How CBT Strengthens Political Life and Untruths Which Weaken It

Many in the US are experiencing emotional unwellness, while our foundational institutions are rattling. CBT can help with both.

Diagnoses of depression in the United States, where 1 in 6 adults are prescribed psychotropic drugs, have been on the rise for the past few decades. Antidepressant use jumped by 65 percent from 1999 to 2014. Among adolescent girls, depression rates surged from 13 percent in 2004 to nearly 20 percent in 2016, according to Jean Twenge, author of iGen: Why Today’s Super-connected Kids are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy—and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood—and What That Means for the Rest of Us (2017).

Furthermore, a recent study of students at 19 international universities suggests that a third of college freshmen may have a mental disorder; psychologists who conducted the study believe this to be a conservative estimate.

Despite obvious societal progress, our emotional lives, particularly those of our youth, appear in crisis.

Experts scramble to uncover the influences behind this rising tide of psychological distress. Some blame increased screen time, social media use, and sleep deprivation. Others, including Twenge, cite weakening of relationships and community ties, the focus on materialistic goals which correlate with anxiety and depression (money, fame, and image), and that fact that people have too high of expectations (internalizing the mantra “you can be anything you want to be”). Boston College psychologist Peter Gray argues that another primary culprit—alongside parents choosing to school rather than unschool their children—has been the parental shift away from free play toward more interventionist parenting.

Antidepressant use jumped by 65 percent from 1999 to 2014. Among adolescent girls, depression rates surged from 13 percent in 2004 to nearly 20 percent in 2016.

While echoing these explanations, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt contribute a refreshing thesis. In their new book, The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up A Generation for Failure (2018), they challenge “Three Great Untruths” whose pervasiveness, they believe, prevent young people from flourishing—especially when it comes to civic engagement.

3 Great Untruths

Haidt is a moral psychologist, best known for The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom (2006) and The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion (2012). Lukianoff is the President of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) and author of Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate (2014). Both have worked extensively in the higher education space with academics and young students. (Their experience with the shrinking of intellectual diversity and the weakening of student mental well-being inspired this joint literary effort.)

In their hugely successful Atlantic article (one of the five most-viewed articles of all time on the site), “The Coddling of the American Mind,” Lukianoff and Haidt outline some of their concerns with recent trends on college campuses, namely “microaggressions,” “safe spaces,” “trigger warnings,” “call-out culture,” and the “heckler’s veto,” to name a few. Their new book further researches these drifts, arriving on Great Untruths, which they claim are “harming students and damaging their prospects for creating fulfilling lives.” What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker. Always trust your feelings. Life is a battle between good people and evil people.

Each Great Untruth holds the following in common:

  1. It contradicts ancient wisdom (found widely in the wisdom literature of many cultures).
  2. It contradicts modern psychological research on well-being.
  3. It harms the individuals and communities who embrace it.

Today, we observe trends in extremist activity on the far-left and the far-right, stoking the fires of anger and hatred. And of course, tribalism expands as “new-media platforms and outlets allow citizens to retreat into self-confirmatory bubbles,” where all our biases can be confirmed, our viewpoints rarely challenged, and our hearts are encouraged to turn against each other.

No doubt the last few years have been harrowing and heart-breaking across the political landscape. Wider awareness of police brutality and racial injustice have spread, “gaining strength with each horrific cell phone video of police killing unarmed black men.” Terrorist attacks in the US and Europe have been extensively covered in the news—forty-nine killed at a gay nightclub in Orlando and fifty-eight slain at an outdoor concert in Las Vegas (851 wounded). In 2017, Antifa activists inflicted hundreds of thousands of dollars in property damage and physical injury on members of the Berkeley community—once the epicenter of free speech. Six months later white supremacists marched through Charlottesville, Virginia with torches; this resulted in the deaths 3 people and non-fatal injury of 38.

Tribalism expands as ‘new-media platforms and outlets allow citizens to retreat into self-confirmatory bubbles,’ where all our biases can be confirmed, our viewpoints rarely challenged, and our hearts are encouraged to turn against each other.

And then, we’ve seen countless detailings of sexual misconduct and assault come forward as part of the #MeToo movement, ”stories that turned out to be common in professions dominated by powerful men [particularly in politics and Hollywood]”.

Lukianoff and Haidt acknowledge these challenging times, deconstructing these Great Untruths to help us better manage the adversity. Quick to note that the problems people face are not “all in their heads,” their argument is essentially a pragmatic one: “Whatever your identity, background, or political ideology, you will be happier, healthier, stronger, and more likely to succeed in pursuing your own goals if you do the opposite” of what the Great Untruths advise.

The Untruth of Fragility

Many have embraced a “culture of safetyism,” a belief system which holds safety as a sacred value, wherein people have become “unwilling to make trade-offs demanded by other practical concerns.” Because of an irrational fear, we no longer allow children to walk home from school or play unsupervised. We’ve allowed concept creep to enlarge the notion of trauma to include many components of normal life, such as exposure to “uncomfortable ideas” or arguments which challenge our core beliefs. Some believe that words can be equated with violence—an idea which ironically makes people more anxious and more willing to justify physical harm. And, this concept creep robs actual trauma survivors, diminishing their suffering by positioning heterodox ideas on the same level as hate speech, or equating an unsolicited compliment with sexual assault or rape.

Safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” are the disabling offspring of this untruth. Priming someone with the idea that what they’re about to encounter might be emotionally harmful implies that they should expect it will make them anxious or traumatized. It invites their emotional unwellness.

Humans are antifragile, requiring significant—but not extreme—pressures to reach our potential. Universities are designed to be a “marketplace of ideas,” where arguments and words can be important stressors. Knowledge advances when conflicting and diverse viewpoints consider a proposition, openly discussing and challenging it, whereupon we forge a more workable truth. Referencing Nassim Taleb, Lukianoff and Haidt state, “If you see yourself or your fellow students as candles, you’ll want to make your campus a wind-free zone.” Alternatively, if we “prepare the child for the road, not the road for the child,” as folk wisdom suggests, or take a cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) approach such as exposure-therapy—gradually exposing individuals with PTSD to what they fear—we’ll find that young people are more like fires. They thrive because of the wind.

Universities are designed to be a ‘marketplace of ideas,’ where arguments and words can be important stressors.

The Coddling of the American Mind focuses on restoring the university’s role to that of truth-seeker. The university’s vitality rests on viewpoint diversity and the disconfirmation bias that comes with it; we come to imprudent conclusions about any topic under investigation when most voices at the table hold the same philosophical or political orientation. Higher education is not meant to keep students “safe” from “uncomfortable ideas.” (Neither are constitutional republics in regards to their citizens.) Progressive activist Van Jones puts it best: “I don’t want you to be safe ideologically. I don’t want you to be safe emotionally. I want you to be strong…Put on some boots and learn how to deal with adversity. I’m not going to take all the weights out of the gym; that’s the whole point of the gym. This is the gym.”

The Untruth of Emotional Reasoning

Our emotions can communicate important insights to us. “Sometimes they alert us to truths,” Lukianoff and Haidt highlight, “that our conscious mind has not noticed, but sometimes they lead us astray.” We ought to take each with a grain of salt, examining which thought or belief might be informing our feelings. Upon learning that your preferred electoral candidate has been beaten by their opponent, you might become paralyzed by fear or overcome with despair. Of course you’re angry. You’re supposed to feel this way because “if you’re not outraged, then you’re not paying attention.” You enter a state of distress so severe you alienate your friends and family (or coworkers) who don’t completely agree with your politics. You begin vilifying strangers online because “they’re ruining this country.” Initiating yourself into the polarization cycle, you continue toward avenues which undermine social institutions and human flourishing. And on you go believing your feelings to be those of righteous indignation—all without serious investigation whether those feelings were misinformed.

“Always trust your feelings” doesn’t merely oppose ancient wisdom traditions but outright rejects CBT.  

CBT, developed in the 1960s by Aaron Beck, contends that a close connection exists between one’s thoughts (and worldview) and the feelings that come with them. We can become trapped inside feedback loops of unrelenting negative feelings due to irrational negative beliefs—also known as cognitive distortions. Challenge these cognitive distortions, replacing them with wiser views, and one’s emotional state will improve. By teaching clients how to combat these disempowering schemas, individuals are able to, over time, develop more helpful habits of belief which can outlast and outperform, in most cases, antidepressants like Prozac. Since it’s formulation, CBT has become the most-studied form of psychotherapy. Its use is widespread among clinical professionals and the evidence of its effectiveness for overcoming anxiety, depression, OCD, anger, and other stress-related disorders is staggering.

Lukianoff and Haidt include a categorical list of cognitive distortions compiled by Robert L. Leahy, Steph J.F. Holland, and Lata K. McGinn. (This is just a partial list.)

  1. Mind Reading: You assume you know what people think without having sufficient evidence of their thoughts. “He thinks I’m a loser.”
  2. Catastrophizing: You believe that what has happened or will happen will be so awful and unbearable that you won’t be able to stand it. “It would be terrible if I failed.”
  3. Labeling: You assign global negative traits to yourself and others. “I’m undesirable,” or “He’s a rotten person.”
  4. Discounting Positives: You claim that the positive things you or others do are trivial. “That’s what wives are supposed to do—so it doesn’t count when she’s nice to me,” or “Those successes were easy, so they don’t matter.”
  5. Negative Filtering: You focus almost exclusively on the negatives and seldom notice the positives. “Look at all of the people who don’t like me.”
  6. Overgeneralizing: You perceive a global pattern of negatives on the basis of a single incident. “This generally happens to me. I seem to fail at a lot of things.”
  7. Dichotomous Thinking: You view events or people in all-or-nothing terms. “I get rejected by everyone,” or “It was a complete waste of time.”
  8. Shoulds: You interpret events in terms of how things should be, rather than simply focusing on what is. “I should do well. If I don’t, then I’m a failure.”
  9. Blaming: You focus on the other person as the source of your negative feelings, and you refuse to take responsibility for changing yourself. “She’s to blame for the way I feel now,” or “My parents caused all my problems.”
  10. Emotional Reasoning: You let your feelings guide your interpretation of reality. “I feel depressed; therefore, my marriage is not working out.”

In reading this list above, one quickly notices how damaging these viewpoints might be to a constitutional republic when a large enough segment of the population orients their political weltanschauung around them. Not only do they hinder meaningful living but they compromise the associations which foster cultural environments more suitable for thriving individuals.

CBT has proven very effective on the individual level—helping those previously crippled by their worldviews—but what benefits can CBT bestow upon one’s political life? What happens when a polity rejects ancient wisdom and CBT practices?

CBT has become the most-studied form of psychotherapy. Its use is widespread among clinical professionals and the evidence of its effectiveness for overcoming anxiety, depression, OCD, anger, and other stress-related disorders is staggering.

These distortions are pervasive in our political landscape: Mind Reading (“You voted for Trump because you hate women!”), Dichotomous thinking (“Nothing good happened for the working class when Obama was president.”), Negative Filtering (“The ONLY positive thing we can do right now is to vote out the GOP!”), Catastrophizing (“If we let that many into the country, our crime rates will explode. Think about the terrorists!”), Shoulds (“People shouldn’t be able to make that much money!” Labeling (“Typical feminist, you’re always so sensitive!”).

To reverse this tide of “bad-thinking” on college campuses, they advocate teaching CBT to incoming college students:

a shared vocabulary about reasoning, common distortions, and the appropriate use of evidence to draw conclusions would facilitate critical thinking and real debate. It would also tone down the perpetual state of outrage that seems to engulf some colleges these days, allowing students’ minds to open more widely to new ideas and new people. A greater commitment to formal, public debate on campus—and to the assembly of a more politically diverse faculty—would further serve that goal.

The Untruth of Us Versus Them

“There is the moral dualism,” writes Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, “that sees good and evil as instincts within us between which we must choose. But there is also what I will call pathological dualism that sees humanity itself as radically…divided into the unimpeachably good and the irredeemably bad.” Underdeveloped thinkers act as if we are either one or the other.

It’s less accurate to say that we live in the age of tribalism—a moniker more fitting of the American Civil War—than argue that progress has allowed us to more clearly see how much tribalism remains with us. Jaspreet Gill laments,

Gathering by the campfire in our ideological tribes, we bask in the warm glow of unchallenged beliefs. We caricature arguments that do not fit neatly into our canonical jigsaw. Foregoing uncomfortable rumination in favor of rhetoric, we have helped to create and perpetuate a climate in which dissent is tolerated only for as long as it is a heresy we find palatable. And because the sacred cow revered by one tribe could be butchered by another, both worship and slaughter are seen as barbaric.

Collectivism has been fueled not only by cognitive distortions but by identity politics as well: political mobilization around group characteristics. Identity politics can be a potent tool for analyzing power dynamics, uncovering injustices, and correcting systems of oppression. However, as Lukianoff and Haidt warn, “It can be mobilized in ways that amplify our ancient tribalism and bind people together in shared hatred of a group that serves as the unifying common enemy.”

The authors distinguish between common-humanity identity politics and common-enemy identity politics. They praise Dr. Martin Luther King, who “appealed to the shared morals and identities of Americans by using the unifying language of religion,” in particular, American civil religion, which speaks to the country’s founders and the classically-liberal foundation upon which it was built. His African-American brothers and sisters had been denied their dignity and rights, and the civil rights movement intended to repair and unite the country—not hold up a particular identity group as the enemy.

Identity politics can be mobilized in ways that amplify our ancient tribalism and bind people together in shared hatred of a group that serves as the unifying common enemy.

Pauli Murray, a black and queer activist once wrote: “I intend to destroy segregation by positive and embracing methods…when my brothers try to draw a circle to exclude me, I shall draw a larger circle to include them.” Instead of shaming and demonizing our political opponents, we ought to humanize them—reach out to their humanity. By acknowledging theirs, we’ll reclaim our own.

In contrast, common-enemy identity politics is an effective method of growing and galvanizing one’s tribe against a dehumanized other. It reduces every human interaction to that between evil oppressor and lionized victim, outgroup and ingroup, the ignorant and the woke, undeserving and deserving.

If we want to see reform, we must find common ground by bringing together diverse members of different identity groups. Alienating people, reducing them to one aspect of their identity, alleging they don’t have the ability to understand another group’s experience, or preaching that one’s identity group is more virtuous than another’s widens the wounds. Quoting Black Lives Matter (BLM) activist Hawk Newsome—when Trump supporters allowed him a momentary platform at their “Mother of All Rallies Patriot Unification Gathering”—”If we really want to make America great, we do it together.” Receiving backlash from some BLM groups for “normalizing” his political opponents, he replied, “This is a beginning, but we have a long way to go. Centuries of racism can’t be healed in two minutes, but that two minutes can provide a spark, and we can use that energy and spark to do something that hasn’t been done before.”

Can CBT Strengthen the Mind for Political Activism?

While Lukianoff and Haidt ostensibly take aim at undergraduates, professors, parents, and administrators, to combat troubling trends in higher education, their book suggests that CBT practices can be used to enhance anyone’s political life. (In a similar fashion, Rachel Hadas has recommended stoicism and poetry.)

Each of us falls prey to cognitive distortions from time to time, but “wouldn’t our relationships be better if we all did a little less blaming and dichotomous thinking, and recognized that we usually share responsibility for conflicts? Wouldn’t our political debates be more productive if we all did less overgeneralizing and labeling, both of which make it harder to compromise?” they ask.

Unequivocally, yes. Political commentary bent by cognitive distortion is reaching unwise excess, and unless we challenge it, our social institutions will not only cease to buttress against cognitive distortions, but our cultural foundations will inculcate them.

We are experiencing a rise in emotional desolation, and it appears increasingly common among the more politically-minded and politically-active—those whose predominant source of meaning-seeking is found in partisan conflict. Their thinking inclines toward the apocalyptic. (Political activism via social networking sites is associated with psychological stress, only a few of which are essential stressors.)

Wouldn’t our relationships be better if we all did a little less blaming and dichotomous thinking, and recognized that we usually share responsibility for conflicts? Wouldn’t our political debates be more productive if we all did less overgeneralizing and labeling, both of which make it harder to compromise?

While partisans can’t even agree on the key issues, let alone settle on solutions to them, moderates and centrists (like Lukianoff and Haidt) proselytize for CBT, optimistic it will improve our chances of arriving at shared solutions. Moira Weigel believes Haidt and Lukianoff are merely resisting the changes that would undermine their political tribe. Others, like Tayari Jones, think there is no virtue in finding common ground, that, “for people directly affected” by these issues, “the culture war is real war.” She concludes that “justice seldom dwells in the middle.” (And she’s not necessarily wrong.) However, we don’t seek the middle ground because it allows us to avoid facing painful realities surrounding injustices (and how we might be complicit in them). We do it because emphasizing shared positions fosters the social capital necessary to offset the emotional and social costs that come from conflicts—whether the wars be cultural or actual.  

Implementing CBT into one’s life can fuel better political activism. It enlightens the anger which clouds our judgments. As Kevin Williamson argues, sorting out these issues “requires careful thinking, which is difficult to manage when you are high on rage.” CBT reorients our destructive thought patterns in ways that build emotional resilience and produces more optimal outcomes for society. Just as CBT has proven itself effective at strengthening mental health, its opposite, in political form, has turned out to be equally damaging to our country’s political health.

Optimistically, Lukianoff and Haidt believe the problems they describe are not only temporary but fixable. “The arc of history,” they conclude, “bends toward progress on most measures of health, prosperity, and freedom,” and if we can reject the three Great Untruths and integrate CBT practices into our personal and political worldviews, “it may bend a little faster.”

(Image source: Clem Onojeghuo/Unsplash)

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