The Coddling of the American Mind by Jonathan Haidt & Greg Lukianoff

Summary

This book explores the spread of a potentially dangerous set of ideas being adopted on college campuses and beyond. The ideas are making people more fragile, subject to emotional reasoning, and comfortable using an “us versus them” lens to view the world. The authors discuss how and why these ideas have developed a stronghold, the ways in which they’re manifesting, and the potential harm to human progress and happiness.

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Key Takeaways

Three Great Untruths

The book defines, contextualizes, and problem-solves three bad ideas gaining traction today.

  1. The Untruth of Fragility: What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker.
  2. The Untruth of Emotional Reasoning: Always trust your feelings.
  3. The Untruth of Us Versus Them: Life is a battle between good people and evil people.

All of the untruths meet three criteria

  1. It contradicts ancient wisdom (ideas found widely in the wisdom literatures of many cultures).
  2. It contradicts modern psychological research on well-being.
  3. It harms the individuals and communities who embrace it.

Increased fragility

While people have fought for what they believe in over time, what’s new about the environment on college campuses today is the premise that students are fragile and need protection from all ideas, people, or interactions that may make them feel uncomfortable.

But all of the protections being put in place – safe spaces, disinviting controversial speakers, trigger warnings, and so on – is that they actually increase the likelihood of students of students becoming fragile, anxious, and easily hurt. By not exposing people to the inevitable discomforts of life, including ideas that contradict your worldview, we’re making people less antifragile under the false premise of protecting them.

The antidote to the increasing fragility is:

“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).”

In addition to strengthening your mind, this approach increases your happiness and sense of well-being.

Concept creep

“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.”

A number of concepts, including “safety,” “trauma,” and “anxiety,” have expanded significantly outside of their original meaning. This concept creep has led everyday feelings and interactions to be labeled as important problems to solve.

In the case of “safety,” many people now equate emotional discomfort with physical danger. So when interacting with ideas in a book or words from a speaker, students sometimes claim that they feel “unsafe” and require trigger warnings or speakers to be disinvited from campus.

This concept creep has expanded in similar ways with “trauma.” Formerly a clinically defined word, “trauma” has now expanded to be used to describe everyday interactions that feel unpleasant.

Principle of charity

“There is a principle in philosophy and rhetoric called the principle of charity, which says that one should interpret other people’s statements in their best, most reasonable form, not in the worst or most offensive way possible.”

When you think that your feelings ARE reality, you may start to believe that other people have worse intentions than they actually do. This may cause you to start seeing harmful behavior in places that it does not actually exist. A good hack to combat this is to take a charitable view of what other people say and do. Instead of assuming that someone has bad intentions, try to see what they did or said from the most reasonable and well-intentioned point of view that you can.

What are identity politics and virtue signaling?

Identity politics: “Political mobilization organized around group characteristics such as race, gender, and sexuality, as opposed to party, ideology, or pecuniary interest.”

Virtue signaling: “things people say and do to advertise that they are virtuous. This helps them stay within the good graces of their team.”

Van Jones on “safety”

Van Jones is a progressive and former advisor to Obama.

“There are two ideas about safe spaces: One is a very good idea and one is a terrible idea. The idea of being physically safe on a campus — not being subjected to sexual harassment and physical abuse, or being targeted specifically, personally, for some kind of hate speech — “you are an n-word,” or whatever — I am perfectly fine with that.

But there’s another view that is now I think ascendant, which I think is just a horrible view, which is that “I need to be safe ideologically. I need to be safe emotionally I just need to feel good all the time, and if someone says something that I don’t like, that’s a problem for everybody else including the administration.

I think that is a terrible idea for the following reason: 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.”

Loss of professorial diversity

While university professors have always been primarily left leaning in their politics, the percentage of professors who lean left has increased in recent years. Practically speaking, this is bad for scholarship. With a more uniform group of people, the quality of scholarly research goes down.

That’s because if you’re reviewing a paper from someone who shares similar views as you and they’re covering something you roughly agree about, you’re not going to be as rigorous in your review of the quality of the work or the potential counterarguments. Viewpoint diversity increases scholarly rigor.

Increasing anxiety among young people

The number of students who believe they have a psychological disorder and who are experiencing anxiety and depression has rapidly increased since 2012. The increase has been more prominent for women. While in 2012, 6% of women believed they had a psychological disorder, that number is now 15%.

What this data may highlight is that the increased anxiety and mental distress of younger people may be contributing to some of the developments in the attitudes and practices on college campuses.

Parenting

In response to high profile child abduction cases, parents have become increasingly concerned with the safety of their children over the years. This has led to reductions in free play, less independence, and more fear instilled in children, which may be responsible for increasing the desire for safety provided from third parties for young adults.

While keeping your children safe is one of the most important things you can do as a parent, trying to eliminate all risk in a child’s life can stunt their development, sense of independence, and ability to confront adversity.

Antifragility from Chief Justice John Roberts

Speaking at a middle school graduation, Chief Justice John Roberts said:

“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.”

Dignity vs. victimhood culture

Sociologists Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning argued in 2014 that the predominant “dignity culture” of the United States and most Western democracies was giving way to “victimhood culture.”

In a dignity culture, “everyone is assumed to have dignity and worth regardless of what people think of them, so they are not expected to react too strongly to minor slights…People are expected to have enough self-control to shrug off irritations, slights, and minor conflicts…Perspective is a key element of a dignity culture; people don’t view disagreements, unintentional slights, or even direct insults as threats to their dignity that must always be met with a response.”

Victimhood culture has three distinct attributes:

  1. “individuals and groups display high sensitivity to slight”
  2. they “have a tendency to handle conflicts through complaints to third parties”
  3. they “seek to cultivate an image of being victims who deserve assistance.”

Victimhood culture is more defined by ideas about microaggressions, trigger warnings, and safe spaces.

Intuitive justice

“Intuitive justice is the combination of distributive justice (the perception that people are getting what is deserved) and procedural justice (the perception that the process by which things are distributed and rules are enforced is fair and trustworthy).”

Most people want other people to get what they deserve and for the process by which they get that to be relatively fair. Basically, everyone should have a fair chance and be rewarded for their efforts. This is a world in which equality of opportunity exists.

In some places, people have latched onto “outcomes” as a way to measure intuitive justice. Any time there is a deviation in outcomes relative to the population norms, it is attributed to systemic bias. This way of thinking reduces all outcome-based disparities in life to system bias, rather than to the many other causes that may cause deviations in outcomes.

Summing it up

Psychological PrincipleWisdom (good)Great Untruth (bad)
Young people are antifragilePrepare the child for the road, not the road for the childWhat doesn’t kill you makes you weaker
We are all prone to emotional reasoning and the confirmation biasYour worst enemy cannot harm you as much as your own thoughts, unguarded. But once mastered, no one can help you as much, not even your father or your mother.Always trust your feelings
We are all prone to dichotomous thinking and tribalism.The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.Life is a battle between good people and evil people.

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