The Coddling of the American Mind

Author(s): Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff 
Published: 2018

Overall Thoughts & Roadmap

This book is about how the US is moving towards a culture of “coddling” our young generation (coddling = “to treat with extreme or excess care or kindness”). NYU professor Jonathan Haidt and lawyer Greg Lukianoff argue that this well-intentioned overprotection makes it more difficult for us to have open conversations and may end up doing more harm than good in the long run. 

I found this book to be an extremely insightful dive into cancel culture, viewpoint diversity, and self-censorship. I often feel uncomfortable about unintentionally hurtful comments about race, gender, sexual orientation, ability, etc. At the same time, I sometimes feel that minor comments often get blown out of proportion. This book helped me understand these seemingly contradictory feelings.

This book summary covers:

  1. The rise of a culture of safetyism on US campuses (this is actually Part 2 of the book) 
  2. The cognitive distortions that help reinforce this culture (this is Part 1 of the book) 
  3. Six factors that help explain the rise of a culture of safetyism on US campuses (Part 3 of the book)  

1. Recent trends on US campuses

Haidt and Lukianoff document a rise in the culture of vindictive protectiveness on US campuses. This is a culture of defensive self-censorship that arises because students quickly “call out” or shame others for things that they deem to be insensitive. Haidt and Lukianoff argue that vindictive protectiveness is a problem because it makes it more difficult for students to have open discussions in which they practice critical thinking and civil disagreement. 

“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.”

Examples of this climate include call-out culture, campus disinvitations, faculty members being attacked for their speech and ideas, and a general loss of viewpoint diversity in academia. 

Call out culture 

This is a culture where students gain prestige for identifying small offenses committed by members of their community and then publicly “calling out” the offenders. In this environment anything one says or does could result in a public shaming. People feel like they’re walking on eggshells. 

“Call-out culture requires an easy way to reach an audience that can award status to people who shame or punish alleged offenders. This is one reason social media has been so transformative: there is always an audience eager to watch people being shamed, particularly when it is so easy for spectators to join in and pile on.”

Campus disinvitations 

The number of efforts to disinvite speakers from giving talks on campus has increased dramatically since 2013. These disinvitations usually take the form of protests against invited speakers, justified by the claim that the speaker in question will cause harm to students. In 2017, 58% of college students said it is “important to be part of a campus community where I am not exposed to intolerant and offensive ideas”. This statement was endorsed by 63% of very liberal students and by 45% of very conservative students. Greg Lukianoff runs an NGO called the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) which has a database tracking recent campus disinvitations.

Faculty under attack

Since 2017, there is a new trend of professors joining open letters to denounce their colleagues, demand their resignation or retraction/condemnation of their work. These demands often arise after the professor has said or written something that is deemed offensive by students or fellow faculty members. 

To make sense of these events, authors use the framework of "witch hunts". The authors emphasize that “the concerns that provide the context for a witch hunt may be valid, but in a witch hunt, the attendant fears are channeled in unjust and destructive ways.” The 4 properties of witch-hunts are: 

  1. They come out of nowhere/arise quickly. They are not a regular feature of social life. 
  2. They involve charges of crimes against the collective. The charges that appear during these witch-hunts involve accusations of crimes committed against the nation/corporate as a whole. 
  3. The offenses that lead to these charges are often trivial or fabricated. The crimes/deviations involve petty/insignificant behavioral acts that are somehow understood as crimes against the nation as a whole. 
  4. People who know that the accused is innocent keep quiet. Friends and bystanders know that the victim is innocent but they are afraid to say anything.

General decrease in viewpoint diversity 

Viewpoint diversity has declined substantially on college campuses in the past few decades. This has declined substantially among both professors and students in US universities since the 1990s. In the past two decades, higher education institutions went from left-leaning, with over 40% faculty members reporting that they are “liberal” and 20% reporting that they are “conservative”, to being almost entirely left-leaning with over 60% of faculty reporting that they are ‘”liberal” and less than 10% reporting that they are “conservative”

Authors argue that loss of political diversity has negative consequences in 3 ways: 

  1. Many college students have little/no exposure to professors from the other half of the political spectrum. 
  2. What students learn about politically controversial topics will be "left-shifted" from 
  3. There is a risk that some academic communities (especially those in the more progressive parts of the country) may attain such high levels of political homogeneity and solidarity that they undergo a phase change. 

2. The psychology behind these trends

Haidt and Lukianoff introduce "three great untruths" that help make sense of the culture of vindictive protectiveness on campuses. An untruth is an idea that: 

  1. Contradicts ancient wisdom (ideas found in the text of many cultures) 
  2. Contradicts modern psychological research on well-being
  3. Harms individuals and communities who embrace it

The three untruths that help contextualize the culture of vindictive protectiveness are: (1) the untruth of fragility (the idea that what doesn’t kill you makes you weaker); (2) the untruth of emotion reasoning (the idea that we should always trust our feelings); (3) the untruth of us vs them (the idea that life is a battle between good and evil people). 

Untruth of Fragility 

The untruth of fragility suggests that children and youngsters are fragile. When exposed to stressors, they become weaker. Thus, we should protect them from being exposed to ideas, speech, interactions that create such stress. 

Haidt and Lukianoff argue instead that children are anti-fragile. Children must be exposed to challenges and stressors (within limits and in age-appropriate ways) or they will fail to mature into strong and capable adults. Increasingly many studies show that stressors help people become more resilient and overcome things that they find adversarial. For example, research on post-traumatic growth shows that most people report becoming strong or better in some way after suffering through a traumatic experience. 

The untruth of fragility has given rise to a belief system in which ”safety” has become a sacred value and the concept of “safety” equates emotional discomfort with physical danger. This culture encourages people to systematically protect one another from the experiences embedded in daily life that they need in order to become strong and healthy. Without such experiences, they become more fragile, anxious, and prone to seeing themselves as victims. 

The untruth of fragility has also encouraged the rise in campus disinviations. The authors argue that a student saying that “I am offended” should not be a sufficient reason to cancel a lecture because discomfort is not danger. More important, the purpose of an education is not to make you feel comfortable. 

“Education should not be intended to make people comfortable; it is meant to make them think.” - Hanna Holbrook Gray (President of University of Chicago from 1978-1993) 

Untruth of Emotional Reasoning 

The untruth of emotional reasoning suggests that we should always trust our feelings. This contradicts the insight of many thinkers who have highlights that our perceptions of external events is what makes them bad, not the events themselves (e.g. Epictetus: “What really frightens and dismays us is not external events themselves, but the way in which we think about them.”) 

Modern cognitive science has demonstrated that human beings are prone to an array of cognitive distortions, thus highlighting why we shouldn’t let our emotions guide our interpretation of reality. Examples include catastrophizing (focusing on the worst outcome and seeing it as the most likely), overgeneralizing (perceiving a global pattern of negatives on the basis of a single incident), dichotomous thinking (viewing events or people in all-or-nothing terms), labeling (assigning a global negative traits to yourself or other), and negative filtering (focusing almost exclusively on the negatives and seldom noticing the positives).

The authors see the promotion of the concept of “microaggressions” as the promotion of a type of cognitive distortion (something that many readers might disagree with). According to Derald Wing Sue, a professor who popularized the term in a 2007 article, microaggressions are “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults towards people of color.” 

The problem that the authors have with this definition is that it encourages us to engage in emotional reasoning - to start with our feelings and then justify those feelings by drawing the conclusion that someone has committed an act of aggression. The authors argue that although these feelings do sometimes point to a correct inference, it is not a good idea to start by assuming the worst about people and reading their actions uncharitably.  

Hang on… but doesn’t a charitable response mean that the recipient gets “stepped on”? The authors say no. 

“A charitable interpretation does not mean that the recipient of the comment must do nothing; rather, it opens up a range of constructive responses. 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 . . .”

To be clear, the authors are not denying that intentional acts of aggression and bigotry exist. They say that these acts are real and that there’s nothing “micro” about them. However, using the lens of microaggressions may amplify the pain experienced and the conflict that ensues because it encourages the recipient to interpret all acts as acts of aggression, regardless of scale and intent. 

Untruth of us vs them 

The untruth of us vs them divides the world into good and evil. This untruth supports various forms of identity politics - political mobilization organized around group characteristics such as race, gender, and sexuality as opposed to party, ideology, or pecuniary interest. 

While identity politics takes on many forms, the authors talk about two forms of identity politics: 

  • Common humanity identity politics: this is practiced by the likes of Martin Luther King Junior. Practitioners realize that to win hearts, minds, and votes, you need to appeal to the elephant (intuitive and emotional processes) as well as the rider (reasoning). Practitioners humanize opponents and appeal to their humanity while also applying political pressure in other ways.
  • Common-enemy identity politics: In contrast, this type of identity politics unites a coalition using the psychology of the Bedouin proverb “I against my brothers. I and my brothers against my cousins. I and my brothers and my cousins against the world.” 

3. What explains these trends? 

In the final part of the book, the authors discuss 6 potential factors that are likely to have played a part in the rise of these trends. They emphasize that these different threads may be of varying importance for different people.

Reason 1: Rising political polarization in the US 

The first explanation for these trends is the rise in affective polarization (AP) in the US. AP describes the phenomenon that people who identify with either of the two main political parties increasingly hate and fear the other party and the people in it. AP in the US is roughly symmetrical, but as university students and faculty have shifted leftward, universities have begun to receive less trust and more hostility from some conservatives and right-leaning organizations. As a result, since 2016, the number of high-profile cases of professors being harassed by the right for something they said or wrote has increased (see “faculty under attack” above).

The polarization cycle usually proceeds in this sequence: (1) 1. Left-wing professors say/writes something provocative on social media, mainstream media, in a lecture, in an academic publication; (2) Right-wing media outlet picks up the story and then retells it in ways that amplify that outrage; (3.) Lots of people hear about it and write angry posts against the professor; (4) The college administration fails to defend the professor, (5) Most partisans who hear any part of the story finds that it confirms their worst beliefs about the other side (confirmation bias in action). The right focuses on what the professor wrote. The left focuses on the racist/sexist reaction to it. 

Reason 2: Rising levels of teen anxiety and depression 

The second explanation for these trends is the rise in adolescent anxiety and depression that began around 2011. This generation is born between 1995-2012 (iGen or Gen Z). The authors focus on 1995 as the cutoff date of iGen because this is the cohort that grew up with social media and smartphone in their teenage years. Research has shown that the use of such technology is highly correlated with mental illnesses and that girls are more vulnerable to this exposure than boys.

iGen’s arrival at college coincides with the arrival and intensification of the culture of safetyism from 2013-2017. The authors suggest that members of iGen may be particularly attracted to the overprotection offered by the culture of safetyism on campus because of students’ higher levels of anxiety and depression. 

Reason 3: Rise in paraonid parenting 

The third explanation is the rise of paranoid parenting - Imagining that the worst is going to happen to your kid if you let them roam outdoors. This type of fear was exacerbated by a string of kidnappings which made the news but was statistically unlikely to happen.

As a result of changes in parenting styles, children today have far more restricted childhoods than those enjoyed by their parents who grew up in far more dangerous times. Children in the US and other prosperous countries are safer today than at any other point in history. Yet, for a variety of historical reasons, fear of abduction is still very high among American parents. 

Paranoid parenting is problematic because when we overprotect kids, we harm them. Kids are naturally antifragile, and so over protection makes them weaker and less resilient later on. This kind of parenting prepares kids to embrace the three Great Untruths such that when they join college they join in on a culture of safetyism.

Reason 4: Loss of free play and unsupervised risk-taking

The fourth explanation for these changes is a decline of unsupervised free play, an activity that is freely chosen and directed by the participants and undertaken for its own sake, not consciously pursued to achieve ends that are distinct from the activity itself. For example, piano lessons and soccer practice are not free play, but goofing around on a piano or organizing a pickup soccer game are. 

Children need free play in order to finish the intricate wiring process of neural development. Children deprived of free play are likely to be less competent as adults, less tolerate of risk, and more prone to anxiety disorders. 

Various factors have contributed to the decline of free play: Unrealistic fear of strangers and kidnapping since the 1980s; Rising competitiveness for admission to top universities (over many decades) ; Rising emphasis on testing, test preparation, and homework; De-emphasis on physical and social skills (since the early 2000s); Rising availability of smartphones and social media 

Reason 5: Growth of campus bureaucracy 

The 5th explanation is the growth of campus bureaucracy (the process of college campuses being more like businesses) and the expansion of its protective mission. 

The growth of campus bureaucracy means that universities have become more like corporations and professors have come to play a smaller role in administration of universities. Furthermore, market pressures and increasingly consumerist mentality about higher education have encouraged universities to compete on the basis of amenities they offer.

Campus administrators need to juggle many responsibilities and protect universities from many kinds of liabilities, so they often adopt a “better safe than sorry” approach to issuing new regulations. Some of the regulations restrict freedom of speech, often with highly subjective definitions of key concepts. 

Reason 6: Increasing passion for justice  

The explanation is that college students today are responding to global social events with a powerful commitment to social justice activism. 

“Suppose you were born in 1995, the first year of iGen. You entered your politically most impressionable period when you turned fourteen, in 2009, just as Barack Obama was being sworn in. You got your first iPhone a year or two later as smartphones became common among teenagers. If you went to college, you probably arrived on campus in 2013, the year you turned eighteen. What were the political events that you and your new friends were talking about, posting about, and protesting about? ”

Intuitive notions of justice consists of two components: 

  • Distributive justice = the perception that people are getting what is deserved. This is captured by equity theory - things are perceived to be fair when the ratio of outcomes to inputs is equal for all participants. 
  • Procedural justice = the perception that the process and rules are enforced is fair and trustworthy. This is about how decisions are made and about how people are treated along the way as procedures unfold. 

Different emphasis of these two components of justice create different types of social justice: 

  • Proportional-procedure social justice = distributive justice + procedural justice. Efforts to promote proportion-procedure social justice aim to remove barriers to equality of opportunity and also to ensure that everyone is treated with dignity.
  • Equal-outcomes social justice = aim for equality of outcomes by groups, regardless of whether procedural justice is achieved.

In many discussions, the correlation of a demographic trait or identity group membership with an outcome gap is taken as evidence that discrimination caused the outcome gap. While this might be true, the authors express concern that when equal-outcomes social justice is the main mode of justice we're pushing for, people might feel like they can’t raise alternative causal explanations for outcome gaps.