What's the Solution for a Coddled American Mind?

A new book explains how we've set younger generations up for failure.

Posted Sep 18, 2018

Motortion Films/Shutterstock
Source: Motortion Films/Shutterstock

I recently watched Fareed Zakaria interview Jonathan Haidt, co-author of a new book, The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure. Haidt sees the current generation of college students as markedly different from millennials and earlier generations by having been overprotected by their parents.

Haidt notes that somewhere in the 1980s or 1990s, parents got the idea that if children were allowed to play outside without adult supervision, they might get abducted. This was in marked contrast to previous generations of children freely playing games, making rules, resolving conflicts, and learning critical social skills.

As a result, there has been a significant increase of overwhelming stress, crippling anxieties, and depression among today’s college students. They have become fragile, unable to face challenges, more susceptible to the power of words, and offended by free speech (e.g., reporting a professor’s utterance of just one offensive word during an hour’s lecture as grounds for dismissal). 

In the opening pages, Haidt focuses on three "Great Untruths:" the Untruth of Fragility, that exposure to stressors makes us weaker; the Untruth of Emotional Reasoning, that feelings, although compelling, are unreliable; and the Untruth of Us Versus Them, which leads to prejudice and “microaggressions” against others.

Haidt does not blame the current generation and recognizes the enormous pressures to perform academically. Instead, he blames their overprotective parents. He identifies six contributing causal influences: our rising political polarization and cross-party animosity; rising levels of teen anxiety and depression; changing parenting practices; the decline of free play and risk-taking; the growth of campus bureaucracy; and an increasing passion for social justice with changing ideas of what justice requires.

As a clinical psychologist, I feel qualified to speak to one of these contributing influences—the rising levels of teen anxiety and depression. Haidt makes it clear that he favors cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), recommending it even for those who do not experience depression or anxiety. He includes a CBT starter worksheet in his index.

In his chapter on The Untruth of Emotional Reasoning, Haidt lauds Aaron Beck, the founder of CBT, for upending the Freudian idea that mental disorders are based upon unresolved childhood conflict and that to treat depression, you have to address the underlying problem. Beck believed we could sidestep the time required to recognize and resolve the underlying conflict by simply challenging the negative beliefs associated with depression using reason.

Haidt portrays the evidence that CBT works as overwhelming and cites others that it is effective for anorexia, bulimia, obsessive compulsive disorder, anger, marital discord, and stress-related disorders. Yet, if CBT were as effective as Haidt claims it to be, and since it has been the favored therapy among college counselors for over 30 years, we would not be beleaguered with excessive stress, anxiety, and depression on college campuses.    

According to a 2012 meta-study undertaken by the Department of Health and Human Services, the pooled rates for treating anger and aggression with CBT versus other psychotherapies was virtually identical (66-69 percent vs. 65-70 percent). The response rates for depression were a little better, at 51-87 percent vs. 45-70 percent.  And the response rate for generalized anxiety was only 46 percent, without another therapy for comparison. Relapse rates were not included.

A study for the Departments of Defense and Veteran Affairs conducted in 2015 by New York University found 60 to 72 percent of PTSD patients who received cognitive processing therapy (a version of CBT) retained a significant PTSD diagnosis following treatment.

Both CBT and CPT are based upon a mechanical cause-and-effect model, going back to B.F. Skinner from the early 1950s. CPT uses this model by inserting a rational thought between the stimulus (memory of traumatic event) and the response (PTSD symptom), thereby interrupting the response. The problem, of course, is that with daily practice and hard work, nothing is resolved—symptoms are just buried, out of mind, waiting to reemerge. 

Although CBT undeniably is effective with some clients some of the time, the claim of “evidence-based” is misleading. It may be evidence-based insofar as it has been subject to more published studies. But being published requires statistical significance, which overlooks the unpublished studies that found no significance.

But back to Haidt’s thesis of how our current college generation was set up for failure; particularly our cross-party animosity, growth of campus bureaucracy, and lack of free speech are worthy of discussion. But I wouldn't want to bet on his or anyone's recommendations for change.

This blog was co-published with PsychResilience.com. 

References

Haidt J & Lukianoff G (2018). The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure, Penguin Press

Hofmann SG, et al, (2012). The Efficacy of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: A Review of Meta-analyses, Journal of Cognitive Behavioral Research

Steenkamp MM, et al, (2015). Cognitive processing therapy, prolonged exposure improve military-related PTSD despite high non-response rates, Journal of American Medical Association