What The Coddling of the American Mind Fails To Spell Out. Book Review.

I agree with Steven Pinker that The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure is “among the most important books of the decade.” But I also think it is deeply flawed by the sin of omission, which harms the search for truth.

Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff deserve all the accolades they’re receiving for their new book, in which they identify the cognitive distortions and illogic of the emotional reasoning, which seems to dominate current progressive thought. They trace the origins of these problems to three great falsehoods, which serve as core presumptions, and six social trends, which came together in a perfect storm to help normalize them.

But they leave out the two most important causal factors of all: factors which, arguably, precede—and may even have caused—all the others.

Let Go of For and Against

Before I begin, I implore the reader, with the ancient wisdom of Zen master Seng-ts’an, which I first learned from a TED Talk by Haidt:

If you want the truth to stand clear before you, never be for or against. The struggle between for and against is the mind’s worst disease. Now unfortunately, it’s a disease that has been caught by many of the world’s leaders. But before you feel superior to George Bush, before you throw a stone, ask yourself, do you accept this? Do you accept stepping out of the battle of good and evil? Can you be not for or against anything?


Human nature is a hugely complex system of intertwining traits, attributes and tendencies. Many aspects of human nature are common to everyone, regardless of their ideology. We’re tribal. Tribes form around shared values and common interests. We develop irrational commitments to those values and interests. We’re very good at seeing the tiniest of flaws in our opponents’ arguments, while blind to the gaping holes in our own. The first victims that usually fall when we rise to the defense of our own tribe are reason and evidence. We’re hypocrites by nature.

But the cliché that there are two kinds of people in the world is also true. The political left and the political right are fundamentally different from each other. The trick, therefore, is to tease out the essential differences between the two sides from all of the ways in which we’re the same.

Reason vs Intuition

In his previous book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Politics and Religion, Haidt makes the case that our intuitions about good and bad—and right and wrong—social behavior come from evolutionary adaptations of the psyche that helped our genetic ancestors survive and thrive in the social communities we create for ourselves.

Moral intuitions happen instantly and automatically in our subconscious minds and emerge into consciousness as gut feelings of like or dislike, approach or avoid, and fight or flee, in response to the things we see around us. We then use conscious reasoning to justify and defend those feelings, and to try to convince others that our feelings are the right ones.

Conscious reasoning, on the other hand, takes time. It requires language and the construction of a logical argument. Its primary evolved purpose is persuasion. In their book The Enigma of Reason: A New Theory of Human Understanding, Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber make the case that reason evolved to help us win arguments, not to help us make better decisions or find truth.

Intuition and reasoning are the fast and slow forms of cognition described by Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking Fast and Slow. Subconscious instinct and intuition are the driving forces behind approximately ninety percent of everything we think, say and do. Conscious reason is a tiny part of it.

In sum, intuition comes first, and reasoning follows, in every sense of the word follows.

The Psychological Profiles of Left and Right

Haidt finds that the political left and right differ in the degree to which they prioritize and apply six “evolved psychological mechanisms” of social cognition. In short, the political left and right are best understood not as sets of beliefs or collections of principles, but rather as psychological profiles from which beliefs, values, principles and policies follow. All politics, all ideology, the partisan divide itself, is downstream from psychology. This is the position I argue in my essay, “Towards a Cognitive Theory of Politics.” To understand left and right in terms of the beliefs they hold or the values and principles they espouse is to focus on effects and ignore causes.

One difference between left and right, according to Haidt, is that the right prioritizes all six of the moral foundations equally, whereas the left prioritizes only half of them, and of that half mostly just one: care.  To the left, the intuitions of care, sympathy and compassion are paramount, and, to a lesser degree, also fairness (as equality) and individual autonomy. The right values those intuitions too, but adds loyalty, authority and purity to its moral spectrum, and interprets fairness as equity.

There’s no liberal moral foundation that is not also a conservative foundation, but half of the conservative foundations are for practical purposes external to liberal social cognition.

This asymmetry of social cognition leads to asymmetries between left and right in their perceptions of each other and of the social world at large. For example, Haidt finds that conservatives understand liberals quite well, but liberals have a tough time fathoming conservatives. In The Righteous Mind, he describes a study he did, in which he asked liberals, conservatives and moderates to answer questions about moral issues as they thought the others would:

The results were clear and consistent. Moderates and conservatives were most accurate in their predictions, whether they were pretending to be liberals or conservatives. Liberals were the least accurate, especially those who described themselves as “very liberal.”

Because of this asymmetry in understanding, there’s truth to the stereotype that conservatives think liberals are good people with bad ideas but liberals think conservatives are bad people. Thomas Sowell has found this asymmetry to be consistent throughout modern history:

From the eighteenth century to today, many leading thinkers on the left have regarded those who disagree with them as being not merely factually wrong but morally repugnant. And again, this pattern is far less often found among those on the opposite side of the ideological spectrum.

The visceral hostility toward Sarah Palin by present day liberals, and the gutter level to which some descend in expressing it, is just one sign of a mindset on the left that goes back more than two centuries.

Malthus was the target of such hostility in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. When replying to his critics, Malthus said, “I cannot doubt the talents of such men as Godwin and Condorcet. I am unwilling to doubt their candor.”

But William Godwin’s vision of Malthus was very different. He called Malthus “malignant,” questioned “the humanity of the man,” and said “I profess myself at a loss to conceive of what earth the man was made.”

This asymmetry in responses to people with different opinions has been too persistent, for too many years, to be just a matter of individual personality differences.

Moral foundations are psychological evolutionary adaptations of social perception and understanding. They are social senses as real as sight, hearing, touch and taste. It is incorrect to understand the struggle between the political left and right as a tug of war between dichotomous opposites like change and stability. It is more like the struggle between the beings who think in two dimensions and the beings who think in three dimensions in the fictional story Flatland, summarized by Haidt as follows in his book The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom:

One day, the square is visited by a sphere from a three-dimensional world called Spaceland. When a sphere visits Flatland, however, all that is visible to Flatlanders is the part of the sphere that lies in their plain—in other words, a circle. The square is astonished that the circle is able to grow or shrink at will (by rising or sinking into the plane of Flatland) and even to disappear and reappear in a different place (by leaving the plane, and then reentering it). The sphere tries to explain the concept of the third dimension to the two-dimensional square, but the square, though skilled at two-dimensional geometry, doesn’t get it. He cannot understand what it means to have thickness in addition to height and breadth, nor can he understand that the circle came from up above him, where “up” does not mean from the north. The sphere presents analogies and geometrical demonstrations of how to move from one dimension to two, and then from two to three, but the square still finds the idea of moving “up” out of the plane of Flatland ridiculous.

When half of the evolved psychological mechanisms of social cognition are for all practical purposes unavailable to one’s judgments of others, one is left with no cognitive alternative but to conclude that those others must be dysfunctional, broken, sick. And when one knows in this way that others are malformed, one may even feel not merely intellectually justified, but worse, morally obligated, to prevent them from participating in public discourse or controlling the reins of power. As Haidt says in The Righteous Mind:

If you don’t see that [conservatives are] pursuing positive values of Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity, you almost have to conclude that Republicans see no positive value in Care and Fairness. You might even go as far as Michael Feingold, a theater critic for the liberal newspaper the Village Voice, when he wrote:

Republicans don’t believe in the imagination, partly because so few of them have one, but mostly because it gets in the way of their chosen work, which is to destroy the human race and the planet. Human beings, who have imaginations, can see a recipe for disaster in the making; Republicans, whose goal in life is to profit from disaster and who don’t give a hoot about human beings, either can’t or won’t. Which is why I personally think they should be exterminated before they cause any more harm.

One of the many ironies in this quotation is that it shows the inability of a theater critic—who skillfully enters fantastical imaginary worlds for a living—to imagine that Republicans act within a moral matrix that differs from his own. Morality binds and blinds.

The Democrats’ reaction to the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court is an exemplar of this kind of thinking. As Haidt says in The Righteous Mind:

If you have a moral matrix built primarily on intuitions about care and fairness (as equality), and you listen to the [conservative] narrative, what else could you think?

Haidt took the argument a step further when he was interviewed by Stephen Colbert, and here by Bill Moyers:

When I began this work, I was very much a liberal. And over time, in doing the research for my book and in reading a lot of conservative writing, I’ve come to believe that conservative intellectuals actually are more in touch with human nature. They have a more accurate view of human nature.

This idea may rankle with some readers, but the evidence and arguments assembled by Haidt, Sowell, and others like Hibbing, Smith and Alford, who wrote Predisposed: Liberals, Conservatives, and the Biology of Political Differences, Paul Bloom, who wrote Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion, and Barbara Oakley, who wrote Pathological Altruism, collectively tell a compelling and nearly irrefutable story. As R. R. Reno concludes in his review of The Righteous Mind:

Thus the profound problem we face. Liberalism is blind in one eye—yet it insists on the superiority of its vision and its supreme right to rule. It cannot see half the things a governing philosophy must see, and claims that those who see both halves are thereby unqualified to govern.

A great untruth about the political divide is that it’s symmetrical, with both sides equally insightful/blind, or right/wrong about each other and about human nature. It’s simply not the case.

The Elephant In The Room

The psychological profile of the leftist righteous mind is the fertile soil in which coddled thinking grows. This is the elephant in the room that Haidt and Lukianoff leave out of their book. It is arguably the greatest single causal factor that leads to coddled thinking, and it follows directly from Haidt’s previous work.

The one-dimensional morality of care leads almost inevitably to the three great untruths Haidt and Lukianoff describe:

  1. The Untruth of Fragility: What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker.
  2. The Untruth of Emotional Reasoning: Always trust your feelings.
  3. The Untruth of Us versus Them: Life is a battle between good and evil people.

These three untruths are practically foundational tenets of progressivism. The leftist profile is also evident in the mindset of safetyism and victimhood that lurks behind more than one of the six social trends to which Haidt and Lukianoff attribute coddled thinking:

  1. Increasing political polarization since the 1980s.
  2. Rise in rates of anxiety, depression and suicide among American adolescents over the past decade.
  3. Emergence and intensification of safetyism among parents since the 1980s.
  4. A decline in unsupervised free play (e.g. recess) among children since the 1980s.
  5. Bureaucratic expansion and corporatization of the education system, particularly at the college level.
  6. A shift in how social justice is conceptualized, from a focus on equity and proportionality and the promotion of equal opportunity, to a focus on equality of outcome.

Affective Priming

Haidt doesn’t give his definition of morality until page 314 of The Righteous Mind. Here’s his explanation for waiting that long:

You’re nearly done reading a book on morality, and I have not yet given you a definition of morality. There’s a reason for that. The definition I’m about to give you would have made little sense back in chapter 1. It would not have meshed with your intuitions about morality, so I thought it best to wait. Now, after eleven chapters in which I’ve challenged rationalism (in Part I), broadened the moral domain (in Part II), and said that groupishness was a key innovation that took us beyond selfishness and into civilization (Part III), I think we’re ready.

This approach is a form of what’s called affective priming, in which the mind is tuned up for—even predisposed toward—certain ideas. Haidt describes affective priming here:

Here are four pairs of words. Your job is to look only at the second word in each pair and then categorize it as good or bad:





It’s absurdly easy, but imagine if I asked you to do it on a computer, where I can flash the first word in each pair for 250 milliseconds (a quarter of a second, just long enough to read it) and then I immediately display the second word. In that case we’d find that it takes you longer to make your value judgment for sunshine and cancer than for happiness and lonely. This effect is called “affective priming” because the first word triggers a flash of affect that primes the mind to go one way or the other. It’s like getting the elephant to lean slightly to the right or the left, in anticipation of walking to the right or the left.

Now imagine an education system in which the great majority of the teachers, from kindergarten through university, lean left, and they design the course of study your child follows. From the stories that are read to preschoolers to the books and other readings that are assigned in elementary and middle schools to the history, civics, economics and even health classes in high schools, the entire curriculum leans solidly left.

It is nearly inevitable and unavoidable that such a system would prime young minds toward the coddled thinking of the social justice mindset that Haidt and Lukianoff describe in their book, and that Haidt describes in his lecture “Two Incompatible Sacred Values at American Universities.

These two causal threads: the psychological profile of the leftist righteous mind and the affective priming of thirteen or more years of left-leaning education are more influential on coddled thinking than any of the factors Haidt & Lukianoff mention.

Haidt’s Evenhandedness Dilutes His Message and Harms Science

Haidt is a social scientist in the best sense of the word scientist.  He forms a hypothesis, tests it as rigorously as possible and follows the evidence wherever it may lead, even if it leads to ideas that are contrary to his own personal leanings. He tends to try to describe the results of his studies of morality, not prescribe what morality should be.

Haidt encourages open discussion, honest criticism and peer review of his theory. Offering one’s hypotheses for scrutiny is part of the scientific process. It is the best way to eventually get to the truth.

But his finding that liberals don’t employ the full tool set of moral foundations and therefore don’t get human nature as well as conservatives do is controversial. It can, and has, raised the ire of some liberals, which is understandable since everyone has a vested interest in defending their beliefs.

The audiences at Haidt’s speaking engagements are typically overwhelmingly liberal. But liberalism receives the brunt of his message. It is partly for this reason that he is especially careful in the way he delivers his message. He wants liberals to hear his message, not tune him out, so he appeals to the liberal notions of open mindedness and inclusiveness, and he presents his ideas in a way that carefully avoids implying that one morality is inherently better than the other: only that they are different, and that a better understanding of the differences might help to shrink the size of the political divide and decrease the amount of rancor that flows back and forth across it.

This works very well. Haidt is a wonderful speaker and writer. He has a personable, ingratiating style and he uses clear, accessible language, rich with easy-to-understand metaphors, which go directly to the heart of his subject matter. His audiences are usually quite receptive and appreciative of his message.

But it is exactly that evenhandedness which, I believe, prevents Haidt’s analysis from continuing all the way to its natural conclusion, and thereby hides the elephant in the room. He breaks the bad news to liberals so gently that the full weight and meaning what he says about liberalism is not completely conveyed. I’ve argued this for years, for example here, here and here.

Haidt and Lukianoff make this very point this in Coddling:

[I]f people can’t raise alternative possible causal explanations without eliciting negative consequences, then the community is unlikely to arrive at an accurate understanding of the problem. And without understanding the true nature of a problem, there is little chance of solving it.

As open minded as Haidt is, his interpretation and analysis of his findings is performed from within the liberal moral matrix. Haidt’s findings would benefit from honest interpretations by those of us whose moral matrix is constructed from all of the moral foundations in equal balance.

This essay is an initial attempt to do this.

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  1. Great piece – thanks Stephen. I agree the leftist / liberal perspective is often blinkered. At the same time, I don’t think that all of Haidt’s moral foundations are equally valid. To a degree, aren’t the loyalty / authority / purity foundations rules or short-cuts that are ultimately there to improve care / fairness / liberty outcomes. Liberals / leftists could argue that their 3 priority values are the most fundamental and that the rightist values are somewhat out-dated given modern science and culture. That debate could help both sides understand the links between the moral foundations, rather than each side ignoring or de-valuing those of the other.

    1. This question is often asked. So let me take this opportunity to briefly explain my take on the answer.

      Ideologies, moralities, beliefs sets, religions, by any name, are complex systems of interrelated parts like, say, automobiles.

      Comparing them by debating the relative merits or importance of individual ingredients (the moral foundations) is like comparing the performance of automobiles by debating the relative merits of subsystems (e.g., engines, or suspensions, tires, or whatever). It’s too reductionist. You have to look at the whole system. How does the automobile, or the ideology, actually function in real-life on real roads, or in real societies?

      One such comparison:

      The one-foundation ideology, called the unconstrained vision by Thomas Sowell in his book A Conflict of Visions, drove the French Revolution.

      The all-foundation ideology, Sowell’s constrained vision, drove the American Revolution.

      Quoting Jonathan Haidt, in a lecture he gave at Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE): “The unconstrained vision…has the worst track record in the history of ideas.” Below is an extended verbatim quote, starting at 1:03:48 of the lecture, after Haidt has described each of the moral foundations and how left and right apply them differently:

      “The unconstrained vision, I believe, has the worst track record in the history of ideas. This is a terrible and really dangerous idea, quite frankly. Um, in the French Revolution I’ve been stunned to read this, for the book that I’m writing, to read on the French Revolution. My beef with them is that they’re rationalists, they think that reason is a reliable way to find truth, it’s great in the natural sciences, but once you care about something, if you have passions, if it’s a moral issue, reasoning is the slave of the, uh, is the servant of the, wait what is it, David Hume said that “Reasoning is the slave of the passions and can pretend to no other office but to serve and obey them.” I think Hume was right. So I’m really concerned about rationalists, but what I discovered is that in one of the few places on earth where the rationalists got control of an entire country and were able to do with it what they wanted, they created a cult of reason, they banned the clergy, they killed the nobles, ah, and what we had wasn’t oh, let’s get rid of ah, let’s get rid of nations and religion and then people will be one, no what they had was most people didn’t, or a lot of people didn’t want to go along with the revolution, and of course they’re wrong because we know we’re right we have reason on our side, they called themselves the party of reason, also the party of humanity, the French Revolutionaries ended up murdering hundreds of thousands of people. They committed a genocide in the Vendee region lining people against the walls and shooting them, putting them out into boats and sinking the boats. The French Revolutionaries committed genocide. They committed, they would round people, anybody who was accused of anything, rounded up, pronounced guilty, guillotined. We don’t usually say, “Well yeah they committed genocide but other than that oh the French Revolution was great.” So the French Revolution was based on the ex, the most extreme unconstrained view, the philosophes, Condorcet, Sam Harris (gesture, admitting the joke), people like that.

      Um, other research, on 19th century communes. Richard Sosis, anthropologist compared, he found the records of communes in the 19th century. Many were organized, were socialist communes based on equality and openness, many were religious communes. And he looked to see how long did they last. Answer, the religious ones tended to last two to three times longer than the liberal, than the secular ones. Because, if you bind people in, you, it turns out the active ingredient was demanding sacrifice. Making them change their names, wear funny clothes, cut all contact with the outside, give up certain foods. If you ask for sacrifice, if you constrain people, they form a community of trust, and they don’t cheat each other.

      And if you say, “Welcome everyone. Constraints are bad.“ It quickly decays into a moral, into moral chaos. Again, the unconstrained vision, when it gets a chance to run things, screws it up.

      Twentieth century communism, fascism, any any movement that tried to create a new man ends up committing atrocities, ends up committing mass murder. Um, if any, if there are any historians here, but as far as I understand it most left wing revolutions have ended with mass murder, because, you have this utopia, people don’t go along, because you got human nature incorrectly, they don’t go along, but you know you’re right because you have reason on your side, so you use force, and you use more force, and you use more force, and you end up like Cuba, or North Korea, or the other communist revolutions. It doesn’t work.

      The unconstrained vision in the sciences and social sciences has denied that there’s human nature. They’re just wrong about that, it’s a really terrible idea scientifically. They’ve denied evolutionary psych. Evolutionary psych has some problems which I think are being fixed, but the idea that our behavior is not influenced by evolutionary history is bizarre.”

  2. This fact that liberals (actually leftists – liberals believe in free speech) see the world in black and white and conservatives see the world in full color needs to be trumpeted from the heavens. It needs to become very well known in our culture. Please share this essay everywhere.

    When faced with questions such as “One of the worst things a person could do is hurt a defenseless animal” or “Justice is the most important requirement for a society,” liberals assumed that conservatives would disagree.


    Jonathan Haidt’s experiments ask liberals and conservatives to fill out questionnaires about their values, then to predict how someone from the opposite tribe would fill out the questionnaire. He finds that conservatives are able to predict liberals’ answers just fine and seem to have a pretty good understanding of their worldviews, but that liberals have *no idea* how conservatives think or what they value.


  3. “emotional reasoning, which seems to dominate current progressive thought” — “emotional reasoning” is an oxymoron, which in this commentator’s opinion, reveals the root of the problem.

    “We then use conscious reasoning to justify and defend those feelings, and to try to convince others that our feelings are the right ones.”, is more accurately identified as “rationalization”, a frequent (and self-destructive) reflexive coping mechanism of alcoholics, addicts, codependents, neurotics, etc.

    I’m afraid that many people will be experiencing extremely uncomfortable consequences from their ignoring reality…

    Cheers for making such good faith efforts with your writings.


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