Have Americans become too fragile for their own good? | Jonathan Haidt

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JONATHAN HAIDT: So, the second
great untruth is “always trust your feelings”; the wisdom traditions
of the entire world say “don’t do that.” For example, of some of the quotes
we have in the book from Shakespeare, “There’s nothing good or bad, but
thinking makes it so,” from Marcus Aurelius, “The whole world is change,
and life itself is but what you deem it,” from Buddha, “Our thoughts
are the creations of our minds; with our minds we make of the world.”
CBT is just a way of teaching people skills to do exactly that, to question
their feelings, to look for evidence. So in CBT you learn the
names of these distortions, about 15 or so distortions. You can guess what they mean:
catastrophizing; black-and-white thinking; labeling; mind reading. These are the things that depressed
and anxious people do a lot. One way to – all of us have
had experience with these. One thing I like to think about is
Homer Simpson saying, “Shut up, brain, or I’ll stab you with a
Q-tip!” Our brains do this. Our brains go on and on, and we’re
like stop it, stop it, stop it! Well, CBT is a way of stopping it. It’s so easy to learn. Many people, including me,
learned it from a wonderful book by David Burns called Feeling Good. In our book (and on our webpage
if you go to Thecoddling.org) we have suggestions for books
and apps where you can learn it. Cognitive behavioral therapy is not
more effective than several other treatments, most treatments
are about equally effective, but it’s so easy to learn. If you teach, and I’ve
done this in my classes, if you assign everyone in the class to
learn CBT most people get it and get something out of it. Other techniques like meditation
work, but they’re harder. Most people drop off. So CBT is easy, really well
tested, has a huge impact on a variety of mental
illnesses, especially those related to depression and anxiety. We think every college student—and heck
every high school student—should be taught these basic skills given how high
the rates of anxiety and depression are today. So for the last few years we’ve been
hearing reports that counseling centers on campus are overwhelmed, we’re
hearing stories about rising depression and anxiety. Some people say oh it’s
nothing to be alarmed about. It’s not real it’s just that young
people today they’re so comfortable talking about mental illness they’re
more open about it and that’s why the rates seem to be rising. It sounds plausible. Not true! it’s not just that young
people are more comfortable. We know this because studies have been
done looking at hospital admission data, who is being admitted to
hospitals because they cut themselves, they took poison, they harmed
themself in some other way, we see exactly the same curves. On that date in particular boys are
not changing but girls are going way, way up, only teenage girls, not
millennials, not kids born before 1995 but kids born in 1995 and
after, the girls in particular, are cutting themselves
and being admitted to hospitals in much higher rates. Most alarmingly the suicide rate, if you
look at the last couple years compared to the first ten years of the century
the suicide rate for American boys, teenage boys, is up 25 percent,
which is a gigantic increase; the suicide rate for American
girls is up to 70 percent. So something is going wrong. Something is affecting American
teenagers, especially girls. So, in the United States right
now, as many people have noticed, we are seeing a huge escalation
of our long running culture war; unfortunately universities are
all right in the heart of that. The right loves to come in and say that
universities are bastions of political correctness, they’ve lost their minds. The left is motivated to say
no there’s not a problem, there’s nothing going on, it’s
just that the right hates ideas, they hate universities. So, the way that this
whole book started is that Greg Lukianoff, my co-author
and friend, is prone to depression and he had a suicidal depression
in 2007; he was hospitalized and he learned cognitive behavioral
therapy as part of his treatment, and he credits it with saving his life. So he goes back to his job as
the President for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, he’s
been fighting for free speech rights for students, pushing back against
administrators who are always imposing speech limits. Students were always
his best supporters. Students generally wanted
the rights to speak and think and be independent until 2013. Beginning in the fall of 2013 he started
seeing the first cases of students saying “we want to protections
from words, books, ideas, speakers. We want speakers disinvited, don’t
let this person onto our campus, not because it would be offensive,
but because it will be dangerous. It will be harmful. It will be traumatizing. We want trigger warnings, if you’re
going to assign a book that has violence in it, especially sexual
violence like A Greek Myth, which has rape, if you’re going to
assign that you need to warn students against it so that they can choose
whether they want to absent themselves on that day.” So this was something
new and at first it was just a strange thing at a few schools. And then over the following
year it built to the point where in 2014 we
started reading articles in the New Republic
and the New York Times about to trigger warnings, safe
spaces, micro aggression training, bias response teams, a
whole set of constructs and procedures emerged
on certain universities, not everywhere but especially at
elite schools in the Northeast and on the West Coast a
way of protecting students from words, books, ideas and speakers. Speakers were shouted
down increasingly, not because they were offensive and hateful
but because they were dangerous. For students to think about ideas
in terms of right or wrong is great. Exciting versus boring is great. But safe versus dangerous? This is a terrible way to
approach the intellectual world. So Greg came to talk
to me because what he saw was students doing the exact
cognitive distortions that he had learned to stop
doing when he was treated for cognitive behavioral therapy
when he was treated for depression. Greg was concerned that
if students are beginning to think this way about safety
and danger and harmfulness that this is going to make
them depressed and anxious. And that’s what led us to write our
original article in the Atlantic in 2015 titled The Coddling
of the American Mind. We publish the article in 2015 before
a big wave of student protests around Halloween of 2015 so
these trends that we saw, that Greg and I both
saw hints of in 2014, they exploded in the fall of 2015,
they’ve spread much more widely in the couple years since then. And at the same time we’re seeing rates
of depression and anxiety increasing rapidly too. We’re not saying these are
causing that, we don’t know, but there is a national
wave of depression. Students are thinking in
terms of safety and danger. Students say, by their own
admission, they are more fragile; they use a language of fragility,
weakness, trauma, triggering. They see triggers all over the world. What are triggers? Triggers are cases where you take a part
of your nervous system and you say “if someone says that word they can control
my nervous system and make me afraid and anxious.” That’s a terrible idea. We should not be
teaching our kids to see the world as being full
of triggers, we should teach them to live in a world
that is physically quite safe but full of offensive statements
and ideas, especially on the Internet. A sad commentary on the state of the
business world now is that Google is being sued from both sides, from
women who say that they’re victims of a hostile climate and from
conservatives and white men who say that conservatives and white
men are discriminated against. So in our current year everybody
feels they’re a victim. The truth is that
diversity of perspectives is essential for healthy
organizations, especially those who care about innovation. We have to address all of the
diversity issues at the same time. We can’t pit them against each other. We have to work on our speech climate;
in the business world it’s called speak up culture, in the academic world it’s
called just basic openness to ideas. We’re having problems all
across American society; we’ve got to work on them.

 

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