Safe spaces. Trigger warnings. Bias response teams. Disinvited speakers. Only last week, Brown University removed a news story from its website — about a paper on gender dysphoria that a Brown professor had published — after it offended some members of the transgender community. All this has prompted many to wonder: What is happening to American universities?
Jonathan Haidt, moral psychologist and critically acclaimed author of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, provides answers in his latest book, co-authored with Greg Lukianoff, The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure.
This is a two-part interview. Today we will focus on the ideas that are “setting up” young people to fail before they get to college. Tomorrow’s section will look at what happens once they get there. The interview has been edited for style and clarity.
Madeleine Kearns: In your new book, you and Greg Lukianoff argue that overprotection is badly affecting the development of young people today. Here, we’ll discuss where the “bad ideas” referred to in your book’s title originated and the damage they do before young people arrive at college.
First, let’s talk about where the book came from. In 2014, you and Lukianoff wrote a piece that became one of The Atlantic’s most-read online articles of all time. You noted that some universities now assume that students are emotionally fragile — as seen in the use of “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces” — and argued that this does more harm than good because it is contrary to the principles of cognitive behavioral therapy, which teaches individuals that they can overcome upsetting thoughts with critical thinking skills.
Other than the success of your article, what motivated you to develop these ideas into a book?
Jonathan Haidt: When Greg came to me in May 2014, with his observations and ideas, they matched up with what I’d just begun seeing in my own students, and I thought his explanation was brilliant. Around that time the first articles were coming out about trigger warnings, and there had been a case at Brown University involving safe spaces. Those terms were just beginning to spread, but very few people in the academic world had yet seen these instances as part of a bigger trend. I then looked for evidence that anxiety and depression were rising. The weakest part of our Atlantic article was that the best I could find was a study showing that anxiety rates had gone up by around 6 percentage points (which isn’t huge). So Greg and I were going out on a limb. We thought we were seeing a trail of breadcrumbs, and we offered an interpretation of what might be happening that connected a lot of things.
Our article came out in August 2015. In the fall semester, we had the Yale Halloween event with the students screaming at Nicholas Christakis. After Yale, these trends went national and dozens, if not hundreds, of universities’ students presented lists of ultimatums. So it was really November 2015 when everything blew up. After we wrote the article we thought that we’d said everything there was to say, but then things got a lot worse. So our book is about understanding what the problems are, where they came from, and what to do about them.
MK: You make a critical distinction in the book: the difference between Millennials and this more recent generation of students, those born roughly after 1995, named “iGen.” Could you please explain this?
JH: There are a number of very important distinctions that one has to make in order to understand what’s going on. For 15 years now, people have been criticizing Millennials. But it turns out that while Millennials are different from previous generations in some ways, they tend not to believe that if they are exposed to what they consider to be hateful ideas they will be damaged by them. Millennials do not have especially poor mental health.
The new beliefs about fragility really came in only for those born after 1995. When I read the book iGen by Jean Twenge, and when I saw the graphs that she shows of how mental health plummeted when iGen reached its teen years, that’s when a whole new dimension of the problem became visible.
MK: To establish the rise of mental-health problems among iGen, you cite federal surveys including data from the Centers for Disease Control. You also discuss the notion of “concept creep.” For example, post-traumatic stress disorder is strictly defined in the official Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, and the cause (e.g., war or rape) must “evoke significant symptoms of distress in almost everyone” and be considered “outside the range of usual human experience.” But by the early 2000s, within parts of the therapeutic community, the concept of trauma 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.”
Some have suggested that self-diagnosis can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. To what extent does one’s understanding of oneself as mentally ill create negative thought patterns that become, in effect, causes of anxiety and depression?
JH: That’s a well-documented process. I can’t say how much of the problem is a result of feedback loops. But there’s a long history of theorizing in social and clinical psychology about how the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves actually change our behavior. For instance, we are all faced with many new situations that are ambiguous or potential threats. And if you believe that you are fragile, if you believe that you are prone to anxiety, then when an ambiguous situation arises, you will not be confident in your ability to face it. And if you think that, of course you’ll become anxious! So believing you’re an anxious person will make you actually find more threat in the world, which will make you anxious, which will confirm that you’re an anxious person, which is a feedback loop.
MK: And this is the argument you make with cognitive behavioral therapy, which is the precise antidote to this.
MK: With respect to cognitive behavioral therapy, could you just explain how the reverse thinking has become — I don’t know that you would use the word “institutionalized,” but certainly very prevalent?
JH: So the key to the whole book is the subtitle, not the title. The title, “The Coddling of the American Mind,” is one that Greg and I are uncomfortable with. Coddling just means “overprotection.’ The subtitle says, “how good intentions and bad ideas are setting a generation up for failure.” That’s what the book is about. Many people in children’s worlds want to be helpful, supportive, and empathetic. So if we try really hard to seek out the threats that young people face and protect them from those threats, aren’t we being nice? Aren’t we being helpful? Again, the problems that we document in the book generally are the result of good intentions.
MK: Sure — the book’s tone is conciliatory and the points being made are pragmatic. You don’t shy away from calling out fallacies, though. You start with an amusing anecdote about traveling to Greece with Lukianoff, in search of ancient wisdom, only to receive the rather dubious received wisdom of our age — the three Great Untruths.
JH: The three terrible ideas.
MK: Yes. For our readers, they are: 1) The Untruth of Fragility: What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker; 2) The Untruth of Emotional Reasoning: Always trust your feelings; and 3) The Untruth of Us versus Them: Life is a battle between good and evil people.
You then draw a parallel between our cognitive faculties and our immune systems. Could you please talk a little more about that?
JH: Sure. The human mind is really very good at thinking about simple systems. And it’s also very good at thinking about protecting vulnerable and fragile things. And when you have a child, when you bring that child home from the hospital — it sure looks fragile. And you powerfully want to protect it.
Unfortunately the design plan for human beings, as for all mammals, is that they come into the world unfinished. The nervous system is unfinished. It requires a lot of experience to finish itself. And that experience requires a lot of exposure to small challenges and small risks. It is essential that a young mammal take risks, get hurt, and learn about the effects of its behavior.
MK: So you mean this literally, then: It’s essential that we have exposure to physical and emotional risks? (Not just intellectual ones — which come later.)
JH: Yes. I would invite readers to consider the option of protecting their child until the age of 18 with a magical cape, which would perfectly protect the child so that she’d never experience social rejection, would never fall down and skin her knee, would never be insulted and teased. If you could magically grant your newborn baby complete protection from physical and emotional suffering and pain for 18 years but then, on her 18th birthday, the cape is removed and she goes off to college — would you do it? Most people can see instantly that that would cripple their child; that that would prevent her from maturing.
And so the best metaphor, though it’s not actually a metaphor but rather a homology — in other words, a similarly structured thing — is the immune system. The immune system, like the nervous system, comes into the world unfinished. And it requires experience to finish itself.
There’s been a lot of research on what’s called the hygiene hypothesis: that rates of certain illnesses go up as a society gets wealthier and gets ever better hygiene. Certain illness, certainly autoimmune diseases such as allergies and asthma, are becoming more prevalent. And the current understanding is that the immune system requires exposure to dirt, germs, and even certain types of worms. Our immune systems are expecting that, and when an immune system doesn’t get it, it can’t finish its development. And so the immune system is anti-fragile, as Nassim Taleb said. And Taleb himself uses the example of an overprotective parent, preventing a child from developing the strength it needs to face the world.
MK: You use the phrase “the cult of safetyism” throughout to describe the status quo in parenting and teaching. When did this start? And where does it lead us?
JH: One of the really fun things about writing the book was that we got to investigate many different causal threads that we couldn’t really address in the article. And so in the last half of the book we investigate six different threads that all combine to create the problem we’re now facing now.
In terms of recent history, I can just point to a few things. One is rising wealth and declining family size all over the world, which means that people invest more in each child. Second, as competition for university in the United States rose and rose, the pressure on children to spend their childhood preparing for college increased, which meant they had less time for play.
Third, and among the most important of all factors, the changing media environment of the 1980s, with cable TV, meant that any child who was abducted could now become the front and center of everyone’s consciousness for weeks and weeks. There could be 24-hour coverage.
MK: You mention two specific cases.
JH: That’s right. Etan Patz [abducted in 1979 and presumed dead] and Adam Walsh [abducted in 1981 and decapitated]. By the 1990s, children and parents are surrounded by photographs of missing children, not just on milk cartons but even on pizza boxes and electric bills. Now, most of them were not kidnapped by a stranger, they were usually taken by the non-custodial parent. But parents became very fearful.
So until the 1980s, almost all children had unsupervised play time. Almost everyone I talked to who’s over about 40 remembers going out to play. Then you’d come back in for dinner. But sometime in the 1990s that stopped for most middle-class families and above.
Now, when I speak at colleges and ask the students at what age they could walk over to a friend’s house or play outside with no adult knowing where they were, the answer is normally around 13 or 14. It’s rarely below twelve. So this is one of the biggest factors.
We’ve taken these antifragile kids who need to have adventures, who need to push themselves and test themselves, and we’ve said, “No, you can’t do that. You’re not ready to practice freedom until you are 14.” And there are other factors as well. Like rising political polarization, which didn’t affect childhood, but it affected what we do and think and say on campus.
MK: You referred to Twenge’s book earlier. She centers her argument on social media and says that one of the reasons kids aren’t outside playing is that they’re inside on their phones. So it’s not that they’re socializing less per se, it’s that they’re socializing in this new way. And iGen are the first generation to grow up immersed in that culture. What role is that playing in the fragility trend?
JH: Twenge points to social media as the main cause of the problems. The timing is perfect for her social-media hypothesis — the depression and anxiety rates start marching upward in roughly 2011, and I’m confident she’s right that this is a contributor. But we have no idea how big a contributor. I think the loss of free play in childhood and the rise of over-supervision are at least as large, and that begins in the 1990s, before social media. So I think those are the two biggest causes — social media and the decline of unsupervised play. But in our book we discuss many others.