When Good Intentions Go Bad: Author and Social Psychologist Jonathan Haidt – The Knowledge Project

Check out The Knowledge Project Episode Page & Show Notes

Key Takeaways

  • We have a mental health crisis on our hands
    • Mood disorders (anxiety and depression) started to rise steadily after 2011 (more so for girls than boys)
    • Self-harm is on the rise, specifically in girls
    • The suicide rate for boys in America is up 25%, while that of girls is up 70%
  • Human beings learn best from experience – overprotective parenting doesn’t allow kids the unsupervised time needed to learn from their mistakes
    • “We’ve deprived kids of the childhood experience that they most need and we’ve replaced it with too much supervision and too many after school activities”
  • The evidence is growing that social media use is leading to mental health problems
    • Specifically – it’s leading to VERY high rates of depression, anxiety, self-harm, and suicide among young, teenage girls
  • Jonathan recommends parents do the following:
    • Allow no more than 2 hours per day of screen time for children (not counting homework)
    • Don’t allow your child to have a social media account until high school
    • Encourage (and allow) your child to freely play outside unsupervised with other kids (especially by the age of 7-8)
  • End the call-out culture – we NEED to give people the benefit of the doubt
    • “We’re all human, we all make mistakes. It’s very hard to move forward if there’s no forgiveness or tolerance.”
  • Two important points:
    • We can’t always be sure we’re right
    • We need others to argue against us in order to strengthen our own thinking
  • The best way to disagree with someone is by first stating a point you agree on (establishing common ground) then pivoting to the disagreement
  • Because there’s so much emphasis on test scores, kids have little time to play
    • “We’re changing the nature of childhood and we’re too focused on skills that don’t matter as much. What we’re creating is a generation of people who do well on tests, but may not have a chance to develop the human skills that would be better for innovation and business.”

Books Mentioned

  • Jonathan’s books:
  • iGen by Jean Twenge includes some excellent graphical images depicting the severity of the mental health crisis
  • To learn more about the benefits of cognitive behavioral therapy at mitigating symptoms of depression, check out Feeling Good by David Burns
  • Jonathan recommends everyone read chapter 2 of John Stuart Mill’s book On Liberty
  • To better learn how to disagree with others, Jonathan recommends reading How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie
  • A parenting book everyone with kids should read – Free-Range Kids by Lenore Skenazy
    • “She completely convinced us [Jonathan and his wife] that overprotection is bad and kids need more experience”
  • Check out the book – The Death of Common Sense by Phillip Howard
    • In many institutions, people (teachers, doctors, etc.) used to have much more leeway to exercise common sense (and therefore learn from experience/feedback and build judgement)
    • Practical Wisdom by Barry Schwartz also touches on this

Intro

The Coddling of the American Mind – The Mental Health Crisis

  • “Never before have the mental health statistics just gone haywire for a generation so quickly”
    • Kids born after 1995 have very high rates of anxiety, depression, self-harm, and suicide
  • Check out the book iGen, which includes some excellent graphical images depicting the severity of the mental health crisis at hand
    • iGen is another name for Gen Z (the older members of Gen Z turn 23 this year)
  • Let’s define the problem:
    • Mood disorders (anxiety and depression) began to rise steadily after 2011 (more so for girls)
    • Self-harm (like cutting oneself) is on the rise, specifically in girls
    • The suicide rate for boys in America is up 25%, while that of girls is up 70%

The Coddling of the American Mind – The Overparenting Problem

  • What is coddling?
    • It means “overprotecting”
    • The original title for the book was “Arguing Towards Misery”
    • The title is a play on words from Allan Bloom’s book – Closing of the American Mind
  • Another key point in the book – human beings learn best from experience
    • But starting in the 1990s, we started to overprotect kids, not allowing them the unsupervised time needed to learn from their mistakes
      • By doing this – we’re denying kids the most vital learning experiences that they need
      • “We’ve deprived kids of the childhood experience that they most need and we’ve replaced it with too much supervision and too many after school activities”
      • Kids born prior to 1982 were allowed to play outside alone or with other children starting at age 6 (+/- a year)
        • But for kids born after 1995, they usually aren’t allowed to do so until ages 10-14
      • “We’ve really cracked down on childhood freedom and we’re starting to reap the results of that now”
  • Another fascinating stat from the book:
    • Compared to the 1950s (when women didn’t really work much outside the home), the number of hours women spend caring for their children has actually gone up (when the great majority now have 9-5 jobs)
  • The bottom line – we’re overparenting

What accounts for the difference in the mental health statistics between boys and girls?

  • Rates of depression and anxiety before puberty are similar for boys and girls
    • But at puberty, we start to see a divergence (depression and anxiety start to rise more severely in girls)
  • Girls have more internalizing disorders (emotional disorders result from an excess of rumination – AKA making themselves miserable)
    • Boys have higher rates of externalizing disorders (where they make other people miserable – AKA conduct disorders and alcoholism)
  • In 2009-2011, smartphones and social media started to come on the scene for kids
    • This was especially harmful for girls as they tend to fixate on being/not being included, who’s friends with who, etc. – their aggression is relational (they don’t bully physically so much as they damage relationships)
      • Social media multiples their ability to do just that
      • “It’s always been harder to be a girl in middle school than a boy in middle school and social media has just made it a lot harder”
  • The evidence is growing that social media use is leading to mental health problems
    • Specifically – it’s leading to VERY high rates of depression, anxiety, self-harm, and suicide among young, teenage girls

What can we do?

  • “We need to start treating social media a bit like smoking or drinking”
    • It’s clear that it’s bad for kids (not so much for millennials – the onset of social media didn’t really seem to lead to a mental health crisis for them)
  • “Every middle school principle should say, ‘Parents – please don’t let your kid have a social media account.’ There should be NO social media in middle school.”
  • Jonathan recommends parents do the following:
    • Allow no more than 2 hours per day of screen time for children (not counting homework)
    • Don’t allow your child to have a social media account until high school
    • Encourage (and allow) your child to freely play outside unsupervised with other kids (especially by the age of 7-8)

Get This

  • During a talk at Auburn University, Jonathan asked students (ages 18-22) if they, when they had kids, would let their children use devices without restriction…
    • “Not a single hand went up”

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

  • CBT is discussed extensively in The Coddling of the American Mind
    • Greg, Jonathan’s co-author for the book, largely credits CBT to mitigating his depression and ultimately saving his life
  • CBT is very easy to do and thus has a high success rate at mitigating symptoms of depression
  • Jonathan thinks CBT should be taught on all college campuses
    • “It helps you think better, even if you’re not depressed”
  • To learn more about CBT, check out Feeling Good by David Burns

Call-out Culture

  • What does it mean? – People are on the look out for things others say that they can criticize
    • Essentially, people are incentivized for finding errors in the speech of others (even if it’s a single word)
    • Because of this – people have to watch what they say
      • “There’s a world of difference speaking in a group where you trust each other vs. speaking in a group where people could report you at any time to the authorities or shame you on social media”
  • What’s the result?
    • Teens are growing up self-censoring themselves
    • This means we have a generation on our hands that’s afraid to take risks and challenge ideas
    • “It’s going to lead to a lot more conformity and a lot less creativity”
    • “Running a company is very difficult… if now you have people who won’t give each other the benefit of the doubt, but take language in the worst possible way and assume the worst about each other, it’s very difficult to run an organization”
  • We NEED to give people the benefit of the doubt
    • “We’re all human, we all make mistakes. It’s very hard to move forward if there’s no forgiveness or tolerance.”

We’re Not Taught How to Disagree With People

  • Jonathan recommends everyone read chapter 2 of John Stuart Mill’s book On Liberty
    • Or just read it here
  • 1) We can’t always be sure we’re right
  • 2) We need others to argue against us in order to strengthen our own thinking
    • “He who knows only his side of the case knows little of that. You really can’t know what you know until you’ve had a critic.”
      • Seek out critics and welcome them
    • “We need others to make us smart. If we surround ourselves with people who confirm our existing thoughts we get stupid. “
      • In this age of social media bubbles – this is a real problem
  • So how do we disagree with people?
    • Jonathan highly recommends reading How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie, here’s what he teaches:
      • Don’t come out saying – “You’re wrong and here’s why”
      • Instead say – “That’s interesting, I can see why you’re saying that/perhaps you’re right about X/here’s something in my experience that confirms your argument”
        • Basically start by agreeing on something, then pivot to the disagreement

Our Reputations Are Always on the Line

  • Especially in the age of social media, but really everywhere
    • “We’re all teaching, living, and thinking in a minefield”
    • Social media allows anything you say to be taken out of context and used against you – so be careful

Parenting

  • Jonathan and his wife have two kids (ages 9 and 12) and live in NYC (Manhattan)
  • A few years back, Jonathan met the author of Free-Range Kids, Lenore Skenazy (Jonathan recommends the book to everyone)
    • In 2009, she became famous for letting her 9-year-old ride the NYC subway alone
    • “She completely convinced us that overprotection is bad and kids need more experience”
  • Jonathan will frequently allow his kids to run errands for him around town
    • “We are making a deliberate effort and it’s hard at times, but we’re so happy that we’re doing it. And because of it, our kids think of themselves as more independent.”
    • Jonathan’s 12-year-old will often ride the NYC subway alone (and started doing so around sixth grade)
  • “The implementation recently has been – if you’re not supervising your kid, you’re neglecting them. That really contributes, I believe, to suicide.”
  • “We just try a little harder to let our kids learn in the most effective possible way. Learning from feedback and experience is 10 or 100 times more effective than telling them a fact.”

Schools Focus Too Much on Test Scores

  • “We’re wrapping the notion of intelligence and smarts up into grades more and more” – Shane
  • Why is this the case?
    • We’re focusing too much on test scores – it’s only natural 
      • It’s especially a problem in East Asia 
      • Because there’s so much emphasis on test scores, kids have little time to play
        • “We’re changing the nature of childhood and we’re too focused on skills that don’t matter as much. What we’re creating is a generation of people who do well on tests, but may not have a chance to develop the human skills that would be better for innovation and business.”
  • Check out the book – The Death of Common Sense by Phillip Howard
    • In many institutions, people (teachers, doctors, etc.) used to have much more leeway to exercise common sense (and therefore learn from experience/feedback and build judgement)
      • But the increasing use of metrics has led us to “strangle judgement”
    • Practical Wisdom by Barry Schwartz also touches on this

What is morality?

  • “I think of morality as a thing that people do”
    • When you group humans together, they’ll always:
      • 1) Develop norms of behavior
      • 2) Judge each other based on those norms
  • Moral psychology looks at how morality is very different around the world yet at the same time, the elements of morality are often so similar – like:
    • Practices around purity and pollution are common around the world
      • Example = In the Hebrew Bible, women are supposed to avoid touching sacred objects during their menstrual cycle and for a month or two after giving birth
    • Practices of reciprocity are common 
  • Because of the above, Jonathan came up with the 5 taste buds of moral psychology:
    • Care and compassion
    • Reciprocity and fairness
    • Loyalty
    • Authority (we’re hierarchical creatures)
    • Sanctity/purity
  • Every culture builds on the above to some extent

Additional Notes

  • The average family size has shrunk over the past few decades all over the developed world
  • The brain has a prime window for language learning, from ages 7-13
    • “It’s crazy we don’t start teaching kids a foreign language until this window is almost closed”
  • Check out the book The Rise of Victimhood Culture
  • There are about 100 kids abducted every year in the U.S.
  • “The idea of playing with ideas, so that they’re not personal, is a very important skill”
    • Society tends to take ideas they don’t agree with and criticize the originator as a person, not so much the idea itself
  • In school, students should practice supporting both sides of an idea
  • Check out openmindplatform.org if you want to learn more about helping people cooperate across differences and gaining the benefit of diversity by giving people the benefit of the doubt
    • It’s a resource that anyone within an organization might find valuable
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