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book spotlight: the coddling of the american mind by lukianoff and haidt

coddling

Disclaimer: I’m a member of Heterodox Academy and I spoke with Jonathan about the book while it was being written. I am totally biased but don’t blow out of proportion!

The Coddling of the American Mind is a book about two things. The first might be called the “rise of sensitive people.” That is, people now seem to be a bit on the fragile side. Say something awkward on Twitter and you might have thousands of people mocking you. Or say something about race or gender in a class, and people will get on your case. In my business, the Trustees of your university might go on a rant if you are on the wrong side of the discussion on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.

Surprisingly, the book is also a self-help book. This is because Haidt and Lukianoff ascribe the rise of sensitive people to the counter-productive ways of thinking. For example, the rise of sensitive people is enabled by the belief that life is a never-ending battle between good and evil people. In such a world, every perceived slight is interpreted as deep wound.

This is consistent with Haidt’s long standing interest in how basic psychological insights can be used to improve our personal and collective lives. In The Happiness Hypothesis, Haidt wasn’t just interested in reporting on recent happiness research. Rather, he lays things out in ways that might help a person make better decisions.*

I think Lukianoff and Haidt are doing something similar. The “outrage culture” they criticize can be ameliorated with some sensible habits of mind. For example, it would be wise to stop seeing the whole world as a zero-sum struggle. Another sensible  suggestion is that people try to keep things in perspective. Even if someone was offensive, say, with a racially tinged joke, we don’t need to jump to the conclusion that they want the worst.

Sociologists might particularly like the section on moral panics. If it is true that we are indulging in habits of mind that amplify anger and distrust, we might be more susceptible to moral panics. That is Lukanioff and Haidt’s analysis of campus speaker controversies. If it is true that college students have been raised in an environment where outrage is normal and fear of conflict is ever present, we shouldn’t be surprised that college students react hysterically to people who say unpopular things, or represent a political party they don’t agree with. The analysis is interesting and sociologists will appreciate it’s Durkheimian flavor.

There’s a lot more to say about this book. There are discussions of parenting styles, trigger warnings, and more. But I’ll end with this. This is a very nice way to understand one important trend in our collective culture and it reads very well. So check it out!

*For example, Haidt discusses research showing that people over estimate how much big homes make them happy and under estimate how commuting to work every day can be miserable. So, if that’s true, most people should live closer to work and accept smaller homes.

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Written by fabiorojas

December 14, 2018 at 5:01 am

Posted in uncategorized

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