The Coddling of the American Mind - by Jonathan Haidt, Greg Lukianoff
Throughout this book, I found an intriguing parallel between Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Vipassana meditation, emphasizing the power of observing thoughts without reacting to them. One thing stands out from this book for me: Among the children who had been “protected” from peanuts, 17% had developed a peanut allergy. In the group that had been deliberately exposed to peanut products, only 3% had developed an allergy.
Here are some text that I highlighted in the book:
This is a book about three Great Untruths that seem to have spread widely in recent years:
- 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 people and evil people.
many parents, K-12 teachers, professors, and university administrators have been unknowingly teaching a generation of students to engage in the mental habits commonly seen in people who suffer from anxiety and depression. We suggested that students were beginning to react to words, books, and visiting speakers with fear and anger because they had been taught to exaggerate danger, use dichotomous (or binary) thinking, amplify their first emotional responses, and engage in a number of other cognitive distortions (which we will discuss further throughout this book). Such thought patterns directly harmed students’ mental health and interfered with their intellectual development—and sometimes the development of those around them. At some schools, a culture of defensive self-censorship seemed to be emerging, partly in response to students who were quick to “call out” or shame others for small things that they deemed to be insensitive—either to the student doing the calling out or to members of a group that the student was standing up for. We called this pattern vindictive protectiveness and argued that such behavior made it more difficult for all students to have open discussions in which they could practice the essential skills of critical thinking and civil disagreement.
Comfort and physical safety are boons to humanity, but they bring some costs, too. We adapt to our new and improved circumstances and then lower the bar for what we count as intolerable levels of discomfort and risk. By the standards of our great-grandparents, nearly all of us are coddled. Each generation tends to see the one after it as weak, whiny, and lacking in resilience. Those older generations may have a point, even though these generational changes reflect real and positive progress.
seeking out challenges (rather than eliminating or avoiding everything that “feels unsafe”), freeing yourself from cognitive distortions (rather than always trusting your initial feelings), and taking a generous view of other people, and looking for nuance (rather than assuming the worst about people within a simplistic us-versus-them morality).
We identify six explanatory threads: the rising political polarization and cross-party animosity of U.S. politics, which has led to rising hate crimes and harassment on campus; rising levels of teen anxiety and depression, which have made many students more desirous of protection and more receptive to the Great Untruths; changes in parenting practices, which have amplified children’s fears even as childhood becomes increasingly safe; the loss of free play and unsupervised risk-taking, both of which kids need to become self-governing adults; the growth of campus bureaucracy and expansion of its protective mission; and an increasing passion for justice, combined with changing ideas about what justice requires.
[天将降大任于斯人也] When heaven is about to confer a great responsibility on any man, it will exercise his mind with suffering, subject his sinews and bones to hard work, expose his body to hunger, put him to poverty, place obstacles in the paths of his deeds, so as to stimulate his mind, harden his nature, and improve wherever he is incompetent. MENG TZU (MENCIUS), fourth century BCE
Among the children who had been “protected” from peanuts, 17% had developed a peanut allergy. In the group that had been deliberately exposed to peanut products, only 3% had developed an allergy.
This is the underlying rationale for what is called the hygiene hypothesis, the leading explanation for why allergy rates generally go up as countries get wealthier and cleaner—another example of a problem of progress.
Thanks to hygiene, antibiotics and too little outdoor play, children don’t get exposed to microbes as they once did. This may lead them to develop immune systems that overreact to substances that aren’t actually threatening—causing allergies. In the same way, by shielding children from every possible risk, we may lead them to react with exaggerated fear to situations that aren’t risky at all and isolate them from the adult skills that they will one day have to master [emphasis added].
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. This is what we mean when we talk about safetyism. Safety is good, of course, and keeping others safe from harm is virtuous, but virtues can become vices when carried to extremes. “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. When children are raised in a culture of safetyism, which teaches them to stay “emotionally safe” while protecting them from every imaginable danger, it may set up a feedback loop: kids become more fragile and less resilient, which signals to adults that they need more protection, which then makes them even more fragile and less resilient. The end result may be similar to what happened when we tried to keep kids safe from exposure to peanuts: a widespread backfiring effect in which the “cure” turns out to be a primary cause of the disease.
“Nothing is miserable unless you think it so; and on the other hand, nothing brings happiness unless you are content with it.”
In The Happiness Hypothesis, Jon drew on Buddha and other sages to offer the metaphor that the mind is divided into parts that sometimes conflict, like a small rider sitting on top of a large elephant. The rider represents conscious or “controlled” processes—the language-based thinking that fills our conscious minds and that we can control to some degree. The elephant represents everything else that goes on in our minds, the vast majority of which is outside of our conscious awareness.
The rider-and-elephant metaphor captures the fact that the rider often believes he is in control, yet the elephant is vastly stronger, and tends to win any conflict that arises between the two. Jon reviewed psychological research to show that the rider generally functions more like the elephant’s servant than its master, in that the rider is extremely skilled at producing post-hoc justifications for whatever the elephant does or believes. Emotional reasoning is the cognitive distortion that occurs whenever the rider interprets what is happening in ways that are consistent with the elephant’s reactive emotional state, without investigating what is true. The rider then acts like a lawyer or press secretary whose job is to rationalize and justify the elephant’s pre-ordained conclusions, rather than to inquire into—or even be curious about—what is really true.
Cognitive behavioral therapy was developed in the 1960s by Aaron Beck, a psychiatrist at the University of Pennsylvania.
Beck saw a close connection between the thoughts a person had and the feelings that came with them. He noticed that his patients tended to get themselves caught in a feedback loop in which irrational negative beliefs caused powerful negative feelings, which in turn seemed to drive patients’ reasoning, motivating them to find evidence to support their negative beliefs. Beck noticed a common pattern of beliefs, which he called the “cognitive triad” of depression: “I’m no good,” “My world is bleak,” and “My future is hopeless.”
Many people experience one or two of these thoughts fleetingly, but depressed people tend to hold all three beliefs in a stable and enduring psychological structure. Psychologists call such structures schemas. Schemas refer to the patterns of thoughts and behaviors, built up over time, that people use to process information quickly and effortlessly as they interact with the world. Schemas are deep down in the elephant; they are one of the ways in which the elephant guides the rider. Depressed people have schemas about themselves and their paths through life that are thoroughly disempowering.
Beck’s great discovery was that it is possible to break the disempowering feedback cycle between negative beliefs and negative emotions. If you can get people to examine these beliefs and consider counterevidence, it gives them at least some moments of relief from negative emotions, and if you release them from negative emotions, they become more open to questioning their negative beliefs. It takes some skill to do this—depressed people are very good at finding evidence for the beliefs in the triad. And it takes time—a disempowering schema can’t be disassembled in a single moment of great insight (which is why insights gained from moments of enlightenment often fade quickly). But it is possible to train people to learn Beck’s method so they can question their automatic thoughts on their own, every day. With repetition, over a period of weeks or months, people can change their schemas and create different, more helpful habitual beliefs (such as “I can handle most challenges” or “I have friends I can trust”). With CBT, there is no need to spend years talking about one’s childhood.
There is no universally accepted definition of “critical thinking,” but most treatments of the concept include a commitment to connect one’s claims to reliable evidence in a proper way—which is the basis of scholarship and is also the essence of CBT. (Critical thinking is also needed to recognize and defeat “fake news.”)
A charitable approach might be to say, “I’m guessing you didn’t mean any harm when you said that, but you should know that some people might interpret that to mean …” This approach would make it easier for students to respond when they feel hurt, it would transform a victimization story into a story about one’s own agency, and it would make it far more likely that the interpersonal exchange would have a positive outcome. We all can be more thoughtful about our own speech, but it is unjust to treat people as if they are bigots when they harbor no ill will. Doing so can discourage them from being receptive to valuable feedback. It may also make them less interested in engaging with people across lines of difference.
if you accidentally say or do something that a member of a group finds offensive, but harbor no dislike or ill will on the basis of group membership, then you are not a bigot, even if you have said something clumsy or insensitive for which an apology is appropriate. A faux pas does not make someone an evil person or an aggressor.
The notion that a university should protect all of its students from ideas that some of them find offensive is a repudiation of the legacy of Socrates, who described himself as the “gadfly” of the Athenian people. He thought it was his job to sting, to disturb, to question, and thereby to provoke his fellow Athenians to think through their current beliefs, and change the ones they could not defend.
“Education should not be intended to make people comfortable; it is meant to make them think.”
When we dehumanise and demonise our opponents, we abandon the possibility of peacefully resolving our differences, and seek to justify violence against them. – NELSON MANDELA
“What alarmed me most,” she wrote, “was what I saw in the eyes of the crowd. Those who wanted the event to take place made eye contact with me. Those intent on disrupting it steadfastly refused to do so. They couldn’t look at me directly, because if they had, they would have seen another human being.”
No one should have to pass someone else’s ideological purity test to be allowed to speak. University life—along with civic life—dies without the free exchange of ideas. In the face of intimidation, educators must speak up, not shut down. Ours is a position of unique responsibility: We teach people not what to think, but how to think. Realizing and accepting this has made me—an eminently replaceable, untenured, gay, mixed-race woman with PTSD—realize that no matter the precariousness of my situation, I have a responsibility to model the appreciation of difference and care of thought I try to foster in my students. If I, like so many colleagues nationwide, am afraid to say what I think, am I not complicit in the problem?
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.
Durkheim described human beings as “homo duplex,” or “two-level man.” We are very good at being individuals pursuing our everyday goals (which Durkheim called the level of the “profane,” or ordinary). But we also have the capacity to transition, temporarily, to a higher collective plane, which Durkheim called the level of the “sacred.” He said that we have access to a set of emotions that we experience only when we are part of a collective—feelings like “collective effervescence,” which Durkheim described as social “electricity” generated when a group gathers and achieves a state of union. (You’ve probably felt this while doing things like playing a team sport or singing in a choir, or during religious worship.) People can move back and forth between these two levels throughout a single day, and it is the function of religious rituals to pull people up to the higher collective level, bind them to the group, and then return them to daily life with their group identity and loyalty strengthened. Rituals in which people sing or dance together or chant in unison are particularly powerful.
In 1978, the sociologist Albert Bergesen wrote an essay titled “A Durkheimian Theory of ‘Witch-Hunts’ With the Chinese Cultural Revolution of 1966–1969 as an Example.” Bergesen used Durkheim to illuminate the madness that erupted in Beijing in May 1966, when Mao Zedong began warning about the rising threat of infiltration by pro-capitalist enemies. Zealous college students responded by forming the Red Guards to find and punish enemies of the revolution. Universities across the country were shut down for several years. During those years, the Red Guards rooted out any trace they could find—or imagine—of capitalism, foreign influence, or bourgeois values. In practice, this meant that anyone who was successful or accomplished was suspect, and many professors, intellectuals, and campus administrators were imprisoned or murdered.
[批斗会] Among the many cruel features of the Cultural Revolution were the “struggle sessions,” in which those accused of ideological impurity were surrounded by their accusers, taunted, humiliated, and sometimes beaten as they confessed to their crimes, offered abject apologies, and vowed to do better. Students sometimes turned on their own teachers.
there are three features common to most political witch hunts: they arise very quickly, they involve charges of crimes against the collective, and the offenses that lead to charges are often trivial or fabricated.
Fear of defending the accused: When a public accusation is made, many friends and bystanders know that the victim is innocent, but they are afraid to say anything. Anyone who comes to the defense of the accused is obstructing the enactment of a collective ritual. Siding with the accused is truly an offense against the group, and it will be treated as such. If passions and fears are intense enough, people will even testify against their friends and family members.
But in today’s culture of safetyism, intent no longer matters; only perceived impact does, and thanks to concept creep, just about anything can be perceived as having a harmful—even violent—impact on vulnerable groups.
The only field among all of the humanities and social sciences that is known to have enough political diversity to allow for institutionalized disconfirmation is economics, where the left-to-right ratio found in a study of the voter registrations of professors was a comparatively low four to one.
The two major political parties have sorted themselves along similar lines: as the Republican Party becomes disproportionately older, white, rural, male, and Christian, the Democratic Party is increasingly young, nonwhite, urban, female, and nonreligious.
“Parties [have] come to view each other not as legitimate rivals but as dangerous enemies. Losing ceases to be an accepted part of the political process and instead becomes a catastrophe.”
Americans are now motivated to leave their couches to take part in political action not by love for their party’s candidate but by hatred of the other party’s candidate. Negative partisanship means that American politics is driven less by hope and more by the Untruth of Us Versus Them. “They” must be stopped, at all costs.
Provoking uncomfortable thoughts is an essential part of a professor’s role, but professors now have reason to worry that provocative educational exercises and lines of questioning could spell the end of their reputations and even careers.
My rational mind could understand that my thoughts were distorted, but nothing changed until it simply became a habit to hear the cruelest, craziest, and most destructive voices in my head without believing I had to act on them. When I stopped letting those voices win, they got quieter. Thanks to CBT, my mind is now in the habit of hearing my worst thoughts as if they are speaking in silly cartoon voices.
The vast majority of those who are abducted are taken by a biological parent who does not have custody; the number abducted by a stranger is a tiny fraction of 1% of children reported missing—roughly one hundred children per year in a nation with more than 70 million minors.
In June 2017, John Roberts, the chief justice of the United States, was invited to be the commencement speaker at his son’s graduation from middle school. From time to time in the years to come, I hope you will be treated unfairly, so that you will come to know the value of justice. I hope that you will suffer betrayal because that will teach you the importance of loyalty. Sorry to say, but I hope you will be lonely from time to time so that you don’t take friends for granted. I wish you bad luck, again, from time to time so that you will be conscious of the role of chance in life and understand that your success is not completely deserved and that the failure of others is not completely deserved either. And when you lose, as you will from time to time, I hope every now and then, your opponent will gloat over your failure. It is a way for you to understand the importance of sportsmanship. I hope you’ll be ignored so you know the importance of listening to others, and I hope you will have just enough pain to learn compassion. Whether I wish these things or not, they’re going to happen. And whether you benefit from them or not will depend upon your ability to see the message in your misfortunes.
Prepare the child for the road, not the road for the child. That is eternally good advice, but it became even better once the internet came along and part of the road became virtual. It was foolish to think one could clear the road for one’s child before the internet. Now it is delusional. To return to the example of peanut allergies: kids need to develop a normal immune response, rather than an allergic response, to the everyday irritations and provocations of life, including life on the internet.
You cannot teach antifragility directly, but you can give your children the gift of experience—the thousands of experiences they need to become resilient, autonomous adults. The gift begins with the recognition that kids need some unstructured, unsupervised time in order to learn how to judge risks for themselves and practice dealing with things like frustration, boredom, and interpersonal conflict. The most important thing they can do with that time is to play, especially in free play, outdoors, with other kids. In some situations, there may need to be an adult nearby for children’s physical safety, but that adult should not intervene in general disputes and arguments.
Start letting your kids walk places and play outside as soon as you think they are able. Send them out with siblings or friends. Tell them it’s OK to talk to strangers and ask for help or directions, just never go off with a stranger. Remember that the crime rate is back down to where it was in the early 1960s.
learning how to give and take criticism without being hurt is an essential life skill. When serious thinkers respect someone, they are willing to engage them in a thoughtful argument. Grant offers the following four rules for productive disagreement:
- Frame it as a debate, rather than a conflict.
- Argue as if you’re right, but listen as if you’re wrong (and be willing to change your mind).
- Make the most respectful interpretation of the other person’s perspective.
- Acknowledge where you agree with your critics and what you’ve learned from them.
Teach children the basics of CBT. CBT stands for “cognitive behavioral therapy,” but in many ways it’s really just “cognitive behavioral techniques,” because the intellectual habits it teaches are good for everyone. Parents can teach children the basics of CBT at any age, starting with something as simple as getting in the habit of letting children watch parents talk back to their own exaggerated thoughts. A technique Greg learned involves practicing hearing his anxious and doomsaying automatic thoughts as if they are being said in funny voices, like Elmer Fudd’s or Daffy Duck’s. It may sound silly, but it can quickly turn an anxious or upsetting moment into a humorous one. Greg and his wife, Michelle, practice this with their two-year-old, as a way of calming everyone down during moments of stress.
Dr. Robert Leahy, the director of The American Institute for Cognitive Therapy, suggests that when children are upset and may be subject to cognitive distortions, parents can walk their children through the following exercise: Let’s take this thought that you have and ask some questions about it. Sometimes we have a thought about someone and we think we are absolutely right. But then this way of thinking makes us upset and makes us angry or sad. Thoughts are not always true. I might be thinking it’s raining outside, but then I go outside and it’s not raining. We have to find out what the facts are, don’t we? Sometimes we look at things like we are looking through a dark lens and everything seems dark. Let’s try putting on different glasses.
The Worry Cure: Seven Steps to Stop Worry from Stopping You
- When you are feeling anxious, depressed, or otherwise distressed, take a moment to write down what you are feeling.
- Write down your level of distress. (For example, you could score it on a scale of 1 to 100.)
- Write down what happened and what your automatic thoughts were when you felt the pang of anxiety or despair. (For example, “Someone I was interested in canceled our date. I said to myself, ‘This always happens. No one will ever want to go out with me. I’m a total loser.’”)
- Look at the categories of distorted automatic thoughts below, and ask yourself: Is this thought a cognitive distortion? Write down the cognitive distortions you notice. (For example, looking at the automatic thoughts in number 3 above, you might write, “personalizing, overgeneralizing, labeling, and catastrophizing.”)
- Look at the evidence for and against your thought.
- Ask yourself what someone might say who disagreed with you. Is there any merit in that opinion?
- Consider again what happened, and reevaluate the situation without the cognitive distortions.
- Write down your new thoughts and feelings. (For example, “I am sad and disappointed that a date I was excited about got canceled.”)
- Write down again, using the same scale as before, how anxious, depressed, or otherwise distressed you feel. Chances are the number will be lower—perhaps a lot lower.
Treatment Plans and Interventions for Depression and Anxiety Disorders, Second Edition, by Robert L. Leahy, Stephen J. F. Holland, and Lata K. McGinn. Categories of Distorted Automatic Thoughts
- MIND READING: You assume that you know what people think without having sufficient evidence of their thoughts. “He thinks I’m a loser.”
- FORTUNE-TELLING: You predict the future negatively: Things will get worse, or there is danger ahead. “I’ll fail that exam,” or “I won’t get the job.”
- CATASTROPHIZING: You believe that what has happened or will happen will be so awful and unbearable that you won’t be able to stand it. “It would be terrible if I failed.”
- LABELING: You assign global negative traits to yourself and others. “I’m undesirable,” or “He’s a rotten person.”
- DISCOUNTING POSITIVES: You claim that the positive things you or others do are trivial. “That’s what wives are supposed to do—so it doesn’t count when she’s nice to me,” or “Those successes were easy, so they don’t matter.”
- NEGATIVE FILTERING: You focus almost exclusively on the negatives and seldom notice the positives. “Look at all of the people who don’t like me.”
- OVERGENERALIZING: You perceive a global pattern of negatives on the basis of a single incident. “This generally happens to me. I seem to fail at a lot of things.”
- DICHOTOMOUS THINKING: You view events or people in all-or-nothing terms. “I get rejected by everyone,” or “It was a complete waste of time.”
- SHOULDS: You interpret events in terms of how things should be, rather than simply focusing on what is. “I should do well. If I don’t, then I’m a failure.”
- PERSONALIZING: You attribute a disproportionate amount of the blame to yourself for negative events, and you fail to see that certain events are also caused by others. “The marriage ended because I failed.”
- BLAMING: You focus on the other person as the source of your negative feelings, and you refuse to take responsibility for changing yourself. “She’s to blame for the way I feel now,” or “My parents caused all my problems.”
- UNFAIR COMPARISONS: You interpret events in terms of standards that are unrealistic—for example, you focus primarily on others who do better than you and find yourself inferior in the comparison. “She’s more successful than I am,” or “Others did better than I did on the test.”
- REGRET ORIENTATION: You focus on the idea that you could have done better in the past, rather than on what you can do better now. “I could have had a better job if I had tried,” or “I shouldn’t have said that.”
- WHAT IF?: You keep asking a series of questions about “what if” something happens, and you fail to be satisfied with any of the answers. “Yeah, but what if I get anxious?” or “What if I can’t catch my breath?”
- EMOTIONAL REASONING: You let your feelings guide your interpretation of reality. “I feel depressed; therefore, my marriage is not working out.”
- INABILITY TO DISCONFIRM: You reject any evidence or arguments that might contradict your negative thoughts. For example, when you have the thought “I’m unlovable,” you reject as irrelevant any evidence that people like you. Consequently, your thought cannot be refuted. “That’s not the real issue. There are deeper problems. There are other factors.”
- JUDGMENT FOCUS: You view yourself, others, and events in terms of evaluations as good–bad or superior–inferior, rather than simply describing, accepting, or understanding. You are continually measuring yourself and others according to arbitrary standards, and finding that you and others fall short. You are focused on the judgments of others as well as your own judgments of yourself. “I didn’t perform well in college,” or “If I take up tennis, I won’t do well,” or “Look how successful she is. I’m not successful.”