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.


  1. S Jones says

    You make some excellent points, especially about Haidt’s one-size-fits-all response to the “problem” of microaggressions and overstepping his expertise. Still, it is possible to veer too far in the other opposite one-size-fits-all response that we need to overcorrect and make everywhere a safe space for the minority of overly sensitive people.

    I prefer the immuno-response model. A compassionate society should tolerate a reasonable level of “negative” behavior (think of these as antigens) so that we can live in a messy/dirty world that allows a certain level of free speech but then deploy protections (antibodies) like mental health resources, safe spaces, etc. as needed.

    The problem with our society isn’t that it is over-sensitive (so needs to get tougher skin) or over-woke (so needs to tolerate hurt of marginalized groups). It is that we don’t combine liberal freedoms with communitarian care responses.

    Thinking about only monolithic responses means either letting Libertarians dictate every-man-for-himself harsh reality for everybody or letting Care-itarians wrap everyone win stifling protections lest they _might_ be sensitive and hurt. Adaptive tolerance and care is the middle way.

    • says

      My favorite part about this site is the level of detail in the comment section. Had to refresh my memory about immune response models & antibody versus antigen.

      > A lytic immune response kills infected cells, whereas a nonlytic response prevents viral replication through soluble mediators. The flexibility of this model allows the study of the effects of each response type during different disease infections.

      > antibody means “a protein produced by B-lymphocytes that binds to a specific antigen,” while antigen is “a substance that induces an immune response, usually foreign.”

      • musing says

        You are looking up the wrong information. The mind is not like the immune system. You need to look up what happens to the mind upon chronic exposure to cortisol. The negative feedback system breaks down and our fight or flight system goes into overdrive.

    • musing says

      [later insert] Thanks for the recognition that I had some good points. I will post a follow up on this with some clarification. I think your analogy would work as long as the insults and criticisms weren’t too severe and frequent. But…

      This is not a fair comparison because the mind is not quite like the immune system. Although we can learn how to deal with emotional stressors, the mind after time breaks down upon too much glucocorticoids. Think of each insult (stressor) that hurts as a shot of cortisol. The mind’s fight of flight system eventually breaks down. Specifically, the negative feedback system stops working and stress goes into overdrive, causing neuronal damage and inflammation. This results in depression and anxiety disorders.

      I think the idea though that political correctness limits free speech is a myth created by its opposition. PC is meant to remind us that our words can put others down. There is always a way to construct what we want to say such that we respect everyone in the room. It is not always going to happen, but it is a good ideal. PC’s ultimate goal of course is to increase the status of marginalized groups. It has worked for women and others.

      You should read “We Need New Stories: The Myths that Subvert Freedom” by Nesrine Malik, who may actually still write for the Guardian.

      • says

        I think the idea though that political correctness limits free speech is a myth created by its opposition…

        “Political correctness” used to be called MANNERS. We always need to remember this — it’ll help us immensely whenever we try to talk sensibly about issues like this.

        • musing says

          I completely agree with you. It is best characterized as “manners”—being polite and considerate of the feelings of others. In two posts, I will share what I have learned about how its opponents are creating new social norms which makes PC a taboo. It is a concerted effort with much financial backing to it. The book that I am reading answers questions like does PC really reduce our freedom of speech, does PC work, and is the new callout culture really that awful.

  2. says

    “Failures, insults, and painful experiences?” Those three things are VERY different, and affect us in very different ways. Lumping all three of those into one sentence marks this guy as…how should I say this…uninformed? Losing credibility?

    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.

    So how would we even measure such things as “desensitization” or “feelings of inferiority and worthlessness” anyway? I suspect that a person can APPEAR desensitized to insults, while in fact they’ve fully internalized the message of said insults. Just because they’re used to hearing them, doesn’t mean they’re “desensitized” to the feelings they provoke.

    • musing says

      Yes, we all experience these things differently. On the other hand, as different as those three things look, there is a common thread. Failure is really about rejection/approval. We are worried about losing face in the eyes of others. Insults can either make us angry, feel shame, or hurt our feelings. If we process it as in that person doesn’t value me or hold me in high regard as much as they used to, then we will feel hurt feelings. Making insults about rejection/approval. Lastly, painful experiences are what unites both of them. But I agree with your point that different things can upset people in different ways. But if you look closely, then you will see that the root is failure to measure up to some standard in order to meet someone’s, even your own, approval.

      In principle we could measure how reactive we are to a stressor (insult or criticism), but that is not practical. That is an excellent point that we may be ruminating over the insult and internalize it to being about us, which we then engage in negative self-talk. Really good questions. I will try my best to answer them in the next post called “Brain on Insults”.

      • says

        Failure is really about rejection/approval.

        Not always. A person who fails to accomplish something, or does it wrong, is not always automatically rejected by anyone. And even when failure is met with rejection, it’s still not the same as rejection due to prejudice, tribalism or malicious gossip. The mind does not process failure in the same way as it processes rejection, nor should it, nor should kids be led to think the two things are the same. Failure is necessary and inevitable — it’s an inevitable part of growing up and learning how to do things — insults and bullying are not.

        Also, there are a lot of painful experiences that have nothing to do with insults, ostracism or bullying: family crises, economic upheaval, medical crises, disasters, etc. Again, lumping all of those concepts together, based on a few superficial similarities, is careless at best.

        • musing says

          There are two different things going on here. One, what we should do according to good advice from a therapist on how to process failure. And, two, what is going on if we adopt a certain theoretical framework to interpret it with. You are right in that most times failure is not proceeded by flat-out rejection. But rejection is best seen as interpersonal devaluation which exists on a continuum. So this continuum could be from subtle signs of disapproval, to being snubbed at a party, losing face, all the way to ostracism. As much as we deny it, we all care what others think of us.

          Failure has different components to it depending upon the context too. The key to distinguish between the type of failure would be to ask whether or not our status is in jeopardy. Status has to do with how others view us in rank. So if we fail at work where there is an audience, then we may be worried how this bodes for how others perceive our competence, etc. I was using failure under the framework of status. But you bring up a good point that we can get frustrated when our goals are blocked and things do not go our way in different contexts. These are inevitable parts of life, and how we process this matters. A good therapist would teach us to compete with ourselves when we fail, to not measure it against others, and to learn from it.

          I don’t agree with you, however, when you say that insults and bullying aren’t inevitable. If we did not have political correctness and other important safeguards, then there would be more of it. It is natural to have biases and to think that we are better than others. This is one thing that fuels us to compete. We often want to keep others in their place too when we view that they are not good enough. In fact, we feel contempt for those that are inferior to us and hate when others are a threat to our status. These are the ugly parts to human nature and competition.

          The conservative worldview exaggerates the effects of social hierarchies (ranking of people) while liberalism reduces the effects by teaching empathy, compassion, and equality. Fortunately, we can bind together and create social norms (political correctness, human/civil rights, domestic defense, etc.) that protect the marginalized from subordination and domination. I have had too many experiences and have read too much to be naive to think that insults and bullying will not happen. They shouldn’t happen. But they do. I appreciate your comments because they made me think. But now it is time to work. Ugh..

          • says

            I don’t agree with you, however, when you say that insults and bullying aren’t inevitable…

            Sorry, I was posting in some haste and didn’t choose my words as well as I should have. What I meant to say was that failure is an inevitable consequence of growing, learning, and accumulating life experience in all matters great and small; while insults and bullying are not inevitable in quite the same way. They certainly do happen to just about everyone at one time or another, and can’t always be avoided, but they’re not a NECESSARY part of child development in the same sense that trying, failing, and learning from failures and mistakes are.

          • musing says

            Oh, I agree. The “sting” that we feel from criticism and insults and flat-out rejection has been shown to be some of the most potent activators of our fight of flight system. I can hardly see how, as Haidt claims, that these experiences are essential for growth. Constructive criticisms are still painful, yet if we listen to the message, it’s often an opportunity for growth. But name calling, insults, and mocking, well, there is no place for that. That is about ranking on one another and tribalism as you stated.

            You’ve convinced me that it is important to delineate between failure and acceptance/rejection. I am so used to framing everything in terms of status. But there are many things that we do that are for their own sake in which we can fail at but learn from. The interesting thing is if you notice the standards that we set for our own tasks or achievements, however minute or big, are not arbitrary. We seem to set them not only so they will work for their own sake but will meet the standards set by others.

            So take a disaster like your home burning down. We may be concerned that people will view us as idiots because we didn’t have insurance to cover the damage. We failed to meet a social standard of prudence. There is always this element lurking in the background because we are social creatures. But what kind of a life is that always worrying about what others think. We have to tame that part of us. But your point that failure is essential to growth and bullying and insults are not, is well taken.

    • says

      Follow-on comment: We should never confuse water rolling off a duck’s back with water dripping from an already-soaking-wet coat. They may both look the same, in the sense of “oh look, all that water that got dumped on you is falling right off,” but the person wearing the already-waterlogged coat knows it’s not that simple.

  3. says

    …I’m in agreement that it is more effective to teach youth how to cope with criticism and insults than to safeguard them.

    Which brings us to the next question: what, exactly, would this “teaching” consist of? Would we be teaching kids to “just ignore it and it’ll go away?” Or would we be teaching something at least a little more responsive, like “you’re allowed to be rude to them if they’re rude to you”?

    And what, exactly, do we mean when we speak of “coping with” insults? This recommendation certainly sounds sensible, but it’s extremely vague, and we really need to delve into the details before we can predict how well it will help anyone.

    • musing says

      That is a good point. In fact, the next post that I am writing up will address exactly how to manage criticism and insults. So I cannot answer now, lol. But even as comfortable as we can become with ourselves and any inadequacies, we never fully get inoculated to someone’s disapproval or criticisms. This is because it is much more than about us; it is about being accepted. We are hardwired to get a sting when we fall short of the standards from those who we seek approval from. If we did not, then there would be no criteria for acceptance. As much as I would like to believe that we are all equal, it seems that most of us have rulers to measure one another’s attributes and abilities.

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