The Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt (2018) is a book that examines three bad ideas that have become ubiquitous on college campuses and American society at large. These three ideas are not taught explicitly but are promulgated through a combination of well-intentioned, but misguided policies and associated beliefs. The authors call these the “Great Untruths.” They are: 1) The Untruth of Fragility: aka “What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker,” 2) The Untruth of Emotional Reasoning: aka “always trust your feelings,” and 3) The Untruth of Us vs. Them: aka “life is a battle between good people and evil people.” The spread of these beliefs—whether deliberate or unintentional—has magnified a number of individual and societal problems: anxiety, depression, ideological orthodoxy, groupthink, political polarization, a victimhood mentality and more.
The impetus for the book was the authors’ observation in the early 2010s that college campuses had become increasingly hostile to free speech. Controversial or difficult topics, once the domain of academia, were being run out of lecture halls and off campuses by angry protestors (the UC Berkeley riots of 2017 are one example highlighted by the book). Students were increasingly turning to campus administrators to protect them from ideas that were offensive and considered psychologically harmful. Psychological and emotional safety had become a paramount institutional concern and new ideas such as microaggressions, safe spaces, trigger warnings and cancel culture entered the mainstream lexicon. Even violence and vandalism had emerged as a justifiable response to the spread of disagreeable ideas.
A key problem, according to the Lukianoff and Haidt, is that “university students are learning to think in distorted ways, and this increases their likelihood of becoming fragile, anxious, and easily hurt.” This weakening of mental and emotional fortitude is the crux of the “coddling” referenced in the title of the book (readers of this blog will note that Dan Crenshaw’s book Fortitude addresses many of the same themes). Rather than confront issues rationally and directly, we as a society have opted to pursue strategies of avoidance, censorship, and overprotection. But this approach is wrong-headed and harmful. The authors argue that a more effective strategy is exposure to challenging ideas and difficult experiences; this is the approach typically endorsed by therapists to make one stronger and even “antifragile” (to use Nassim Taleb’s terminology for things that grow under stress).
If you are concerned about recent developments in this country, The Coddling of the American Mind offers a useful framework for making sense of some of the inexplicable ideas emanating from our most venerable institutions. At the same time, Lukianoff and Haidt offer a practical principles for navigating the way forward. Readers who value reason, objectivity, and good-faith debate will appreciate the message of this book.
Pros: Timely and important message.
Cons: Book’s ideas will probably be rejected by those that need them the most.
Part I: Three Bad Ideas
Chapter 1: The Untruth of Fragility: What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Weaker
Cases of severe peanut allergies in children increased following protective measures that were implemented to protect children from allergies.
- 2015 LEAP study suggests that early and repeated consumption and exposure to peanuts elicits a protective immune response (rather than an allergic response).
- Our immune systems are dynamic and adaptable: they require exposure to foreign agents in order to get stronger and more resilient.
The hygiene hypothesis: Posits that allergy rates increase in wealthy, advanced countries because children are not exposed to microbes and allergens as readily as they were in the past.
“Human beings need physical and mental challenges and stressors or we deteriorate. For example, muscles and joints need stressors to develop properly.”
Antifragility: Nassim Taleb’s term for things that grow stronger in response to adversity.
- Fragile things break and cannot heal easily.
- Resilient things can withstand shocks.
- Antifragile things become stronger in response to stressors. “Many of the important systems in our economic and political life are like our immune systems: they require stressors and challenges in order to learn, adapt, and grow.”
Conversely: antifragile systems grow weak when they are not subject to the normal stressors they require.
Old saying: “Prepare the child for the road, not the road for the child.”
“Safetyism refers to a culture or belief system in which safety has become a sacred value, which means that people become unwilling to make trade-offs demanded by other practical and moral concerns. “Safety trumps everything else, no matter how unlikely or trivial the potential danger.”
Some points on Safetyism:
Consumer advocates in the 60’s and 70’s brought about important physical safety reforms (e.g. Ralph Nader and the expose of the auto industry).
Concept of safety experienced concept creep in the early 21st century when safety moved beyond a purely physical definition and adopted greater emotional considerations.
Concept creep: the concept is expanded downward to encompass less severe situations and outward to encompass new phenomena.
In the early 2000’s the concept of trauma in the therapeutic community included “anything experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful...with lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.”
An individual’s subjective experience becomes the ground truth for defining trauma.
Around 2015 the concept of a “safe space” enters the lexicon when Brown students protested a campus debate on rape culture.
Safetyism uses a strategy of avoidance. Many cognitive behavior therapists, however, recommend treating trauma through exposure.
“A culture that allows the concept of ‘safety’ to creep so far that it equates emotional discomfort with physical danger is a culture that encourages people to systematically protect one another from the very experiences embedded in daily life that they need in order to become strong and healthy.”
Net result: kids become more fragile rather than antifragile.
Chapter 2: The Untruth of Emotional Reasoning: Always Trust Your Feelings
Boethius (philosopher) and the lesson of Lady Philosophy with whom he converses while jailed in 524 AD in his work The Consolation of Philosophy: “Nothing is miserable unless you think it so; and on the other hand, nothing brings happiness unless you are content with it.”
“Feelings are always compelling, but not always reliable. Often they distort reality, deprive us of insight, and needlessly damage our relationships.”
A mature mind must learn to QUESTION his or her feelings.
The elephant and the rider: Metaphor used by Haidt to illustrate the mental division between reason and emotion. The rider sits atop the elephant and embodies conscious thinking and critical thought. The elephant represents everything else (emotion, intuition, automatic thinking, the primitive mind, etc.).
- The rider believes he is in control but the elephant is bigger and stronger.
- The elephant should “win” in any head-to-head conflict.
- “The rider is skilled at producing post-how justifications for whatever the elephant does or believes.”
Emotional reasoning: “The cognitive distortion that occurs whenever the rider interprets that is happening in ways that are consistent with the elephant’s reactive emotional state, without investigating what is true.” In this case, the rider rationalizes the behavior or the belief of the elephant. It is a kind of internal confirmation bias.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): Approach to mental health treatment that aims to change damaging cognitive distortions that can result in depression and anxiety. First developed by Aaron Beck (psychiatrist) in the 1960s.
The “cognitive triad” of depression is a common pattern of beliefs:
- “I’m no good.”
- “My world is bleak.”
- “My future is hopeless.”
Schema: Patterns of thoughts and behaviors that develop over time and are used to process information and interact with the world.
- Schemas are associated with the elephant in the “elephant and rider” metaphor.
- Depressed people carry schemas that are disempowering.
Cognitive distortions: Types of irrational, negative or exaggerated thought patterns that can lead to depression and anxiety (note: we all engage in these distortions from time to time).
- Emotional reasoning: Using feelings to primarily interpret reality. Example: “I feel depressed; therefore, my marriage is not working.”
- Catastrophizing: Fixation on the worst possible outcome in any given situation. “It will be in the end of the world if I fail this thing.”
- Overgeneralizing: Deriving patterns are universal truths from singular examples. “This one thing went poorly. I always fail at everything.”
- Dichotomous Thinking: Aka “black-and-white thinking,” “all-or-nothing thinking,” and “binary thinking.” [probably similar to zero-sum thinking too]. Viewing things in absolute terms: “I always lose.” “It was a total waste of time.”
- Mind Reading: Assuming you know how others think without sufficient or credible evidence.
- Labeling: Assigning negative traits to yourself or others.
- Negative Filtering: Focusing on the negatives and failing to notice the positives in a given situation (“half glass empty” thinking, pessimism).
- Discounting Positives: Trivializing positive things in order to maintain a focus on the negative. “That’s what she’s supposed to do—so it doesn’t count when she’s nice to me.”
- Blaming: Refusing to take responsibility for your response or feelings. “She’s to blame for the way I feel now.” “They made me this way.”
Engaging in cognitive distortions takes us away from reason and thoughtful interactions. They make it more difficult to engage in good faith with others and to compromise.
Microaggressions: Concept popularized by Derald Wing Sue (professor): “Brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color.” [note: term has come to be applied more broadly to anyone].
- Microaggressions include slights that were unintentional or accidental.
- Microaggressions consider these slights entirely from the receivers interpretation of a situation.
- Consider the cognitive distortions that this schema embraces: mind reading, emotional reasoning, labeling, etc.
- This approach to thinking assumes the worst about people and defines their action in the most uncharitable way possible.
Locus of control: Psychological concept that looks at an individual’s belief in how much they control their own lives.
- Internal locus of control: Your actions and behavior determine your outcomes.
- External locus of control: Nothing you do matters. External forces determine your outcomes.
Hanna Holbrook Gray (historian): “Education should not be intended to make people comfortable; it is meant to make them think.”
Chapter 3: The Untruth of Us Versus Them: Life Is a Battle Between Good People and Bad People
- “A protest is always a claim that injustice is being done. When a group forms to protest together, they jointly construct a narrative about what is wrong, who is to blame, and what must be done to make things right.”
- “Reality is always more complicated than the narrative...people are demonized or lionized—often unfairly.”
- The principle of charity: Idea from philosophy which asserts that one should interpret the actions or words of others in the most positive manner possible (aka give them the benefit of the doubt).
- A binary schema can often result in uncharitable views regarding the actions of others. For example, if you operate under a schema in which everyone is either victim or oppressor, you are likely to view actions that offend you uncharitably.
- Tribalism is a deep-seated evolutionarily response: the creation of small cooperative groups that compete with other groups.
- “In tribal mode, we seem to go blind to arguments and information that challenge our team’s narrative.”
- Identity politics is a form of tribalism. Groups organize themselves politically around common characteristics such as race, gender and sexuality.
- Politics is about power: groups form coalitions to pursue their objectives and agendas.
- Common human identity politics: An attempt to unify through shared morality and national identity. Martin Luther King exemplified this approach. “King’s approach made it clear that his movement would not destroy America; it would repair and reunite it.”
- A Marxist approach focuses on the conflict between the working class and the capitalists.
- Intersectionality: A theoretical framework for understanding power dynamics and discrimination based on the interaction of numerous characteristics that are presented as axes (one end of the axis is the privileged aspect and the opposite end of the axis represents the oppressed aspect). For example: Male/female, white/non-white, able-bodied/disabled.
- Authors avoid critiquing the validity of intersectionality but are concerned about the ramifications of using the system: “interpretations of intersectionality teach people to see bipolar dimensions of privilege and oppression as ubiquitous in social interactions.”
- Does the focus on tribalism and identity politics improve inclusiveness and social cohesion or does it amplify the differences and divisions?
- “The combination of common-enemy identity politics and micro aggression training creates an environment highly conducive to the development of a call-out culture in which students gain prestige for identifying small offenses committed by members of their community, and then publicly calling out the offenders.”
- Elements of us-versus-them culture: dogmatism, groupthink, crusader mentality and anti-intellectualism.
- The antidote is finding common ground and compromise.
Part II: Bad Ideas in Action
Chapter 4: Intimidation and Violence
February 1, 2017 riots at UC Berkeley over visit by right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos resulted in increased acceptance of justifiable violence in response to controversial speech.
- UC Berkeley declined to discipline students who participated in the riots.
- Police arrested a single participant.
“Now that some students, professors, and activists are labeling their opponents’ words as violence, they give themselves permission to engage in ideologically motivated physical violence.” Moreover, these acts of violence are deemed “self defense.”
The problem is that in call-out culture, just about anything can be regarded as hate speech so long as it is interpreted as having a negative impact on someone.
Lucia Martinez Valdiva (professor): “No one should have to pass someone else’s ideological purity test to be allowed to speak. University life—along with civi life—dies without the free exchange of ideas. In the face of intimidation, educators must speak up, not shut down.”
“Interpreting a campus lecture as violence is a choice, and it is a choice that increases your pain with respect to the lecture while reducing your options for how to respond...if you keep the distinction between speech and violence clear in your mind, then many more options are available to you.”
“Use your opponents' ideas and arguments to make yourself stronger.”
Chapter 5: Witch Hunts
Witch hunts are a response to external threats or a loss of internal cohesion.
Historical example: The Chinese Cultural Revolution of the 1960s. Mao alleged that the capitalist enemies had infiltrated Chinese society. The Red Guards, a student-led paramilitary organization, identified, punished, and “re-educated” enemies of the state.
Features of political witch hunts:
- They arise quickly: a community mobilizes itself rapidly to remove a threat.
- Crimes against the collective: the threat is existential.
- Charges are trivial or fabricated. Innocent people are often victims of the witch hunt.
- Fear of defending the accused.
“Anything that can be construed as an attack on a group can serve as an opportunity for collective punishment and the enhancement of group solidarity.”
“Solidarity can interfere with a group’s effort to find the truth, and the search for truth can interfere with a group’s solidarity.”
Institutionalized disconfirmation: Process whereby an institution is committed to the vetting, challenging and peer review of the research output it produces. This process doesn’t guarantee truth but it does produce more reliable and authoritative results than partisan or biased institutions that don’t vet their claims in a similar fashion.
Universities are losing political diversity (i.e. there are far more liberal academics than conservative ones). A lack of ideological diversity results in higher rate of confirmation bias and less rigorous disconfirmation.
“Students will get closer to the truth if they are exposed to debates among credentialed scholars who approach difficult problems from differing perspectives.”
Homogeneous groups are more susceptible to witch hunts and a focus on orthodoxy and purity tests.
Part III: How Did We Get Here?
Chapter 6: The Polarization Cycle
From the 1940s-1980s there was relatively low political polarization in the United States (this is considered a historical anomaly by the authors).
Factors that increased polarization since the 1980s:
- The collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War left the USA without a common enemy.
- Americans increasingly self-segregate by identity: rural vs. urban, white vs. non-white, religious vs. non-religious.
- The media environment has become more fragmented and polarized (e.g. the rise of Fox News, popularity of talk radio, political websites, etc.).
- Congress: Democrats controlled the House for 60 years until 1994 when New Gingrich became Speaker of the House. Gingrich imposed reforms that discouraged cross-party cooperation common in the past.
Negative partisanship is the phenomenon whereby voters base their political opinion on their outright opposition to the other side. Think of it like a sports rivalry: each side has an irrational hatred of the other side. Moreover, each side will oppose the other side reflexively with little consideration to the validity of the other side’s arguments or ideas.
Asymmetrical institutional polarization:
- Universities have become the domain of the left since the 1990s.
- Talk radio, cable news has been more effective on the right since the 1990s (though mainstream media still leans left).
“In physics, as Newton’s law tells us, every action produces an equal and opposite reaction. In a polarization spiral, however, for every action there is a disproportionate reaction.”
Chapter 7: Anxiety and Depression
Rates of depression and anxiety have increased among American adolescents—particularly females—throughout the 2010s.
Period between 2007-2012 saw significant changes in social life of the American teen:
- Growth of social media platforms: Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, Snapchat.
- Proliferation of smartphones as the dominant computing platform.
iGen (aka Gen Z): The generation born after 1995. This is the first generation to spend its formative teen years immersed in social media and mobile computing.
- Important transitional milestones are happening later for iGen kids (e.g. getting a job, driving a car, having sex).
- iGen is less experienced with traditional, face-to-face social interactions (due to increased screen time).
“When members of iGen arrived on [college] campus, beginning in the fall of 2013, they had accumulated less unsupervised time and fewer offline life experiences than had any previous generation.”
Researchers believe the rapid rise of social media and smartphones are the driving force behind the current mental health crisis.
“One out of every seven women at U.S. universities now thinks of herself as having a psychological disorder, up from just one in eighteen women in the last years of the Millenials.”
“Depression and anxiety cause changes in cognition, including a tendency to see the world as more dangerous and hostile than it really is.”
Chapter 8: Paranoid Parenting
- Overprotection of children results in weaker, less resilient children: we prevent them from becoming antifragile, overcoming challenges and learning from tough experiences.
- Unsupervised time for play and exploration are critical for individual growth and antifragility. Today’s kids have fewer opportunities for unstructured, unsupervised activities.
- Parenting and childhood experience helps define the schemas we use to process the world. An emphasis on safetyism and overconcern about worldly danger leads to a perspective focused on avoiding and identifying potential threats.
Chapter 9: The Decline of Play
Research shows that engaging in play as a child is correlated with social and physical competence in adolescence and adulthood.
The most beneficial form of play is unsupervised and unstructured play.
Reasons for the decline in play:
- Safety concerns and paranoid parenting (see previous chapter).
- The college admissions process which results in a focus on academic study and structured extracurricular activities.
Steven Horwitz (economist): “Denying children the freedom to explore on their own takes away important learning opportunities that help them to develop not just independence and responsibility, but a whole variety of social skills that are central to living with others in a free society.”
Chapter 10: The Bureaucracy of Safetyism
Colleges are so accommodating to students needs (including unreasonable needs) because the relationship is no longer primary that of teacher-student; the traditional relationship has been supplanted by a business-consumer relationship in which the student is the consumer.
Eric Adler (professor): “Even at public universities, 18-year olds are purchasing what is essentially a luxury product. Is it any wonder they feel entitled to control the experience?...Students, accustomed to authoring every facet of their college experience, now want their institutions to mirror their views. If the customers can determine the curriculum and select all their desired amenities, it stands to reason that they should also determine which speakers ought to be invited to campus and what opinions can be articulated...”
“Many campuses have become less like scholarly monasteries and more like luxurious country clubs.” (Example: LSU’s 536-foot $85M lazy river).
Two categories of bureaucratic response:
- Overreaction cases: Situations where the response is disproportionate to the perceived offense. For a recent example, just look to the USC response to Prof. Greg Patton who was placed on leave for using a commonly used Mandarin word that sounds similar to a racial slur (note that the use of the Mandarin word was in a professional context with no intent to offend).
- Overregulation cases: Situations where overly protective measures are instituted to keep students safe. For example: PC speech codes and rules about appropriate dress and behavior.
“Overreaction and overregulation are usually the work of people within bureaucratic structures who have developed a mindset commonly known as CYA (Cover Your Ass).
Two types of cultural mindsets:
Dignity culture: People have an intrinsic sense of self-worth regardless of what others thing. Minor slights can be ignored or met with minimal reaction. Think: “sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never harm me.”
Victimhood culture: Surrenders the locus of control to external forces.
- Individuals and groups display a high sensitivity to slights and offenses.
- Prefers to mediate conflict through third parties.
- Victims need to be assisted by third parties.
Chapter 11: The Quest for Justice
The period from 2012-2018 has been politically, socially and culturally tumultuous. Many students and protesters have been imbued with a strong commitment to social justice and activism.
People hold two intuitive notions of justice:
- Distributive justice: The perception that people are getting what they deserve. Proportionality is an important part of this equation. Equity theory states that things are fair when the ratio of inputs to output is equal for different people.
- Procedural justice: Considers whether the mechanism or process of distribution and laws are fair, trustworthy and evenly enforced.
Social justice: Aims to apply intuitive justice to the participants in a society.
- Generally the goal is equal opportunity.
- Sometimes social justice attempts equal outcomes. This approach violates the intuitive notions of justice by treating certain groups differently.
Correlation does not imply causation. Much of the debate around discrimination assumes causation. However there are alternative causal explanations that should be considered (for instance: cultural or group preferences). Failure to properly understand an underlying problem will result in ineffective or even detrimental solutions.
Part IV: Wising Up
Chapter 12: Wiser Kids
This chapter offers prescriptive ideas for developing antifragile kids.
Principle 1: “Prepare the child for the road, not the road for the child.”
Assume that your child is more capable than you think. Understand that each month they become more capable.
Allow kids to take small risks. Let them learn from their bumps, bruises and mistakes.
Incorporate Lenore Skenazy’s “Free Range Kids” ideas into family life (example: let you kid explore your neighborhood on their own or with friends, let them ride the bus or ride a bike their friend’s house).
Practice Adam Grant’s “four rules for productive disagreement”:
- Frame it as a debate not a conflict.
- Argue as if you’re right but listen as if you’re wrong. Be willing to change your mind.
- Interpret the other person’s ideas and argument charitably and respectfully.
- Highlight areas of agreement and things you’ve learned from the other person.
Principle 2: “Your worst enemy cannot harm you as much as your own thoughts, unguarded.”
- Teach kids the basics of CBT (see chapter 2).
- Teach kids mindfulness.
Principle 3: “The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”
- Exercise the principle of charity (aka “give people the benefit of the doubt”).
- Exercise intellectual humility: recognize that you are error prone and not always right.
- Consider how your school and institutions deal with identity politics: do they adhere to common-humanity identity politics or common-enemy identity politics?
Principle 4: “Help schools to oppose the great untruths.”
- Homework in the early grades should be minimal. Allows more time for unstructured play and discovery.
- Give more recess with less supervision.
- Discourage the use of the word “safe” for anything other than physical safety.
- Have a no devices policy.
- Encourage intellectual virtues: curiosity, open-mindedness, intellectual humility, respect, reason and self-reflection.
- Teach debate.
Principle 5: Limit screen time.
Principle 6: Encourage service or work before college in order to develop maturity, experience and perspective of young adults.
Chapter 13: Wiser Universities
This chapter offers prescriptive ideas for developing antifragile universities.
“If the telos of a university is truth, then a university that fails to add to humanity’s growing body of knowledge, or that fails to transmit the best of that knowledge to its students, is not a good university.”
Principle 1: Entwine your identity with freedom of inquiry.
- Endorse the Chicago Statement: The statement is a commitment to free speech, academic freedom and honest inquiry.
- Do not engage in the cycle of outrage and disproportionate or knee-jerk response and reaction.
- Do not allow the heckler’s veto: no single person or group should be able to interfere with the liberties of others.
Principle 2: Pick the best mix of people for the mission.
- Admit, recruit and engage with students who are older and have demonstrated life-experience and broader perspectives.
- Admit students who abide by the intellectual virtues.
- Cultivate viewpoint diversity.
Principle 3: Orient and educate for productive disagreement.
- Reject the untruths: reject fragility, emotional reasoning and us-versus-them thinking.
Principle 4: Draw a larger circle around the community.
- “The more you separate people and point out differences among them, the more divided and less trusting they will become.”
- Emphasize common goals and shared humanity. Be appreciative of the positive contributions of each group to the overall community.