Wednesday, August 12, 2015

How to Make College Students Depressed and Anxious

Writing in the Atlantic Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt have clarified the issues surrounding the current college campus delirium about trigger warnings and microaggressions. In large part they have succeeded.

Lukianoff is a lawyer and is CEO of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. Haidt is a social psychologist who teaches at NYU’s Stern School of business.

The mania that has infested the nation’s campuses rests on a wish to ensure everyone’s emotional well-being. Thus it is based on a theory of what does and does not inflict psychological damage on students:

The current movement is largely about emotional well-being. More than the last, it presumes an extraordinary fragility of the collegiate psyche, and therefore elevates the goal of protecting students from psychological harm. The ultimate aim, it seems, is to turn campuses into “safe spaces” where young adults are shielded from words and ideas that make some uncomfortable. And more than the last, this movement seeks to punish anyone who interferes with that aim, even accidentally. You might call this impulse vindictive protectiveness. It is creating a culture in which everyone must think twice before speaking up, lest they face charges of insensitivity, aggression, or worse.

Constitutionally, these practices seem clearly to be indefensible. Pedagogically, they are designed to produce mindless clods. More salient, for our current purposes, is the fact that they are more likely to instigate than to help treat emotional distress and mental illness.

The authors explain:

A campus culture devoted to policing speech and punishing speakers is likely to engender patterns of thought that are surprisingly similar to those long identified by cognitive behavioral therapists as causes of depression and anxiety. 

To buttress their point they offer some statistics. It turns out that, as college students become more alert to microaggressions, as they receive more sensitivity training, as they learn how to avoid offending anyone, their mental health is declining:

Nearly all of the campus mental-health directors surveyed in 2013 by the American College Counseling Association reported that the number of students with severe psychological problems was rising at their schools. The rate of emotional distress reported by students themselves is also high, and rising. In a 2014 survey by the American College Health Association, 54 percent of college students surveyed said that they had “felt overwhelming anxiety” in the past 12 months, up from 49 percent in the same survey just five years earlier. Students seem to be reporting more emotional crises; many seem fragile, and this has surely changed the way university faculty and administrators interact with them. The question is whether some of those changes might be doing more harm than good.

To show what is wrong with trigger-warnings and hypersensitivity to slights, the authors explain the bases for cognitive-behavioral therapy, beginning with a proposition that needs to be somewhat clarified:

For millennia, philosophers have understood that we don’t see life as it is; we see a version distorted by our hopes, fears, and other attachments.

In truth, some philosophers believe that reality is as we see it or interpret it. They tend to throw up a veil of ideas before the real world and invite us to believe that what is real is what affirms our beliefs. Plato, for example, argued that we do not deal with real objects, but only with appearances.

Other philosophers, mostly in the empirical and pragmatic traditions, begin with facts and attempt to draw hypotheses that they then test experimentally. In scientific reasoning, it must always be possible to disprove the hypothesis. Otherwise you would be playing with loaded dice.

In idealistic thinking, however, there is no such thing as a piece of information that can disprove your idea. Such was Karl Popper’s famous objection to Freud. It applies to many other theories. For someone who believes in anthropogenic climate change there is no such thing as a piece of information than can disprove the theory.

Lukianoff and Haidt explain that cognitive therapy tries to free people from the illusions of idea-based or ideological thinking, thereby allowing them to come to terms with reality:

The goal is to minimize distorted thinking and see the world more accurately. You start by learning the names of the dozen or so most common cognitive distortions (such as overgeneralizing, discounting positives, and emotional reasoning; see the list at the bottom of this article). Each time you notice yourself falling prey to one of them, you name it, describe the facts of the situation, consider alternative interpretations, and then choose an interpretation of events more in line with those facts. Your emotions follow your new interpretation. In time, this process becomes automatic. When people improve their mental hygiene in this way—when they free themselves from the repetitive irrational thoughts that had previously filled so much of their consciousness—they become less depressed, anxious, and angry.

By their view, critical thinking belongs firmly within the empirical tradition:

By almost any definition, critical thinking requires grounding one’s beliefs in evidence rather than in emotion or desire, and learning how to search for and evaluate evidence that might contradict one’s initial hypothesis. But does campus life today foster critical thinking? Or does it coax students to think in more-distorted ways?

Of course, there are many different ways to see critical thinking, to say nothing of critical theory. Many versions oblige you to think critically about your culture. If you follow them you will see all aspects of the culture through the lens of an ideology that denounces Western civilization as a capitalist, imperialist, colonialist, racist, sexist, patriarchal conspiracy designed to advance the privileges of some at the expense of others.

The authors continue to point out, quite correctly, that the habits of thought that are being inculcated on college campuses are most likely to instigate dysfunctionality. They are disturbed by the notion that an emotional reaction can count as objective proof that something bad has happened. If this is so, your emotions can never be questioned. They can never be examined to see whether they refer to something real:

If our universities are teaching students that their emotions can be used effectively as weapons—or at least as evidence in administrative proceedings—then they are teaching students to nurture a kind of hypersensitivity that will lead them into countless drawn-out conflicts in college and beyond. Schools may be training students in thinking styles that will damage their careers and friendships, along with their mental health.

Moreover,  a course curriculum and classroom discussion designed to avoid any reference to any trauma are more likely to aggravate than to ameliorate the effects of said trauma. As I have occasionally pointed out on this blog, trauma victims recover from their experience by gradual exposure to potentially harmful stimuli.

Lukianoff and Haidt explain:

According to the most-basic tenets of psychology, the very idea of helping people with anxiety disorders avoid the things they fear is misguided. A person who is trapped in an elevator during a power outage may panic and think she is going to die. That frightening experience can change neural connections in her amygdala, leading to an elevator phobia. If you want this woman to retain her fear for life, you should help her avoid elevators.

And also:

But if you want to help her return to normalcy, you should take your cues from Ivan Pavlov and guide her through a process known as exposure therapy…. This is how the amygdala can get rewired again to associate a previously feared situation with safety or normalcy.


Students with PTSD should of course get treatment, but they should not try to avoid normal life, with its many opportunities for habituation. Classroom discussions are safe places to be exposed to incidental reminders of trauma (such as the word violate). A discussion of violence is unlikely to be followed by actual violence, so it is a good way to help students change the associations that are causing them discomfort. And they’d better get their habituation done in college, because the world beyond college will be far less willing to accommodate requests for trigger warnings and opt-outs.


Anonymous said...

"For someone who believes in anthropogenic climate change there is no such thing as a piece of information that can disprove the theory."

Since it relates to human experience the above phrase can be reversed and would be just as valid: For someone who does not believe in anthropogenic climate change there is no such thing as a piece of information than can disprove the theory.

The belief in anthropogenic climate change is not without any scientific basis if one recognizes three facts as accurate: human beings increase the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere; the increased concentration of greenhouse gases tends to cause global warming (the atmosphere of Venus appears to be the result of a run-away greenhouse effect but no one knows for certain); global warming threatens to cause drastic climate change. No one can prove in advance whether human beings are in fact the proximate cause of warming and climate change. However if humans have become a cause of climate then it will always be a complex problem of joint causation: then nature and man are joint causes of the climate pattern. The ethical question is whether humanity should or should not conduct experiments in manmade climate change? The conservative value system would say, "No!"

Mind-reading distortions can be a problem some people, however, it is required for social interaction. Ordinary mind-reading occurs every day when we anticipate the desires and motives of others or interpret their actions. When a judge or jury infers the state of mind of another person (criminal intent, malicious torts, or negligence) then it is an act of mind reading, since one never does know the actual state of mind of another person. If Jake carries an umbrella then we infer that he believes it is going to rain and that he wants to stay dry. This is called the desire-belief model of human behavior. Small children who are abused cannot form the mature non-distorted idea about the situation, or, rather, a distorted idea can live beside the non-distorted idea in memory. The person often feels much confusion.

Emotional reasoning is the only possible type of reasoning. In mathematics, for example, the expression 2 + 2 = 4 is "true" while 2 + 2 = 5 is "false." How does my body distinguish between true and false without recourse to the capacity for emotional reasoning? If others tell me 2 + 2 = 5 is true then who should I trust, them or my self? Anyone who claims to reason without recourse to emotion is simply unaware of how the mind develops the capacity for reasoning via processing the intense emotions of childhood in a social context. Galileo felt pain contemplating the laws of motion described by Aristotle. Many scientists regard experiencing a good theory (e.g., Einstein's General Theory) as beautiful. Reason is the refinement of emotion.

Sam L. said...

1+1=3. Saw a cartoon years ago: man was at a farmer's house for dinner, explaining that as fact. Farmer has two cooked chickens on the table, and says, "Well then, I'll take the first one, my wife the second one, and YOU can have the third!"

1--You can't please everybody, and the colleges want to please those who want no disagreement, so those who disagree/have a different take find they are not welcome.

2--Those who can't cope with different thinking are not mentally ready for college, let alone the real world outside college.

Pogo: I never said I was a diplomat said...

"How does my body distinguish between true and false without recourse to the capacity for emotional reasoning?"
Your body doesn't need to distinguish it.
It's not a social answer, and what you feel about the answer means nothing at all.
The true number represented in the count is independent of your emotions.

Pogo: I never said I was a diplomat said...

This is an intriguing post.
I work with young adults, college age, for a condition that has considerable overlap with anxiety.
It seems to be burgeoning, having been seemingly rare even 10 years ago.
I had wondered why these young people seemed so fragile and anxious, with little resilience.
This seems to be part of the explanation.

Pogo: I never said I was a diplomat said...

"Mind-reading distortions can be a problem some people, however, it is required for social interaction. "
Your examples are simple deduction from the observable facts, whereas the distortion (key word) involves consistently projecting your negative thoughts and feelings onto others, and failing to reality check those conclusions (i.e. learning by evidence).

"‘Mind reading’ is a cognitive error which has been defined as follows:
‘‘One’s arbitrary conclusion that someone is reacting negatively, or thinking negatively toward him/her, without specific evidence to support that conclusion’’.
Yurica, C. L., & DiTomasso, R. A. (2005). Cognitive distortions.
In A. Freeman, S. H. Felgoise, C. M. Nezu, A. M. Nezu, & M. Reinecke (Eds.),
International encyclopedia of cognitive and behavioral therapies. New York: Springer. P.119

Anonymous said...


The term "mind reading" has a much more general definition among philosophers and cognitive scientists. Under this link Mind Reading it is the first topic discussed in the context of Folk Psychology:

This paper, Theory of Mind and The Self (11 pages), describes mind reading as a general capacity where it is instead called Theory of Mind (ToM):

This article argues that emotions are critical to helping a person make judgments:

States of mind in law and in life cannot be deduced from mere perceptions of fact otherwise we could program a computer to crunch the premises and deduce moral and legal conclusions. Deductive machines do not perform inferential reasoning. They do not understand the concept of murder as a state of mind, or the standard of certainty in a murder trial "guilty beyond a reasonable doubt."

Here is an interesting article about how the "mind" of Watson computer works:

where the interesting question to me (an electrical engineer and lawyer) is how does Watson estimate probabilities, via input from human experts in many subjects, or via an internal adaptive learning algorithm, or both? I have not read the whole article yet so I don't know if the author raises the issue or provides an answer ...

Pogo: I never said I was a diplomat said...

But again, the key word is distortion.

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

Isn't college supposed to prepare you to live a good life? How is one to live without getting "triggered?" How is one to live without experiencing "aggression?" If you can't deal with people except to warn them that you're getting triggered (which is a tactic to get them to stop) or you say you can't deal with micro-aggressions (which is another tactics to get them to stop), hoe are you going to face real triggers or deal with real aggressions? Who on earth doesn't experience these things most every day in some form? When do you grow up, build character and learn to deal with people? There isn't going to be a bodyguard, referee or other bureaucratic protection racket in every situation one faces in life. And these kinds of protocols and programs are being established at some of our most elite schools. If these are the people who are going to be leading/running the country, is this what we have to look forward too? My goodness! Some have said college has become an extension of high school. Sounds here that college is a continuation of kindergarten.

Dennis said...

It is little more than the "Me" generation indoctrinating the "Afraid to face life's challenges Me." What better way to get people to accept control by a large overarching centralize government than to handicap people's ability to face life's challenges. One wonders just how much pressure those who want to destroy us have to exert before these people will surrender? I suspect not much for they have no experience in how to deal with adversity. The only "trigger" they will remember is the one being pulled as they see their life pass before them. Those unable to stand on their own two feet will live on their knees. Whether they understand this or not most of this is a form of cowardice.

Dennis said...

For those who might think I am being a little severe:
Does anyone think that these people are going to care about you sensitivities or desires not to hear ideas that might offend. One cannot fight an idea unless one is willing to hear it. No safe room is going to save you.

Anonymous said...

From the first anonymous, "For someone who does not believe in anthropogenic climate change there is no such thing as a piece of information than can disprove the theory,"
Is not true. If your theory correctly predicts the variation of the temperature with CO2 concentration through a large and unprecedented range then it is likely that your theory is correct or substantially correct. The current models have no predictive skill...

Additionally your "three facts" are closer to beliefs than facts. For example from the Vostok ice cores we know that the CO2 concentration lags the temperature change by 700 to 800 years. A cause must necessarily precede its effect.

Anonymous said...

Anon 8/16 12:33PM,

The statement I wrote is as true as Stewart's original statement when taken in the context of beliefs that are not open to question or evidence, which was my point.

If you read what I wrote in context then it is incorrect to assert, "Its not true!"

In a run-away greenhouse effect warming triggers release of more greenhouse gases which generates more warming which triggers the release of more greenhouse gases.

In the past CO2 release could lag after some other natural cause of warming. Even if this fact is true it does not invalidate the theory of human induced climate change via increase of greenhouse gas concentrations.