Introduction:

If the reports are to be believed, many Millennial students (Born after 1980) on college campuses have become “infected” with the mental contagion of emotional thinking or pathological thinking judging from a recent article appearing in the September 2015 edition of Atlantic Magazine. The cover story has a headline shouting “Better Watch What You Say: How the New Political Correctness is Ruining Education."

Before considering this important article, let’s look at a report appearing in the September 27, 2015 edition of The Washington Post entitled “Restoring Free Speech on Campus” by Geffrey Stone and Will Creeley. The authors report how college faculty and students are being wrongly “investigated and punished for controversial dissenting or discomforting speech.” They identify a number of colleges that fail “to live up to their core mission” which is promoting “critical thinking” and how claims of “microaggressions” over failures to provide “trigger-warnings” to “students so they might avoid having to deal with potentially upsetting ideas and subjects” is sabotaging this core mission of education.

Examples include cancellation of speakers simply because some on campus find their views “offensive or wrong-headed.” The controversy surrounding this new manifestation of 1970s political correctness is such that President Obama felt the need to remind us all that students “coddled and protected from different points of view is not the way we learn.”

Authors Stone (professor at the University of Chicago) and Creeley (vice president of a “Rights in Education” Foundation) concluded “enough is enough.” They report the University of Chicago established a “Committee on Freedom of Expression” to look into what’s happening to speech on college campuses and concluded that “it is not the proper role of the University to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive.” This became the premise of what’s known as “The Chicago Statement” adopted by other colleges such as Princeton, Purdue, and American University. The message is clear: the goal of education is critical thinking without “fear of reprisal,” and without faculty and students needing to fear each other or fear punishment for exercising their right to speak freely about issues important to them.

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I’m not sure how widespread this manifestation of political correctness is, but an increasing number of voices are expressing concern; but not enough from a psychological perspective. As a practicing psychologist, I’m surprised and shocked by the scale of this problem of bad thinking on campus. This bad and pathological thinking has resulted in the coining of expressions like “microaggressions” and “trigger- warnings.” If I have my facts straight, I’m inclined to propose the diagnosis of pseudocultural paranoia with anger. Pseudocultural paranoia is something I’ve blogged about in another context. Anger is an absolute, irrational, "Napoleonic" demand " equivalent to "demanding the drunk be sober!" I wish Stone and Creeley had gone more deeply into the psychology of microaggressons and trigger-warnings; however to achieve this I offer the following.

The Rest of the Story:

Let’s face it! Something is seriously wrong! Here is the rest of the story beyond the minimalist reportage of Stone and Creeley and the “Chicago Statement” mentioned. We now consider the Atlantic magazine article of September 2015 by Greg Lukianoff (President and CEO, Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) and Jonathan Haidt (Professor, New York University) entitled “Better Watch What You Say! How the New Political Correctness is Ruining Education,” followed by the subtitle: “The Coddling of the American Mind.”   

The authors benefit from a basic understanding of today’s clinical cognitive psychology as developed by psychologist Dr. Albert Ellis, Ph.D. under whom I took a postdoctoral internship at his Manhattan Isntitute. I was privileged to be among the first of four interns to complete training; training that focused on the sovereign responsibility of rational thinking without cognitive distortions instead of chasing after the intangible, mythical, and pre-scientific Id, Ego, and Superego (In a USA, Canadian survey of clincial psychologists, Dr. Albert Ellis, Ph.D. is ranked as the second most influential psychotherapist in history. Carl Rogers is first; Albert Ellis is second; Sigmund Feud is third).

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Lukianoff and Haidt demonstrate an understanding of what I learned those years and practiced with patients ever since. They raise questions concerning the psychological origins of this new manifestation of political correctness which concern Stone and Creeley. They question whether college campuses are rewarding emotional thinking rather than critical thinking which academics agree is the core mission of education; in addition to the scientific method which effectively disciplines all thinking, and I know it well as both biologist and scientist-clinician in the profession of psychology. You might want to consider the following discussions:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scientific_method

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Critical_thinking

Do we have "helicopter campuses" fostering a climate of bad thinking which results in "witch-hunts" searching for so called microaggressions and the “trigger-warnings” that are supposed to spare the more sensitive among us from emotional upsets? 

Google free image
Source: Google free image

I will have more to say about microaggressions and trigger-warnings, but let’s assume there is bad thinking ("stinking thinking" ?) of some sort behind them...thinking that involves cognitive distortions and bad thought styles; some of which Lukianoff and Haidt identify in their article.  

The sheer scale, intensity, and "contageous nature" of this "brand" of political correctness among college Millennials on campus is awesome to contemplate given my experience treating patients and the responsibilities students face as citizens, voters, and future leaders and guardians of the American Laboratory and Experiment with Representative Democracy based on Mass Education.    

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We often talk about guns without paying enough attention to the mental health of our citizens. Are we talking about "microaggressions” and “trigger-warnings” without giving sufficient attention to the mental health of college students? Is the mental health of this generation of students in question? Where are the clinical psychologists when we need them? Have these students become some sort of canary in the mine of today's society or civilization itself? Is their behavior indicative of a rising tide of a new form of "collective insanity" that could spread over time? Why do social psychologists, historians, and cultural anthropologists appear to have the last word on matters of collective mental health without input from clinical psychologists? Is it because clinical psychologists are trained to only deal with the mental health of individuals? Does the focus on the mental health of individuals, to the exclusion of collectives, make sense anymore? Are questions of "collective mental health" politically untouchable or unfashionable for any reason? How would we even judge the mental health of any sort of collective, be it a "subculture," "elected representatives," "failed states," or nations in the grip of ideological and "religious wars?" I suspect all this will change in years to come. The cost effective approach to the mental health of individuals and collectives will have to involve prevention, and this will have to involve finding "common ground" based on the old science of facts and the new science of values which I write about.

The essence of preventive psychology focusing on mental health lies in moral education based on the science of values which is tomorrow's "common ground" today! Remember, the ancients possessed "common ground" (e.g. The mythology concerning their Gods), and they lived in a more "homogeneous world." However, this world was lost to the asymmetric evolution of natural science without value science making it easier to organize Evil than Good; something I blog at length about!      

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What's happening on campus is all the more urgent given statistics revealing how more and more college students are reporting emotional problems and seeking treatment for them. Our students live in a very different world, and face great challenges and responsibilities in years to come. We’re already getting a taste of that world reflected in rapid social change, economic polarization and globalization, rising population densities, governance issues, climate change, speech pressure as never before, and fast communication thanks to social networking in cyberspace.

It is also a world where atavistic nationalists like Russia’s Putin appear to be on a collision course with internationalists defining today's world. Will a sufficient number of students, the critical mass needed, be up to the task given today's break-out of emotional thinking in the zeitgeist of college campuses? What is the larger meaning of all this? 

Lukianoff and Haidt are not clinicians but appear well informed. I am interested in what they have to say because they explore the psychology of "strange happenings at colleges and universities.” They connect it with the proliferation of emotional thought styles and specific cognitive distortions that appear to have gone viral among pockets of college Millennials. Cognitive distortions and bad thinking we psychologists treat every day, and I’m referring to the thinking we do when we don’t think about the thinking we do as both evaluators and habitual self-evaluators.

https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/beyond-good-and-evil/201211/what-is...

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My initial exposure to pathological or bad emotional thinking came with the study of General Semantics in my undergraduate days. This was followed psycholinguistics in graduate school, and then my internship at the Ellis Institute which focused on thought styles, cognitive distortions, and the organization and exercise of underlying values and valuations. My discovery of philosopher Hartman's approach to values and valuations soon followed and the rest is history. I've always been interested in the psychology of individuals and collectives, and so these recent developments on campus have aroused my curiosity. I find the scale of this latest manifestation of political correctness shocking as a scientist-clinician! Dare I say, it's as if some of my untreated patients became organized in order to take over something as sacred as college education? It's interesting to me as one who has treated cognitive distortions one patient at a time without reports of it spreading like a contageon among Millennial students until now. 

The reported outbreak of bad thinking driving accusations of microaggression and the demanding of trigger-warnings on college campuses is not the hysteria of the Salem Witch Trials, but allusions to that time and place are understandable! We appear to be confronted with something very different, something short of highly developed delusions and the reconstruction of reality; but behavior (i.e., microaggressions and trigger-warnings) that makes professors increasingly afraid of students and students increasingly afraid of each other. Did you ever imagine education could come to this? Isn't this outrageous or do you think it's normal behavior?  

Examples:  

Haidt reports that faculty members on campuses are now “feeling the heat of student complaints,” because “they never know when a student will be offended by examples given in their lectures.” He gives two examples of this manifestation of political correctness gone mad.

One of his lectures included a discussion of a dying cancer patient. After class a student accused him of “committing a microaggression” because he failed to provide the obligatory “trigger-warning that would allow sensitive students to be spared an emotional upset. Another example involved a discussion of free-will based on the Greek mythology of Homer’s Ulysses who encountered bare breasted mermaids. After producing a picture of a bare breasted mermaid, a student accused him of committing a microaggression, and of degrading women by showing a picture of a bare breasted mermaid. Such sensitivity, demands, and blame appears to be a new trend in campus life; a trend in which students become increasingly involved with identifying alleged microaggressions associated with the failure to provide adequate trigger-warmings needed to avoid emotional upsets.

Isn't the irrationality of it all awesome to contemplate? The scale of this is also disturbing. The danger to society should be obvious; especially when you consider, on psychological grounds alone, that the picture of the bare breasted mermaid has no power to upset anyone, or everyone would be upset by it.

Google free image
Source: Google free image

This is true because it is our interpretation of the picture that upsets us: the student upset herself by what she told heself about the picture in question! She gave away her "power!" The irrationality of it, complete with catastrophizing-fear, demanding-anger, and disowned-blame are the sort of cognitive distortions (i.e., irrational thought styles) that appear to be contageous and intensifying among some campus Millennials leading to "witch hunts" which seek to identify every microaggression and every failure to provide the "obligatory" trigger-warning. 

Questions: Cognitive disortions are not uncommon negative thought styles even though they are irrational (i.e., self-defeating) rather than rational (i.e, self-benefiting). The students in question are like you and me, but more so! It is the "more so" that concerns me; for it is reminiscent of patients I treat. Why this infectious intensification of bad thinking (i.e., the clinical signalbeyond prevailing background levels of bad thinking (i.e., the subclinical cultural noise)? Finally, do you believe this is important because thinking, based on values, is the ultimate source of Good and Evil in the world? 

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Has the 21st century become so stressful that we're beginning to see the clinical intensification and expression of formerly subclinical bad thinking now conveying hints of old "Salem's hysteria?" Is this a new manifestation of old political correctness? Bad thinking (e.g., cognitive distortions) isn't new, but it is now seen as becoming more obvious, pervasive, and intense among campus Millennials...if the reports I'm citing have it right. Again, latent cognitive distortions have always been with us because of our half-smart education without moral education, but something is happening to raise it to levels not previously experienced. 

Recreational drugs these days, and the stronger grip of religions in the past, can suppress bad thinking; but some subcultures (e.g., Millennial students) appear to be experiencing more bad thinking and for unknown reasons. It has been culturally tolerate, but with today's amplification it can be seen for what it is; bad, emotional thinking. What was more latent, pre-clinical thought styles is now breaking out as more clinical thought styles having reached the more pathological levels of pseudocultural paranoia, or fear and paranoia beyond prevailing and tolerated cultural levels.  

Somehow Millennial students are getting a bigger dose in response to something, some source of stress such as social unrest following the Great Recession of 2008. Of course emotional stress is in the eyes of each beholder; which is to say "common stress" and "bad distress" are products of how we interpret events. We sometimes find ourselves dealing with objective "reality problems" processed by subjective "head problems" resulting in the stress we experience. Irrational (i.e., the anti-self, anti-social interpretations of head problems) thinking magnifies the intensity of "reality problems." It is this cognitive processing that gives rise to good and bad thinking, and ultimately what we call Good and Evil.  

Perhaps something consistent with my hypothetical diagnosis of pseudocultural paranoia with anger (i.e., over and above the prevailing cultural level of paranoia and anger) is involved. What is anger? It is often a defense squelching fear. The anger-defense is more fashionable among men than women. It is said that when men are angry they should be crying and that when women are crying they should be angry. What is the universal antidote for anger? It is "assertion." Pseudocultural paranoia is behavior that is back-loaded with catastrophic-thinking, recalling that fear attracts and magnifies the stakes involved, and anger which defends against fear! Getting the good things in life for yourself comes down to the balance you strike with around being a scared rabbit (busy catastrophizing), angry bear (always demanding), or clever fox (winning with assertion).  

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Are you an angry-bear, scared-rabbit, or clever-fox when things go bad; remembering each metaphorical style of coping represents thought-styles? Lukianoff and Haidt suggest we are witnessing the pathological and emotional thinking of scared-rabbits and angry-bears. Thought styles supported by cognitive distortions and dysfunctional valuational styles that we can measure. I'm in the habit of treating individual problems in living and not collective pathology. I look forward to discovering what some of my peers in the American Psychological Association come to make of all this.    

Equally disturbing is evidence suggesting college campuses are in some way complicit by “coddling” students so that administrations become part of the problem. Given today’s apparent increase in catastrophic-thinking among students, and their access to email-amplification of their concerns and emotional thinking, it is understandable that professors are concerned about the “sensitive student” who takes offense and shares it with the wider world, and all that this implies!     

Folie à plusieurs: 

Collective, contagious behavior of this sort was first described in some detail by the French many years ago. They called it folie à plusieurs. It is collective behavior, often accompanied by a shared delusional system and reconstruction of reality, culminating in emotional thinking. Historically, it involved a degree of social isolation which favors delusional ideation. It seems these days it involves a response to catastrophic or awfulistic thinking with absolute demands (i.e., anger), short of delusional reconstructions of reality. I suppose this is progress of sorts! What we're dealing with appears to involve other dimensions, other sources of a breakdown of rational thinking giving rise to emotional thinking including the cognitive distortions of black-and-white thinking, overgeneralizations, problems with abstraction, emotional thinking, mind-reading, fortune-telling, labeling, exclusion of positive evidence, favoring negative evidence (because "fear attracts"), favoring moral-relativity while blind to moral-absolutes, and engaging in the even more dangerous factual-relativity often associated with growing ignorance and cynicism concerning science and the scientific method.

(See: Guide to Rational Living by Albert Ellis for more on cognitive distortions. See Robert Hartman's Freedom to Live for more about the philosopher who inspired my research summarized in the pages of The New Science of Axiological Psychology. My blogs are an attempt to "translate" and "explore" the consequences of research summarized in the pages of this book establishing a science of values. It also gives us a foundation on which to build moral education, and insights into the nature of Good and Evil). 

https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/beyond-good-and-evil

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With respect to the pathology, indeed insanity, of "factual-relativity," it is rightly said that while we all have a right to our own opinions, we do not have a right to our own facts; less reality come up and slaps us in the face! Remember also, a conclusion is where "thinking stops," and so let's be careful about them. One way to be careful is to be aware of cognitive distortions, the dimensions of value-vision, and the discipline of the scientific method and its respect for facts (i.e., natural science) and respect for values (i.e., axiological science). 

Do you suppose we really have a right to our own opinions? How absolute is the right to our own opinions or the values supporting them? Axiological science and axiological psychology speak to this question, and encourage us to look at the balance, sensitivity, order of influence, and plasticity of three dimensions of value and valuations; namely the "Three Little Words" of Feeler, Doer and Thinker dimensions of value (FTDs) which enable emotions and behavior...behavior that falls along the continuum from pro-self, pro-social to anti-self, anti-social.

Given the assumptions that life is better than death (including martyrdom); that health is better than disease, sanity is better than insanity, and peace is better than war; there is an optimal configuration of Feeler, Doer, and Thinker dimensions of value-vision for all situations; a configuration that optimizes such behavior or vice versa! The configurations of core value dimensions result in all that is Good and all that is Evil in the world; a world where it is still easier to organize Evil than Good (If we all become aware of this, i.e., discovering our FDTs through education, it will then become easier to organize Good in the world).      

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Accusations of “microaggression,” following the failure to provide “trigger-warnings,” is based on bad thinking, emotional thinking, in turn based on cognitive distortions and relative axiological blindness. Sticks and stones can break my bones (i.e., a potential reality problem), but names can never hurt me unless I agree with the name calling (i.e., a potential head problem). Students would better be taught that ideas and lecture content cannot upset them. Only their interpretation (i.e., cognitive processing) of ideas and content upsets them. If the authors are correct concerning the epidemic proportions of bad thinking on campus, we have a problem. Coddling students behaving this way flies in the face of everything clinical psychologists of my orientation practice when treating patients, and flies in the face of the core mission of education! 

In some respects the "societal gun" is loaded given culturally prevailing levels of cognitive disfunctions, and hopefully there will be no amplification of this by one social crisis or another, although recovery from the 2008 Recession and gun violence can only make matters worse; along with disfunctional governance and the paralysis of ideological polarization. We're playing with fire and maybe the "collective chickens" are canaries coming home to roost. I mean to imply this behavior on campus has got to be manifestation of social unrest and is likely the canary in the mine of society and its discontents. It is also connected with the failure of adults to be better role models, whether members of the political class, the business community, the professions, athletics, media, movies, popular culture, or other source of societal role models for young people (Remember if we don't get an enlightened top-down correction we bait a more troublesome bottom-up correction, and revolutions often occur when things are getting better).   

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Pathological thinking by any other name is pathological thinking, be it emotional reasoning behind the perception of microaggression or demands for trigger-warnings, or any of the more specific cognitive distortions previously mentioned, and known to produce problems in living for individuals treated by psychologists. Now that bad thinking is taking on a more contageous character and is breaking-out on the scale of collective involvement (i.e., campus Millennials), we might want to consider the development of a clincial psychology capable of dealing with it. The problem would appear to be too important to be left in the hands of social psychologists, cultural anthropologists or religions alone.

Pastoral and Philosophical counseling aren't prepared for this! Neither is clinical psychology! The treatment of collectives sharing common cognitive distortions on such a scale, and amplified by social media, isn't something psychology is prepared to deal with as "crisis psychology" or "preventive psychology." The remedy for outbreaks of Folie à Plusieurs must involve a strong preventive psychology approach and this means psychoeducation along the lines I've suggested, including science-based moral education to anchor and discipline increasingly undisciplined thinking in a world without common ground (e.g., I have in mind the homogeneity of the ancient world around polytheism or many gods, and then early monotheism or one god. I have in mind the common ground of a shared world-view giving us some social-glue or cultural homogeneity to secure the zeitgeist, climate-of-opinion, or "mass mind." Do you think the science of values and morals can give us what we need in the 21st century?   

Minds are fragile and vulnerable without the anchors of "meaning" and shared "common ground." This is why I say we're sailing in leaky boats on rough seas these days. We need to recover some of what the ancients enjoyed with their gods which gave them the security of shared, common ground or cultural homogeneity. This is the argument supporting internationalists and rejecting atavistic nationalists  like the Putins of the world. This is why I support ethnic diversity but not cultural divesity. This is why psychoeducation (e.g., based on the study of comparative religions, the history and philosophy of science, General Semantics, cognitive psychlogy, philosophical counseling, value science, and the scientific method) is desirable. I will leave the Malthusian Challenge to others to sort out. We travel with hope and our science of values gives us hope!  

© Dr. Leon Pomeroy, Ph.D. 

Malthusian Challenge:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Malthusian_catastrophe

September 28, 2015

About the Author

Leon Pomeroy, Ph.D.

Leon Pomeroy, Ph.D., taught at George Mason University and authored The New Science of Axiological Psychology.

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Microaggressions and Trigger-Warnings

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