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The Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt.
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In The Coddling of the American Mind, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt argue that three “Great Untruths,” or bad ideas have gained a strong foothold among young people, especially those on college campuses.

  • You must strive to avoid bad experiences at all costs.
  • You must always trust your emotions over reason.
  • The world is a black-and-white battle between good people and bad people; there is no middle ground.

These beliefs insulate students from ideas with which they disagree, are deeply dangerous to free expression and are harmful to students’ emotional development. By succumbing to their own sense of fragility and wrapping themselves in the cloak of victimhood, young people today are developing cognitive patterns similar to those of people suffering from anxiety and depression.

Ultimately, young people must develop the skills and fortitude to feel empowered. Being exposed to controversial ideas and unpleasant experiences is a vital part of human development. The key is not to crumple and retreat into learned helplessness in the face of adversity; but rather, to overcome it and emerge better and stronger.

In this summary, we’ll explore:

  • The three bad ideas, now widely accepted among college students, that are stifling academic freedom and hampering the social and emotional development of young people
  • The reasons why young people believe themselves to be so fragile—and, as a result, why they make such strident demands that their universities shut down speech that they deem to be unacceptable
  • Some practical steps that parents, schools, and universities can take to teach young people to become more independent, critical thinkers

Bad Idea #1: Avoid Adversity at All Costs

The first bad idea is that exposure to adversity or discomfort is inherently damaging. This is a falsehood—stressors and risks are necessary parts of human emotional development. And young people are no exception.

Safetyism and the Alleged Danger of Speech

The people and institutions that are most responsible for young people’s healthy development—parents, teachers, schools, universities—have actively shielded them from any form of adversity.

This is the ideology of safetyism—the idea that one’s freedom from emotional discomfort trumps all other moral concerns and trade-offs. In this formulation, “safety” increasingly means being sheltered from opinions that one doesn’t agree with.

The Social-Media Natives of Generation iGen

It is unsurprising that this idea of safety is prevalent among the members of Generation iGen, who can best be described as social-media natives. In the online worlds of Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, one truly can curate a world populated only by those who share one’s cultural, aesthetic, and political preferences. Unfortunately, they expect to be able to replicate this in the real world.

Defining Trauma Down

This language of safety and trauma is now applied to experiences and topics where it never would have been before. Increasingly, students conflate trauma with emotional discomfort. But emotional discomfort is simply not the same as trauma. At many colleges, students claim that mere exposure to certain classroom materials is traumatic and threatens their emotional and psychological well-being.

This is inherently poisonous to the atmosphere of free discussion of ideas, which is supposed to be a hallmark of academia.

Bad Idea #2: Always Trust Your Emotions

The second bad idea is that you must always trust your emotions.

Too often, emotional reasoning causes us to misperceive the world around us. For young people, emotional reasoning can cause them to feel intentional slights where there are none and strengthen the desire to shelter themselves from emotionally triggering experiences—even speech that they merely disagree with.

Negative-Feedback Loops

Emotional reasoning can have negative consequences. It often leads to negative cognitive feedback loops. Individuals who suffer from anxiety and depression often start from a place of low self-esteem. And because they feel so badly about themselves, they selectively seek out “proof” to confirm their negative self-beliefs. These “proofs,” in turn, further reinforce the original negative beliefs.

The Threat to Critical Thinking

Alarmingly, these patterns of negative thought are strikingly similar to the ways in which overprotected university students interpret speech or ideas with which they disagree. Not only is this disruptive in a classroom setting, but it also inhibits the development of critical thinking—the skill that enables people to absorb new information and revise incorrect beliefs.

Microaggression and Misperception

Another dangerous manifestation of emotional reasoning can be seen in the phenomenon of so-called “microaggressions.” Microaggressions are minor, often inadvertent slights that members of minority groups are often exposed to in the course of daily life. An excessive focus on these incidents can cause the recipient to misperceive intentional slight where there was none.

De-Platforming

One more product of faulty emotional reasoning is the phenomenon of de-platforming. De-platforming occurs when controversial guest lecturers, speakers, or debaters who are invited to a university campus to discuss issues are unable to speak due to protests by student activist groups.

Bad Idea #3: The World Is Black and White

The third bad idea is that the world is defined by a black-and-white struggle between the forces of good and evil. Psychological research shows that the human mind is hardwired to sympathize with members of our in-group and fear and distrust members of an out-group.

Common-Enemy Identity Politics

**Identity politics is a form of political mobilization based on some shared group characteristic, often race, ethnicity, nationality, gender expression, or...

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The Coddling of the American Mind Summary Introduction

In The Coddling of the American Mind, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt identify

three “Great Untruths” or bad ideas that have gained a strong foothold among young people, especially those on college campuses. Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, and Haidt, a social psychologist and professor at New York University, argue that these ideas have exerted a pernicious influence on the thinking of today’s young people and poisoned the atmosphere on college campuses. The three bad ideas are:

  • You must strive to avoid bad experiences at all costs.
  • You must always trust your emotions over reason.
  • The world is a black-and-white battle between good people and bad people; there is no middle ground.

These ideas are at odds with traditional teachings about how young people gain wisdom, psychologically damaging to young people, and harmful to the free debate of ideas in a democratic society. The most pernicious manifestation of the Great Untruths has been shielding young people from speech and ideas that they deem “offensive” or “dangerous.”

This ranges from the “trigger warnings” placed on educational materials (which serve to warn...

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The Coddling of the American Mind Summary Chapter 1: Bad Idea #1—Avoid Adversity at All Costs

The first of the three bad ideas we will explore in this summary is that one should avoid adversity and discomfort at all costs.

This is a falsehood—stressors and risks are necessary parts of human emotional development. In this chapter, we’ll explore:

  • The concept of “antifragility” and how it demands that young people experience some measure of emotional adversity
  • How our notions of “trauma” have been watered down to encompass even mild emotional discomfort
  • How the over-emphasis on emotional safety stunts young people’s emotional and intellectual development

The Necessity of Stressors

Attempts to insulate children and young adults from danger often backfire in unexpected ways. After reported cases of peanut allergies began to rise in American children during the 1990s, schools and daycare centers adopted strict “no-peanut” rules, forbidding parents from packing them as snacks for their children, or even from packing snacks that came from a facility where peanuts might have been processed.

But studies showed that these responses to the allergy outbreak were actually its cause; by refusing to expose their children to peanuts, these overprotective...

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The Coddling of the American Mind Summary Chapter 2: Bad Idea #2—Always Trust Your Emotions

In the last chapter, we examined the destructive idea that you should avoid adversity and exposure to conflicting ideas at all costs.

In this chapter, we’ll explore the second of the three Great Untruths: Always trust your emotions. Specifically, we’ll look at:

  • How emotional reasoning distorts our picture of reality
  • How feedback loops of negative thinking can cause us to form unrealistically gloomy views of ourselves and the world around us, and how campus discourses around oppression and microaggressions encourage this type of harmful thinking
  • How emotional reasoning leads students to aggressively shut down or cancel speaking events on campus—limiting the diversity of viewpoints available to all members of the university community

The Rider and the Elephant

Our picture of reality is actually deeply shaped by our emotions. Our perceptions derive much more from how our minds interpret what we see, rather than from an objective and rational assessment of reality. A metaphor for thinking about the human mind is of a human rider sitting atop an elephant.

The rider, representing reason, can do her best to attempt to direct the elephant. But the...

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The Coddling of the American Mind Summary Chapter 3: Bad Idea #3—The World Is Black and White

In the last two chapters, we explored two of the Three Great Untruths that many young people (especially left-wing college students) have come to accept:

  • Avoid adversity at all costs.
  • Always trust your emotions.

In this chapter, we’ll explore the third bad idea—that the world is defined by a black-and-white struggle between the forces of good and evil. This type of thinking is highly psychologically damaging to those who succumb to it and dangerous to academic freedom on campus.

In particular, we’ll examine:

  • How recent high-profile protests against speakers on college campuses are indicative of a destructive “us vs. them” mindset
  • How academic discourses around concepts of repressive tolerance and intersectionality have inculcated a victimhood mentality in students
  • How call-out culture (aided by social media) creates a chilling effect on college campuses that forces students, faculty, and administrators to self-censor

Us Against Them

Psychological research shows that the human mind is hardwired to sympathize with members of our in-group and fear and distrust members of an out-group.

The most consequential human conflicts are those...

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Shortform Exercise: Question Your Assumptions

Discover how you can learn to accept new ideas through exposure to diversity and conflict.


Have you ever found yourself refusing to listen to an idea because you disagreed with it? Describe the situation in a few sentences.

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The Coddling of the American Mind Summary Chapter 4: “Violent” Speech, Violent Response

In the first three chapters, we focused on the Three Great Untruths. To recap, they are:

  • Avoid discomfort and adversity at all costs.
  • Always trust your emotions over logic and reason.
  • The world is defined by a black-and-white struggle between good and evil.

In this chapter, we’ll look closer at one of the main effects of these ideas—how they have convinced many students that violence and intimidation are acceptable, even necessary, responses to speech that they dislike.

Specifically, we’ll focus on:

  • The idea that certain forms of speech are equivalent to violence, and that physical violence is therefore a justified response to them
  • How left-wing college protesters have internalized this logic and used it to harass and intimidate those they perceive as their opponents on campus

Speech as Violence

In a 2017 New York Times essay, Northeastern University professor Lisa Feldman Barrett made the argument that certain forms of speech ought to be considered a form of violence.

The logic of this argument is that inflammatory speech can cause emotional distress. Emotional distress, in turn, can have harmful effects on one’s physical health....

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The Coddling of the American Mind Summary Chapter 5: Orthodoxy and Groupthink on Campus

If speech with which one disagrees is a form of violence, then it logically follows that a community would seek to suppress such “violence” in the name of community safety. After all, no community or group would tolerate open displays of physical violence—so why should speech violence be treated any differently?

In this chapter, we will examine the other main consequence of the three bad ideas—the development of rigid ideological orthodoxy and groupthink on campus. Specifically, we’ll explore:

  • The desire that groups tend to have for internal ideological cohesion and the impulse to suppress dissent—especially during periods of internal stress and perceived external threat
  • How this desire has increasingly found expression on America’s college campuses, amplified by the growing left-wing orthodoxy that has taken root among both professors and students
  • How ideological unity poisons academic freedom and leads to the establishment of orthodoxy and groupthink on campus

The Quest for Ideological Purity

The French sociologist Emile Durkheim, who wrote during the 19th and early 20th centuries, argued that the natural human tendency toward tribalism and...

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The Coddling of the American Mind Summary Chapter 6: Political Polarization

So far, we’ve focused primarily on attitudes and actions taking place on America’s college campuses, exploring the growth of far-left ideology among both students and professors—and the resulting intolerance on their part toward anyone who even appears to deviate from this orthodoxy.

In the next few chapters, we’ll examine the reasons why young people have come to adopt such attitudes. In this chapter we’ll explore:

  • The ways in which intense on-campus conflicts reflect the rising partisan polarization that increasingly shapes and defines American politics
  • How left-wing protests at American universities have provoked a fierce and often violent reaction from the far right—often deliberately stoked by right-wing media and politicians

The Growing Divide in American Politics

Left-wing campus activism is taking place within a climate of rising partisan polarization in America. Political science research shows that there has been a massive divergence on issues between self-identified Democrats and Republicans since the mid-2000s. The Pew Research Center cites a whopping 21-percentage-point disagreement in 2011 between the two parties on basic policy...

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The Coddling of the American Mind Summary Chapters 7-9: Social Media and Safety Parenting

In the last chapter, we looked at how the rise in safetyism and militancy on campus in part reflects the broader political polarization and sharpening of political disagreements that have defined American life for most of the 21st century.

But heated partisanship is not the only broader contextual factor at work in the transformation of college campuses. The students themselves are vastly different from those who graduated just a few short years before. In this chapter, we’ll explore:

  • The alarming rise in both self-reported and diagnosed rates of depression and anxiety in today’s teens and adolescents
  • How this deteriorating mental health situation might be linked to increased screentime—and social media in particular
  • How students’ demands for safety from speech represent a reaction to a world that they see as more hostile and dangerous
  • How “safety parenting” deprives children of meaningful and personal growth-enhancing opportunities to take risks and learn from mistakes

Delayed Emotional Development

**Recent years have seen a troubling rise in the number of teens and adolescents who report feeling anxious or depressed. Even more disturbing, one...

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Shortform Exercise: Explore Safety Parenting

Explore how an excess focus on safety might come at a cost to healthy social and emotional development.


When you were growing up, were there specific independence-boosting experiences that your parents or caregivers prevented you from having out of concern for your safety? What were they?

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The Coddling of the American Mind Summary Chapter 10: Fragile Universities

In the last few chapters, we’ve discussed how evolving social norms and parenting practices combine to make today’s college students more fragile before they set foot on campus. In this chapter, we’ll look at how the policies and practices of university administrators reinforce this culture of fragility on campus.

In particular, we’ll look at:

  • How the increasing corporatization of American higher education has led universities to treat students like customers whose every need must be satisfied
  • How the rise of campus “speech codes” threatens free speech and reinforces students’ false beliefs in their innate fragility

College as Big Business

While most American colleges and universities are still nonprofit organizations, they have nevertheless become enormously wealthy institutions. In just the 2015-2016 academic year, university revenues totaled a whopping $548 billion.

Because higher education is such a big business, universities now require a large, professionalized bureaucracy of administrators to manage them. Often, these administrators are tasked with financially safeguarding the university—successfully marketing it to prospective students,...

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The Coddling of the American Mind Summary Chapter 11: Social Justice

So many of the campus-based protests we’ve covered have dealt with evolving notions of justice. In this chapter, we’ll explore:

  • How political events during iGen’s formative years shaped and defined their notions of justice and equity
  • The concepts of distributive justice and procedural justice and how they interact with ideas of social justice
  • How a focus on equality of outcomes at the expense of equality of opportunity and access violates most people’s intuitive sense of fairness

The Turmoil of the 2010s

Political science research shows that people have a strong tendency to form lasting political views during their teens years and early adulthood. For a certain subset of baby boomers, the experiences of the civil rights movement, the assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., the Vietnam War, and Watergate shifted their political orientation decisively—and permanently—to the left and to the Democratic Party.

A similar dynamic has taken place with iGen, whose members came of age during the period running roughly from 2008-2017. This was an era of immense social and political turmoil, particularly around questions of identity and...

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The Coddling of the American Mind Summary Chapters 12-13: Fostering Antifragility

In these final chapters, we’ll focus on ways that parents, universities, and young people themselves can break free from the harmful ideas and behaviors we’ve examined in this summary. Specifically, we’ll explore:

  • How parents can increase their kids’ sense of independence and encourage them to engage in more critical thinking
  • How universities can make a stronger commitment to academic freedom and welcome a greater diversity of viewpoints on campus

Ultimately, these recommendations will prepare young people to be antifragile, autonomous, and take on the challenges of adult life.

Antifragile Kids

Earlier in this summary, we introduced the concept of antifragility—that kids do not suffer from experiencing mild adversity; on the contrary, it makes them stronger. Overcoming difficulty is an essential part of the passage from childhood to adulthood. This is why the excessive focus on safety and efforts by parents to minimize risk, however well-intentioned, actually do great emotional harm to young people.

Because they are deprived of the opportunity to make mistakes, kids do not learn how to properly evaluate risks, gain independence, and navigate interpersonal...

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The Coddling of the American Mind Summary Conclusion: Cause for Hope

Despite the problems we’ve explored in this summary, there are good reasons to believe that the situation is improving.

We’ve talked about how social media companies like Facebook play a negative role in young people’s emotional and social development by increasing their feelings of isolation. Although it’s still early, it appears that these companies are beginning to understand the harmful side effects of their platforms. As a result, they are...

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Shortform Exercise: Understand The Coddling of the American Mind

Explore the main takeaways from The Coddling of the American Mind.


Do you think colleges committed to free speech have a responsibility to provide a platform to anyone who wishes to speak, regardless of their views? Are there certain ideas that you would consider to be unacceptable in such a setting? Explain your answer.

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