysia, I think in like the early 1900s. They've settled there for a while.
And so, be visiting them. She also has cousins in Singapore. So, we'll be visiting Singapore too. And, you know, depending on how I feel, about, you know, maybe, living in Kuala Lumpur or Singapore, I, you know, I'm open to the idea. If not, then in all likelihood I'll probably end up in Austin. So, it'll either be Southeast Asia or, or Austin.
Steve Hsu: Wow. Maybe you can bounce back and forth.
Rob Henderson: Yeah. That would be ideal.
Steve Hsu: KL. I've been to KL. KL is a very cool city. It's a lot of interesting things and I think the cost of living is very low there actually.
Rob Henderson: Yeah. Yeah. I was, I was, you know, we were talking about this, that, you know, having a, having an American salary, you know, getting, getting the, Substack bucks, but living in, living in KL would be, you know, it, it would be very much a, like sort of the dream, right? in terms of a cost of living and purchasing power.
Steve Hsu: It's the digital nomad dream.
Rob Henderson: Right.
Steve Hsu: Live in, live in Penang or KL and, have a US
Rob Henderson: Yeah
Steve Hsu: salary.
Rob Henderson: Yeah, absolutely.
Steve Hsu: Great. Well, Hey, I thank you very much for this interview. It's been extremely interesting and you know, we're coming up in two hours. Is there any last thing that you want to talk about a little bit before we end?
No, I think we, we pretty much, touched on, you know, a lot of, a lot of the interesting topics we hope to get into. So, I think, yeah, we'll leave it at that.
Steve Hsu: Great. Well, thanks very much. Everybody be on the lookout for Rob's book. Is there a title already or it hasn't been decided yet?
We haven't, we haven't, decided on a title yet. We have a working title, but, but yeah, when we, yeah, just be on the lookout, I will, you know, make a big, big, public announcement when it's ready for pre-order.
Steve Hsu: Great. And in the show notes, we'll put links to your Substack and, and other places where people can, find your work?
Rob Henderson: Sounds good.
Steve Hsu: All right. Thanks a lot.
Rob Henderson: Thank you, Steve.