The Coddling of the American Mind, reviewed by Dylan Selterman

 In their new book, The Coddling of the American Mind, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt are sounding an alarm about a rising trend of emotional fragility in American culture.  Specifically, they explain how this fragility manifests on university and college campuses, to the detriment of learning, academic freedom, discourse, and debate. The Coddling is an important and timely book, as our society is dealing with extremely challenging problems, and we will need to work together in order to solve them. But as these problems we face grow in magnitude, our ability to regulate our emotions and effectively collaborate is deteriorating. Lukianoff and Haidt draw heavily on psychological science to help clarify these issues and identify solutions.Image used by permission of Penguin Publishers

The authors explain that in recent years, Americans have become increasingly anxious and depressed, and less willing or able to effectively engage with others in their communities about difficult or sensitive topics. But it gets worse—not only are Americans expressing more dislike toward others with different perspectives, they are also more likely to believe that others’ perspectives are actually threatening and dangerous. The idea of safetyism is a pervasive theme throughout the book, which is described as a fetishization of emotional comfort, and tendency to prioritize safety above all other social concerns, including freedom, growth, and knowledge. This safetyism phenomenon has had some ironic consequences, actually resulting in people being less able to cope with the problems they routinely experience. Essentially, safetyism correlates negatively with well-being.

So how did we get here? Lukianoff and Haidt discuss at great length how new trends toward safetyism and intolerance for diverse viewpoints stem from a fundamental misunderstanding of how our minds work. They refer to these popular misconceptions as the Three Great Unthruths:

 “What doesn’t kill you will make you weaker” (the untruth of fragility)

“Always trust your feelings” (the untruth of emotional reasoning)

“Life is a battle between good people and evil people" (the untruth of “us vs. them”)

Lukianoff and Haidt then discuss substantial evidence for why these popular notions are false, despite their surprising popularity. They also discuss the benefits of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) techniques as effective tools for emotion regulation and well-being. This is a big strength of The Coddling, as it is grounded in empirical psychological research on mental health. The authors include tips based on CBT, such as cognitive re-framing, and references to studies on CBT effectiveness along with additional resources (such as David Burns’s popular book, Feeling Good). Lukianoff and Haidt suggest that by using CBT techniques, we can strengthen ourselves, increase resilience, and engage in effective democracy. On the other hand, safetyism, trigger warnings, safe-spaces, and other well-intentioned but misguided techniques, end up making things a whole lot worse.

But why now? Why in 2018 do these misunderstandings (the Great Untruths) seem to be more popular than ever? Lukianoff and Haidt argue for an array of different sociocultural factors, including toxic political rhetoric, social media (e.g., Facebook), helicopter parenting, and others. This part of the book has a bit more speculation and conjecture. While we have an abundance of data on those topics by themselves, we don’t (yet) have any direct evidence connecting those factors with the key problems pervading American colleges. Put another way, it is possible that Facebook usage may be one factor causing an intolerance for diverse viewpoints on campuses, but no empirical study has made that connection directly. Critically thinking readers would do well to approach this section with healthy skepticism, interpreting Lukianoff and Haidt’s hypotheses as suggestions and clues, but not definitive causal factors. More research is needed to further understand the underlying causes of this social discord. For now, what we have are promising leads.

In general, it is very tough to draw connections between normative trends in the general population and clinical trends affecting a smaller percentage of people. This is likely the weakest aspect of The Coddling, as Lukianoff and Haidt attempt to explain rising rates of depression and suicide with increased social media usage. There is reason to be skeptical about this idea. For one thing, as discussed in a previous post, the evidence linking social media with well-being is (at best), mixed. It is likely that the type and quality, rather than quantity, of social media use is what predicts health and well-being. Lukianoff and Haidt admit this much toward the end of their discussion of social media, but only as a relatively small caveat after a whole chapter meant to caution against social media use. Furthermore, consider the ubiquitous nature of social media. A solid majority of Americans regularly use apps like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram to some extent. So even if there was a singularly negative effect of these apps on psychological well-being, this would not explain why a much smaller fraction of the population ends up with intense suffering. Even with the rising trends in recent years for depression, anxiety, suicidal behaviors, self-harm, and other forms of mental illness, these problems collectively are only affecting less than 20% of the American population. But the population estimates for social media use are much, much higher. Thus, it is likely the case that social media is not psychologically monolithic.

Based on the authors’ reliance on CBT as a framework for understanding mental health, it was surprising to see Lukianoff and Haidt’s recommendations involve restrictions on social media use, instead of utilizing more of the cognitive re-framing techniques that they recommended for other aspects of social life. In other words, if teens are distressed by what they see on social media apps, perhaps solutions should involve cognitive reappraisal rather than rejecting these apps altogether. Such socio-emotional education would prompt teens to consider whether posts from their friends are truly authentic, and to have honest discussions about the content they post with other community members. Perhaps apps like Facebook or Instagram would not be distressing to teens if their mindful responses were along the lines of: “This photo looks great, but it might be digitally enhanced. I shouldn’t compare myself to this inauthentic standard.” This alternative way of reasoning seems more consistent with the other cognitive re-framing techniques from Lukianoff and Haidt throughout the other sections of the book. But instead, their recommendations echo the very same safetyism that they decry elsewhere in the book—specifically, that parents should limit screen time for adolescents, and perhaps even prohibit social media apps, while schools should adopt a “no devices” policy. It is possible that these restrictions may ironically backfire in ways similar to other safetyism policies.

In conclusion, The Coddling does an excellent job in starting an important and fascinating conversation about social dynamics, emotional health, and democracy. Anyone with an interest in social justice, politics, education, or general psychology would surely find much to appreciate throughout the book. While The Coddling may find a large general audience, it is perhaps crucial for university administrators (including Deans, Provosts, VPs, and Presidents) to read this book. Because at its heart, the book is about what’s happening on college campuses. So, to the people in charge of running those campuses: take heed. Consider signing on to the Chicago statement (a commitment to free expression). Draw large circles around your community members. Encourage productive debate and disagreement. There is a recipe for a wise university, with many helpful guidelines throughout this book.

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