Haidt Falls Short

This is a short review of Jonathan Haidt’s book “The Coddling of the American Mind”.  [I do not know if Haidt is good for liberalism.]

Microaggressions are intentional or even unintentional slights that “communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative attitudes toward stigmatized or culturally marginalized groups”.  The slight can be something as seemingly innocuous as “What country are we from?”  Undoubtedly, this comes across as absurd.  But if we put ourselves in the shoes of others who are inundated with references to them belonging to a marginalized group, then we could see this as an innuendo.  The standards for what is abusive have rightly changed from physical abuse to emotional abuse, which is rightly defined as whatever is subjectively traumatic to an individual.

Jonathan Haidt has written on microaggressions and the morality behind politics.  Although he is correct on us having evolved psychological adaptations that make us sensitive to topics of fairness etc., his advice on microaggressions seems to be out of his field of expertise.  I agree that if we don’t have unstable self-esteem and a history of abuse that it is better to learn how to cope with insults versus avoiding them.  Most people can learn how to not personalize the message.  Haidt is mistaken though when discussing how we should approach microaggressions in that we should always give a person the benefit of the doubt when assessing their intentions over a perceived slight.  There are circumstances where people become the target of ridicule and bullying.

Haidt’s central claim is that upon exposure we become desensitized to insults, but he fails to mention that we can also become sensitized.  Researchers do not know what circumstances lead to which.  Haidt is thus wrong to say that what does not kill us makes us all stronger.  People vary in their resiliency.  Granted his audience is college students who are probably only at minor risk for interpersonal bullying and rejection, he seems to generalize this to anyone who gets insulted.  Political correctness and popular exposure has helped in improving the status of women and LGB.  But there are many who are still rejected and ridiculed because of a disability, gender, or physical deformity.  If Haidt means to exclude extreme cases in his analysis, he sure is not clear about it.

What Doesn’t Kill Us Makes Us Stronger?

But teaching kids that failures, insults, and painful experiences will do lasting damage is harmful in and of itself. Human beings need physical and mental challenges and stressors or we deteriorate. [1]

I have not looked at the evidence that Haidt has for his views that exposure to insults and failures are necessary to prevent mental deterioration because there probably is none.  He argues by way of analogy and gives examples of how resilient the immune system and skeletal muscle are.  The point is that we need to stress these systems in order for them to grow.  The human mind is different than the immune system and muscle though.  The mind is very sensitive to glucocorticoids which are released when we are threatened or hurt by insults and criticisms.  In fact, some of the most potent causes of cortisol being released come from negative interpersonal interactions.  Haidt’s analysis is too generic; he does not take into account the severity and occurrence of insults.

Haidt’s argument is based on the success of ERP or Exposure and Response Prevention therapy.  The premise is that we can desensitize ourselves from our trauma and fears by exposing ourselves to them.  If, for example, we give into our social anxiety and do not go out with our friends, then we are reinforcing the fear, making it easier to avoid instead of engaging.  But I am not aware of any studies that look at how exposure to criticism and insults can desensitize us to the feelings of inferiority and worthlessness. Even if we could become desensitized, this would not work for everyone since people vary in how fragile or resilient they are (i).

There is an abundance of evidence that suggests that early peer rejection and bullying predispose an individual to anxiety and depression.  Marginalized groups, which not only include race, ethnicity, sexual preference, and identity but also those deemed as inadequate and undesirable, are more likely to be rejected and bullied.  The question becomes is safeguarding our mentally healthy youth from microaggressions a strategy that will help or harm them in the reality that we cannot abolish them.  This is the only part that I’m in agreement that it is more effective to teach youth how to cope with criticism and insults than to safeguard them.  But this cannot apply to those that are routinely bullied or dismissed because constant criticism is documented to cause subordination (ii).

The rest of Haidt’s analysis is overreaching his field of expertise, which is clearly not within the area of psychopathology.  Although I have not looked at his evidence, I am very suspect of the claim that providing safeguards in universities and colleges are contributing to the increased rates of depression and anxiety.  Haidt believes that we can overcome trauma and become better people as a result.  I agree.  But marginalized groups can face constant levels of belittling in which the fight or flight system breaks down and can cause depression.  When Haidt says that “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”, this is incorrect. Whether or not we are resilient or become subordinated in the face of belittling is based on our dispositions and how frequent and severe they are.


i)  One group which Haidt ignores is 20% of the population that has the trait of sensory processing sensitivity.  They are known as Highly Sensitive People.  They are sensitive to subtleties and are more easily overwhelmed than most.  In fact, skin conductance tests, SPECT, and functional MRI tests reveal differences in reactivity.  This group may be served better to be protected than exposed to microaggressions.  This is especially true if they are easily rejected based on possessing stigmatized attributes.

ii)  If one was interested, I can furnish tons of references on how pervasive criticism can lead to depressed mood states and anxiety.  When people are consistently disparaged, then they become in a defeated state.  There is a whole body of evidence on how depression is the result of spousal criticism and how early peer rejection predisposes one to anxiety and depression.


[1] Lukianoff, Greg and Haidt, Jonathan.  The Coddling of the American Mind.

That Ugly Bias

Here I would like to discuss how our bias contributes to discrimination, marginalization, and subordination.  The heart of bias, regardless of which kind—confirmation, prejudice, myside, etc.—is about favoring one thing over another.  The reason that I think this is important is because the next post will review Jonathan Haidt’s book titled “The Coddling of the American Mind” which is about microaggressions.  People engage in microaggressions exactly because of their attitudes and beliefs towards others.

A Patriot’s Biases

Linkedin Post

Linkedin Post

The above was taken from Linkedin where I, surprisingly, witness daily scuffles involving a difference in beliefs and values.  A decade ago if someone had the nerve to post a brazen statement about their conservative beliefs on Linkedin, it would have triggered me into articulating a response.  Instead, I now look at these posts as ways to learn about how we think and act.  If we recognize that we all think that we are justified in our political beliefs, that is, they are right and moral, then it is easier to not get offended.  The beliefs that this person has are based on biases, which are driven by her likes and dislikes.  This is not an intellectual position because I doubt this person has put any thought into this.  I do not have a problem if this person wants to believe in fairytales and has pride for her country, but I do have a problem with her touting traditional family values at the cost of exclusion.

To post something like this is nothing more than unabashed pride and an urge to stick it in the face of those liberals.  Furthermore, this threat she writes of does not exist.  No one wants to destroy the family but rather make it more inclusive.  Instead, she is threatened by liberals corrupting the purity of the family by introducing “unconventional” members.  I also do not think most deny that gender exists in some sense but rather claim that it is more malleable than once thought and not solely dependent on our sex.  The problem is that she is excluding others that do not fit the conventional definition of what constitutes gender and family.  We cannot fault her for having preferences toward God, country, and family although we may dislike her because she is not one of us.  We should, however, identify our own in-group biases and determine if disliking the person fits within our larger goals and ideals.

How We Use Bias

bias: prejudice in favor of or against one thing, person, or group compared with another, usually in an unfair way

We all have biases because we judge others’ abilities, behavior, and appearances.  Biases, however, lead to either playing favorites or treating others unfairly (discrimination).  Biases are not necessarily inaccurate though.  Fox News, for example, is biased not because it is inaccurate but rather because it favors information that conforms to its beliefs, which leads to a narrow perspective. Biases are a byproduct of how the mind works.  In fact, we have a confirmation bias when we select information, which makes it a feature of the mind.  Likes and dislikes drive our biases.  We can hardly prevent them since it is automatic.  The parts of perception to be concerned with are prejudices and stereotypes.  Prejudice is the dislike, hate, or contempt that we feel towards a person or their attributes, while stereotypes are the overgeneralized beliefs that we hold towards a member from a particular kind of group.

Stereotypes have a few properties.  First, they are perceptions of a person’s appearance, behavior, or abilities, which may be true or false.  When we use stereotypes or labels, we are reducing a person’s essence to those qualities.  Second, we say that these are the typical qualities of all members of the group.  Stereotypes are dangerous because we can judge an entire group of people as being “less than” before we even know them.  In order to create these stereotypes and prejudices, we must evaluate someone’s qualities in a negative light (i).  When we do this, we may feel something beyond mere dislikes, such as contempt or hate.  We feel contempt when we deem something inferior.  We feel hate when someone is a threat to our status or wellbeing.  Contempt can make us feel justified in keeping others in their place, while hate can lead to violence.  It is for these reasons that contempt and hate are threats to equality.  The antidote to contempt and hate is to look for what we have in common with others, not our dissimilarities.

When Bias Is Justified

bigot: a person who is obstinately or unreasonably attached to a belief, opinion, or faction, especially one who is prejudiced against or antagonistic toward a person or people on the basis of their membership of a particular group

We can all experience interpersonal rejection to some degree based on qualities that we may have or lack.  We are not all equal in our desirability.  If we naturally have a bias towards the attractive, smart, and capable, does this mean that these people are “better than”?  Meritocracy, the idea that effort and aptitude justify rising up the ranks, says it is ok to have a bias against those who are unintelligent and incapable within our economic system (ii).  In fact, we often unintentionally reject the undesirable and inadequate in subtle but hurtful ways.  When we are seeking romantic partners, then we have a bias against those who are unattractive.  When is it unreasonable to have a bias against someone?  Social movements fortunately have given us the categories of sex, gender, race, class, and ability.  Indeed, it seems silly to dislike someone over these qualities, but what about those that don’t make the fit (iii)?

There is a difference, however, between people not associated with a traditional marginalized group versus those that are. This has to do with which group meets the criteria of being oppressed.  Oppression is when one group, typically white-dominated males, have more power and privilege over the other.  Oppression affects people’s lives at three levels: interpersonal, institutional, and internalized. Interpersonal consists of the biases that are applied to the marginalized, institutional are the laws and social norms that form because of these biases, and internalization is when the marginalized internalize the oppression as shame and inferiority. This internalization is also known as subordination.  The outcome is that their quality of life, both mental and physical, is compromised.


i) We can also evaluate someone in a positive light and make a stereotype.  What about all Asians are good at mathematics.  Positive stereotypes are interesting because personally I would like to be associated with a group that excels at math.  But it makes them feel uncomfortable; perhaps because it draws attention to them being “different” and could be used as a source of prejudice.  It also simplifies and reduces Asians to an absurd degree.  Because of course people are complex and different even within groups.

ii) Meritocracy could be used in a couple of different ways to justify power and control.  It is conventionally said to be a fair way of advancing in the hierarchy because all that is required is effort and capability.  But we know that not all people have the same privileges and access to resources as others do.  So it is a half-truth.  But even if we eliminated privilege, it can still be interpreted as unfair because what about the people that are unintelligent and incompetent.  The system becomes rather challenging for them.

iii) Even within these groups, there is a bias that the dull-witted and incompetent are undesirable.  If we look at advertising that attempts to improve the disabled’s image, we will notice that they are portrayed as intelligent.  This is not always the case though; five million Americans suffer from some form of intellectual disability.  It is for these reasons that I generalize when I discuss marginalization.  When I use the word marginalization, I mean those that are more or less non-existent and impotent but not just in the political sense.  People that are undesirable and inadequate are often invisible even in their day-to-day interactions.