The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting up a Generation for Failure
Sean StevensSeptember 11, 2018
The origin of The Coddling of the American Mind occurred over lunch in May of 2014, with Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt in attendance. Lukianoff had asked Haidt to help him make sense of a puzzle he had noticed emerging over the past year or two. Historically, students had consistently opposed administrative calls for campus censorship, yet recently Lukianoff was encountering more demands for campus censorship, from the students.
Lukianoff’s biggest concern was that the rationale for justifying increased campus censorship was becoming medicalized, with students claiming that encountering certain kinds of content impaired their ability to function. Stated simply, Lukianoff’s hypothesis was: “Many university students are learning to think in distorted ways, and this increases their likelihood of becoming fragile, anxious, and easily hurt.”
Young people today – at a minimum, those who are competing for places at selective colleges – are under enormous pressure to perform academically and to build up a long list of extracurricular accomplishments. Meanwhile, all teens face new forms of harassment, insult, and social competition from social media. Their economic prospects are uncertain in an economy being reshaped by globalization, automation, and artificial intelligence, and characterized by wage stagnation for most workers. So most kids don’t have easy, pampered childhoods (p. 13).
In The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting up a Generation for Failure, Lukanoff and Haidt contend that the emergence of a culture of “safetyism” has produced institutional practices that overreach in their goals of protecting children from harm. This, they argue, is a “problem of progress” — an unfortunate side-effect of what are otherwise positive social changes: In American society, the level of comfort and physical safety of most, if not all, people has increased exponentially, when compared to even the recent past. Yet, these advances have also produced institutional practices that, in our contemporary milieu, undermine our ability to solve important social problems.
Part I of The Coddling of the American Mind devotes an individual chapter to each of three Great Untruths. Key concepts of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) are also introduced. Part II provides evidence of the consequences of believing in the three Great Untruths, by reviewing a variety of events that have occurred on college campuses and within the academy in recent years. Part III offers six explanatory threads for how the culture of safetyism emerged and documents some of the consequences for broader society that may be arising as a result. Part IV offers suggestions for preventing the spread of the three Great Untruths and combatting their existing prevalence. Click on each section title for a more detailed description:
Part I: Three Bad Ideas
In Part I Lukianoff and Haidt begin by identifying three Great Untruths that have spread widely in recent years, and become particularly prevalent among current college students born 1995 or later: (p. 4):
The Untruth of Fragility: What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker.
The Untruth of Emotional Reasoning: Always trust your feelings.
The Untruth of Us versus Them: Life is a battle between good and evil people.
They also delineate the criteria that must be met for something to be classified as a Great Untruth (p. 4):
It contradicts ancient wisdom – ideas that are found widely in the wisdom literatures of many cultures.
It contradicts modern psychological research on well-being.
It harms the individuals and communities who embrace it.
Lukianoff and Haidt begin by arguing that children are “antifragile” — a term popularized by Nassim Nicholas Taleb to describe things that have the capacity to not merely endure stress, but to actually flourish and grow as a result of it. They operationalize this concept as follows:
In life, we will face completely unexpected events. If we have limited, or no, prior exposure to unexpected events, we will likely find navigating them difficult. Systems that are antifragile (like our brain and its cognitive processes) need to encounter unexpected events so that they learn, adapt, and grow, making it more likely uncertainty is successfully navigated. A system that does not encounter unexpected events, on the other hand, can become rigid, weak, and inefficient, because nothing challenges the system to respond vigorously. Thus, parents and teachers should help children learn and grow from facing risks and stressors, not limit their exposure to them.
Indeed, limiting exposure to risks and stressors is directly counter to the recommendations of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT is a psycho-social intervention that aims to improve mental health by focusing on challenging and changing unhelpful cognitive distortions (e.g. thoughts, beliefs, and attitudes) and behaviors, improving emotional regulation, and developing personal coping strategies that target solving current problems. Lukianoff and Haidt briefly review nine common cognitive distortions that CBT helps people recognize (see p. 38):
Emotional reasoning: Letting your feelings guide your interpretation of reality. “I feel depressed; therefore, my marriage is not working out.”
Catastrophizing: Focusing on the worst possible outcome and seeing it as most likely. “It would be terrible if I failed.”
Overgeneralizing: Perceiving a global pattern of negatives based on a single incident. “This generally happens to me. I seem to fail at a lot of things.”
Dichotomous thinking (also known as “black-and-white thinking,” “all-or-nothing thinking,” and “binary thinking”): Viewing events or people in all-or-nothing terms. “I get rejected by everyone,” or “It was a complete waste of time.”
Labeling: Assigning global negative traits to yourself or others (often in the service of dichotomous thinking). “I’m undesirable,” or “He’s a rotten person.”
Mind reading: Assuming that you know what people think without having sufficient evidence of their thoughts. “He thinks I’m a loser.”
Negative filtering: Focusing almost exclusively on the negatives and seldom noticing the positives. “Look at all the people who don’t like me.”
Discounting positives: Claiming that the positive things you or others do are trivial, so that you can maintain a negative judgment. “That’s what wives are supposed to do – so it doesn’t count when she’s nice to me,” or “The successes were easy, so they don’t matter.”
Following this initial discussion of CBT, the concept of microaggressions is introduced. A microaggression is a brief, but commonplace, daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignity, that communicates hostile and derogatory slights and insults towards people of color (see Sue et al., 2007). Importantly, the brief, commonplace indignities can be intentional or unintentional, and are considered slights based on a subjective standard.
Lukianoff and Haidt contend that the latter aspects of the microaggression concept – the inclusion of unintentional acts and the use of subjective standards – increases the likelihood that people will perceive an interpersonal event as an act of aggression against them or someone else. Furthermore, when such kind of thinking is promoted it can readily draw on the more tribal impulses of our social cognition and promote emotional and motivated reasoning in the interpersonal realm.
Herbert Marcuse’s ideas regarding tolerance and its parallels with intersectionality theory (see, e.g., Crenshaw, 1989) are then explored. Marcuse distinguished between repressive tolerance, a form of tolerance that favors the already powerful and suppresses the less powerful, and a liberating tolerance, a form of tolerance that discriminates in favor of the weak and restrains the strong. Lukianoff and Haidt suggest that some of the emerging interpretations of intersectionality draw on Marcuse’s notion of repressive tolerance, and encourage people to interpret social interactions in terms of bipolar dimensions of privilege and oppression. Much of the scholarship on reducing interpersonal and intergroup conflict, in contrast, suggests that the most effective way to create inclusive communities is to emphasize a sense of common humanity by highlighting similarities.
The potential result of this fusion between Marcusean ideas on tolerance and certain aspects of intersectionality theory is the emergence of a “call-out” culture in which prestige is gained by identifying small offenses committed by other members of the community, and then publicly shaming the offenders. Once a call-out culture emerges, near-constant vigilance over one’s thoughts and social behaviors may be required so that one does not open one’s self to public ridicule (see p. 71-74). Descriptions of student experiences, authored by students, are presented to demonstrate what this state of near-constant vigilance is like (see p. 72-73).
Part II: Bad Ideas in Action
Chapters 4 and 5 primarily focus on specific events that have occurred on campus, and within the academy (e.g., controversies over published work), in recent years. These include the “Milo Riot” on the University of California’s Berkeley campus, which occurred in response to a scheduled appearance by Milo Yiannopoulos; the violence at Middlebury College that occurred in response to a scheduled debate between Alison Stanger, a professor of political science, and Charles Murray; and, the disruption of remarks by Heather MacDonald at Claremont McKenna College. These events help Lukianoff and Haidt buttress the argument advanced in Part I.They also help to document a new idea emerging on college campuses, namely that “words are violence” and thus physical violence against controversial, offensive, and hateful speakers is justified as a form of self-defense:
Lukianoff and Haidt note that a series of op-eds that appeared in The Daily Californian, Berkeley’s leading student newspaper, following the “Milo Riot” (see p. 84-86) provide examples of the three Great Untruths and a variety of the cognitive distortions reviewed earlier, at work. For instance, one op-ed justified the physical violence during the “Milo Riot”, by arguing that condemnation of the actions taken to shut down Yiannopoulos is akin to condoning his ideas and thus supporting hate speech (e.g., mind reading), and that his mere presence on campus would result in “broken bodies” (e.g., catastrophizing). One, therefore, must pick a side (e.g., dichotomous thinking). Similar sentiments were voiced in the aftermath of the violence at Middlebury College (see p. 87-88) and the disruption of MacDonald planned remarks at Claremont McKenna College (see p. 88-90). These events angered and further radicalized a portion of the right, both on- and off-campus.
Attention then shifts to the horrific events that occurred in Charlottesville, Virginia in early August of 2017 (see p. 90-94). The marching of white supremacists through a university town, and the subsequent response by President Trump, angered and radicalized a portion of the left, both on- and off-campus. In the following months, off-campus white supremacist organizations increased their efforts to provoke students and recruit new members by putting up posters, flyers and stickers on hundreds of campuses. These provocative actions have likely contributed to the increased calls for speaker disinvitations and censorship of ideas perceived as dangerous, hateful, and violent.
The concerns of students, faculty, and administrators about emboldened white supremacists are not unfounded. However, Lukianoff and Haidt contend that no matter how hateful the rhetoric of white supremacists may be, words do not constitute violence. In contrast, they draw on Van Jones, Barack Obama’s former green jobs advisor, to argue that exposure to an opponent’s ideas and arguments can make one’s own ideas and arguments stronger (p. 97):
I don’t want you to be safe ideologically. I don’t want you to be safe emotionally. I want you to be strong. That’s different. I’m not going to pave the jungle for you. Put on some boots, and learn how to deal with adversity. I’m not going to take all the weights out of the gym; that’s the whole point of the gym. This is the gym.
Albert Bergesen’s Durkheimian theory of witch-hunts (see Bergesen, 1978) is offered to help explain some of these recent campus events. This theory identifies three features common to most, if not all, political witch hunts (p. 101-102):
They happen quickly, appearing in dramatic outbursts. They are not a regular feature of social life.
The “witch” is perceived to have committed a crime against a valued collective (e.g., The Nation, The People).
The charges leveled against the “witch” are often trivial or fabricated, and typically involve petty and/or insignificant behavioral acts.
Lukianoff and Haidt add a fourth feature (p. 102):
There is a fear of defending the accused when a public accusation is made. This fear may prevent even close friends and family members from coming to the defense of the accused “witch.”
The experiences of a number of faculty members, such as Erika Christakis, Rebecca Tuvel, Larry Alexander, and Amy Wax, who have been the target of witch-hunts, typically led by their colleagues, are then discussed (see p. 104-108; see also p. 114-120).
Lukianoff and Haidt then explore the importance of viewpoint diversity in the scholarly domain (see p. 109-113). All humans are, to an extent, flawed thinkers, who possess a tendency for believing that their own ideas about the world and explanations for events within it are accurate. Scholars are not immune to this impulse, but the university community can help counteract it through a process of institutionalized disconfirmation (p. 109):
One of the most brilliant features of universities is that, when they are working properly, they are communities of scholars who cancel out one another’s confirmation biases. Even if professors cannot see flaws in their own arguments, other professors and students do them the favor of finding such flaws. The community of scholars then judges which ideas survive the debate.
Institutionalized disconfirmation is difficult, however, when it is likely that most scholars share the same (or similar) cognitive and motivational biases. Lukianoff and Haidt then document how the left-right ratio (as measured by voter registration or ideological self-identification) has rapidly changed since the 1990s going from roughly 2:1 (left to right) in many fields, to over 10:1 in 2016. The ideological homogenization of many academic fields is thus concerning because when a field lacks political diversity, researchers tend to congregate around questions and research methods that generally confirm their shared narrative, while ignoring questions and methods that don’t offer such support.
Part III: How Did We Get Here?
Chapters 6 through 11 present six explanatory threads as to why the three Great Untruths have become increasingly prevalent, with each chapter focusing specifically on one thread. The six explanatory threads proposed by Lukianoff and Haidt are:
Increasing political polarization since the 1980s.
Rise in rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide among American adolescents over the past decade.
Emergence and intensification of safetyism among parents since the 1980s.
A decline in unsupervised free play (e.g., recess) among children since the 1980s.
Bureaucratic expansion and corporatization of the education system, particularly at the college level.
A shift in how social justice is conceptualized, from a focus on equity and proportionality and the promotion of equal opportunity, to a focus on equality of outcome.
Lukianoff and Haidt note that the book, in its focus on problems emerging on campus, has largely presented such problems as arising from the political left on campus. The main reason for this is because, as documented above, the left is increasingly the dominant political group on campus. As a result of increased ideological homogeneity, the debate on campus over the emerging set of new ideas in regards to free speech and expression, violence, and safety is largely a debate between members of the left. Typically, this debate appears to pit older progressives, who seem less willing to restrict free speech and expression, against younger progressives, who seem more supportive of restricting free speech and expression.
Yet, American universities are embedded within a larger society, that has been growing steadily more divided and polarized over political issues since the 1980s, and increasingly so over the past 15 years. Affective polarization – the increased association between ingroup favoritism and outgroup animus – has also increased (see Iyengar & Krupenkin, 2018), in particular, most sharply from 2008 to 2012. Perhaps even more importantly, the divide over politics trumps divides over gender, race, education, religious attendance, and age:
As noted above, The Coddling of the American Mind began over a lunch in 2014 between Lukianoff and Haidt, where they discussed the possibility that universities were, unintentionally, driving students to think and perceive social events in distorted ways. By 2017, however, they had shifted their view (p. 145):
… it was clear we had misunderstood what was going on. Colleges were not the primary cause of the wave of mental illness among their students; rather, the students seeking help were part of a much larger national wave of adolescent anxiety and depression unlike anything seen in modern times.
Later, they conclude that:
Clearly universities were not causing a national mental health crisis; they were responding to one, and this may explain why the practices and beliefs of safetyism spread so quickly after 2013.
Lukianoff and Haidt then review the experiences of a number of faculty members who were subjected to intimidation campaigns by off-campus right-wing groups because of their public comments or perceived political positions (e.g., Lisa Durden, George Ciccariello-Maher, Sarah Bond). Connections are drawn between the increasing occurrence of these intimidation campaigns and the national political environment, and it is suggested the state of affairs on college campuses is a result of an interaction between the national political environment, the changing state of adolescent mental health, and immediate events that occur directly on a given campus.
Haidt & Lukianoff lean on Jean Twenge’s iGen research to help contextualize the rapid changes that have occurred in adolescent mental health since 2010. These include an increased suicide rate, as well as sharp increases in the rates of anxiety, depression, and the percentage of college students reporting they have a psychological disorder. In most of these cases, the increases are starkest among females. Like Twenge, Lukianoff and Haidt link these rapid changes to the emergence and increased prevalence of smartphones and social media. They also suggest that gender differences in aggression – namely the forms of aggression typically preferred by males (who tend to employ physical aggression) and females (who tend to employ emotional and relational aggression) – can help explain why these rates have increased more sharply among females in the “digital age” (see p. 154-156).
The decline in unsupervised free play is then linked to the emergence and rise of safetyism among parents that began in the 1980s — which Lukianoff and Haidt suggest is most prevalent among the upper third of the socioeconomic spectrum.
Several factors contributed to the decline in unsupervised free play, including unrealistic fears in regards to child safety; the rising value of a college degree and corresponding rising competitiveness for college admission; an increased emphasis on homework, test preparation, and testing; and, a decreased emphasis on the development of physical and social skills.
Lukianoff and Haidt contend that when smart phones and social media emerged, their usage began to interact with these other trends to greatly change how American children spend their time, whether supervised or unsupervised. The decline in unsupervised free play deprives children of opportunities to develop physical and social skills that can help them cooperate better with others and resolve disputes (see p. 191-193).
In parallel to these developments in American society, the university system has become increasingly corporatized. Faculty, who used to have a good deal of say in how a university was governed, have ceded much of this power to administrators — who typically approach problem solving in a much different way. For instance, they drawn work of the political scientist Benjamin Ginsberg to explain the matter further:
He notes that once the class of administrative specialists was established and became more distinct from the professor class, it was virtually certain to expand; administrators are more likely than professors to think that the way to solve a new campus problem is to create a new office to address the problem (p. 182).
This corporatization of the university has also shifted how students are perceived and treated – they are now consumers. As a result, number of non-academic factors have become increasingly important for universities to provide, such as lifestyle amenities (e.g., type and quality of cuisines available). Since 2003 university spending on student services and amenities increased by 22.3%, whereas spending for research and instruction each increased less than 10% (see p. 199).
The expanding administrative bureaucracy increasingly wields power over campus policy. Lukianoff and Haidt suggest that administrators may be modeling distorted thinking and promoting acceptance of the three Great Untruths. They provide examples of how administrators overreact to perceived offenses by subsequently attempting to overregulate behavior via new policies and policy changes (p. 201-203).
The idea behind bias reporting systems is criticized. Specifically, Lukianoff and Haidt are concerned that bias reporting systems encourage us versus them thinking and increase false alarms in regards to bias and harassment. The result for campus culture is a shift from a dignity culture to a “victimhood culture” (see Campbell & Manning 2018), where students increasingly appeal to administrators to resolve interpersonal conflicts.
This culture shift has also impacted how social justice is conceptualized, specifically what kind of justice is emphasized. Lukianoff and Haidt review the concept of intuitive justice, and its subtypes: distributive and procedural justice. Distributive justice concerns focus whether people are getting what is deserved, based on one’s input. Procedural justice concerns focus on whether the process by which things are distributed and the rules governing it are fair and trustworthy. They identify where popular claims about social justice fit well within the intuitive justice concept — and where they do not (see p. 217-220).
Lukianoff and Haidt contend there are two different kinds of social justice that can be identified in modern Western political debates and discussions about the term. Proportional-procedural justice represents an effort to find and fix cases where distributive or procedural justice is denied people because they were born into poverty or belong to a socially disadvantaged category. Thus, this form of justice is concerned with proportionality and procedural fairness. Proportional-procedural justice can, therefore, be considered a form of intuitive justice since its concerns focus on proportional distribution and fair procedures. Equal-outcomes social justice, on the other hand, focuses on achieving an egalitarian end-state — a goal that can violate both procedural justice and distributive justice. Thus, an equal-outcomes social justice approach conflicts with distributive and procedural justice and is likely to produce a backlash.
Part IV: Wising Up
In Part IV Lukianoff and Haidt offer suggestions to combat the rise of the safetyism and the prevalence of the three Great Untruths. Chapter 12 offers six suggestions for parents and educators for producing wiser children:
Prepare the child for the road, not the road for the child: Acknowledge that children are antifragile and encourage them to engage in unstructured, unsupervised time so they can learn how to judge risks for themselves and practice dealing with frustration and disagreement (see p. 237-240).
Your own worst enemy cannot harm you as much as your own thoughts unguarded: Teach children the basics of mindfulness and CBT so they can learn to recognize and temper the hallmarks of emotional and motivated reasoning (see p. 241-242).
The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being: Discourage dichotomous thinking and work to develop intellectual humility (see p. 243-244).
Help schools to oppose the Great Untruths: Explore and encourage potential changes to the local education system. At the elementary level suggest minimal homework and more recess with minimal supervision. At the middle school and high school levels work to cultivate individual virtues (e.g., humility), teach debate and offer debate clubs, and assign readings that promote critical thinking and reasoned discussion (see p. 245-249).
Limit and refine device time: Encourage children to spend more time outdoors by placing clear, but reasonable, limits on device time (see p. 249-250).
Support a new national norm of service or work before college: Encourage children to take a “gap year” after high school graduation to further their development in interpersonal realm (see p. 250-251).
Chapter 13 offers four suggestions for university administrators for producing wiser universities:
Entwine your identity with freedom of inquiry: Administrators can endorse the Chicago Principles on Free Expression, or a similar set of principles. They can establish a practice of not bowing to public outrage, including a refusal to allow the heckler’s veto to prevent controversial speakers from delivering their remarks (see p. 255-257).
Pick the best mix of people for the mission: Universities can admit a larger share of older students, who have demonstrated they can live independently and resolve interpersonal conflict. They can also admit more students from schools that cultivate intellectual virtues and include viewpoint diversity in their diversity policies (see p. 257-258).
Orient and educate for productive disagreement: Explicitly reject the three Great Untruths and provide students with the tools to combat them, such as the basic principles of CBT (see p. 258-260).
Draw a larger circle around the community: Celebrate similarities and our common humanity, and do not emphasize differences. Foster school spirit, protect the physical safety of community members, and host civil cross-partisan events for students (see p. 260-262).
In spite of all that The Coddling of the American Mind documents, Lukianoff and Haidt close on an optimistic note. They base their optimism on the following observation (p. 265):
The more serious a problem gets, the more inducements there are for people, companies, and governments to find innovative solutions, whether driven by personal commitment, market forces, or political pressures.
For instance, social media companies are now working to address many of the features that helped exacerbate the problems documented by Lukianoff and Haidt (as well as a variety of other problems they did not document). There is a growing movement to promote free play and freedom in adolescence. There is growing recognition that the current implementations of common-enemy identity politics require a rethinking. And, finally, universities are increasingly responding to this problem, with an increasing number adopting the Chicago Principles and increasingly standing up to public pressure campaigns.
The importance of the university to a functioning democracy cannot be overstated. This is why Lukianoff and Haidt use The Coddling of the American Mind to raise concerns about the direction American universities have been taken. They are not presented as a means to demonize the university, its administrators, its faculty members, nor (and perhaps most importantly) its students. Again, it is their contention that universities are not the source of the problem — they just happen to be arenas where unfortunate interactions of the social changes they describe are among the most likely to manifest, to get attention, and to generate significant second-order effects.
However, for this very reason, universities can also play an important role in addressing our society’s “problems of progress” by pushing back against safetyism and the “Three Great Untruths.”
Open InquiryCampus and Community
Sean Stevens was a Researcher with Heterodox Academy from 2016 – 2020. He has a PhD in social psychology from Rutgers University.
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