The 9 Cognitive Distortions Taught in College…

… and why students pay to learn them.

It’s pretty reasonable to expect that Americans go to college for lots of reasons that include how to improve their thinking. But Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, both professors at New York University, have just published a new book called The Coddling of the American Mind that suggests some college classes are doing the opposite.

Haidt became well known for his two previous books, The Happiness Hypothesis and The Righteous Mind which I’ve quoted before in posts like Moral Foundation Theory. In these previous books, Haidt introduced the metaphor of the Rider and the Elephant to debunk the utilitarian theory of human behavior based on the teachings of 18th century English philosopher Jeremy Bentham. According to ultilitarian theory, people are happiness maximizers, who perform some sort of hidden calculus to determine what decisions will make them most happy, and then act in accordance with this happiness (i.e., “utility”) maximization principle.

If a utility maximization theory of human behavior doesn’t already sound like a bunch of dangerous garbage to you, then allow me to elaborate.

Haidt says that the rational, cognitive processing necessary to make decisions as Bentham describes requires a lot of brain power, which makes it the job of the metaphorical Rider. According to utility maximization theory, once these smart Riders gets things worked out about what will them happiest, they direct the metaphorical Elephant on where to go and what tasks to perform.

Except that Riders are pretty slow, and by the time the Rider has thought through all the options, the Elephant has already made the decision and walked halfway down whatever path was most familiar to it. (See Thinking Fast and Slow, Kahnemann 2011).

Elephant behavior is like a bad habit. By the time we realize what we’ve done, it’s already too late to undo it.
Rider behavior is like a New Year’s Resolution. You spend months thinking about it, imagining it, savoring it, until you finally swear to it. But by Valentine’s Day, you can hardly remember what it was, because the Elephant is doing whatever it wants, anyway.

The only thing the Rider can really do is offer some bullshit, post hoc rationalization for what the stronger, more powerful Elephant has already done, thus perpetuating the illusion that the old habit was really what the Rider wanted the whole time.

Haidt’s Rider represents what psychologists call executive function. That is, any aspect of decision-making that isn’t automatically carried out by the Elephant. Haidt’s point is that our Rider’s are nowhere near as in control as we like to think (or utilitarian theory claims) they are.

From ‘The Development of Executive Functions and Self Regulation’ by Clancy Blair, in Handbook of Self Regulation, 3rd ed. (2016).

You’d think that American colleges might seek to strengthen and improve student executive function, to improve their reasoning skills, increase their working memory and inhibitory control mechanisms, and increase their cognitive flexibility so that students can “adjust their behavior accordingly” and make better decisions.

According to Lukianoff and Haidt in The Coddling, many colleges are doing just the opposite, by instead encouraging students to indulge in these 9 cognitive distortions:

  1. Emotional reasoning.
    You might expect psychologists, famous for asking their patients “How do you feel about that?” to encourage people to get in touch with their feelings. Haidt himself has previously written that cognition relies on emotions. But Lukianoff and Haidt caution against allowing our feelings to “guide our interpretation of reality.” Just because we’re in pain does not mean that you have been hurt. According to Adlerian psychology, feelings can be conjured up to help us achieve goals (Courage to be Disliked, Kishimi & Koga 2018). For example, when we’re angry, sometimes that anger is a feeling we fabricate to help us control other’s behavior. Noticing these feelings might help us come to understand ourselves better, but it will not improve our mental model of the way the external world works. It’s important to remember that our feelings do not reveal to us anything more than how we feel. They are different from our intuitions. They are different from our instincts. Confusing feelings with thoughts, or feelings with reality, is a cognitive distortion.
  2. Catastrophizing.
    Our imaginations are powerful tools for protecting us against harm. When we construct in our imaginations a cascade of events that eventually leads to catastrophe, that might be a way of keeping ourselves physically and psychologically safe from harm. That doesn’t mean it’s true. Catastrophizing is the imaginative act of extrapolating from some small sequence of events in the past or near present, to a disaster of biblical proportions. To confuse fictional disaster movies with reality is a cognitive distortion.
  3. Overgeneralizing.
    It is a mistake to think that something that happens once will happen always. A specific experience, in a particular context, does not provide sufficient evidence to draw a general conclusion. For example, you might remember that the smartest kid in your grade school wore glasses. It does not follow that all kids with glasses are smart. We can see a different form of overgeneralizing in the way we seek to imitate celebrities. While the Elephant is hard-wired to learn by imitation of prestigious models (The Secret of Our Success, Henrich 2016), the Rider is responsible for making a distinction between relevant and irrelevant knowledge. Just because someone has 3M followers on Instagram doesn’t make them more qualified to espouse wisdom on moral theory, or climate science. To confuse the specific with the general is a cognitive distortion.
  4. Dichotomous (all or nothing) thinking.
    For example, it is typical of people in codependent relationships to think in terms of always/never without any middle ground or compromise. These extremes simplify the reasoning required to come to terms, or make sense, of our negative emotions. The construction of a false dichotomy (either… or) is a cognitive shortcut — i.e., a substitute for thinking — that sometimes helps us manipulate those around us into behaving in ways that will help us feel better. You can detect this type of thinking when you hear adverbs that leave no room for exception, like “totally, completely, utterly, absolutely.” The exaggeration of sometimes to always/never is a cognitive distortion.
  5. Mind reading.
    There are some people with whom we have so much experience that we can know their thoughts. For example, in some passive aggressive families, children learn to interpret their parents sarcasm or suggestions without the parents having to trouble themselves to explain themselves. This confers (to the parent) the real advantage of being able to change their mind later, and claiming that the child misunderstood, or misinterpreted the parent. The effect will be to raise a child hypervigilant for hidden meanings that do not exist, were not stated, and might even be the opposite of reality. Although it is true that we can empathize with others whom we know well and use our imagination to access what they might be thinking, projecting thoughts onto them and attributing the projection to others is a cognitive distortion.
  6. Labeling.
    The reciprocal of overgeneralizing is labeling — assigning global (negative) traits to yourself or others. Whereas overgeneralizing is the extrapolation of a specific trait to a general, labeling starts with the general and then makes inferences about the specific. Just because someone belongs to a category, doesn’t mean they embody all the traits that are stereotypical of that category. Like dichotomous thinking, labeling is a cognitive distortion that oversimplifies what we understand about people and the world.
  7. Negative filtering.
    When gathering data, or evidence, organizing it in accordance with our cognitive schema, to construct a mental model of how the world works, we sometimes exaggerate the importance of negative data. For example, you might have experience with someone that suggests they are reliable, timely, and keep their commitments. However, if you label them, overgeneralize, and claim they are totally inconsiderate the first time they forget to send you a birthday greeting, you are engaging in negative filtering —i.e., amplifying the negative signal until it overwhelms the positive.
  8. Discounting positives
    A complement to negative filtering is rationalizing away positive evidence, as if it was false or doesn’t count. For example, a student who earns high marks on a difficult math exam might rationalize that they studied a similar topic in high school, or made lucky guesses, as a way of protecting their ego from the expectation that they perform just as well in the future. Both negative filtering and discounting positives are a powerful approaches to ignoring evidence that result in cognitive distortions.
  9. Blaming.
    When we are children, sometimes our parents, teachers, or other role models will seek to control our behaviors or our emotions. These attempts (often successful) can give children an impression that they do not control their own minds, and this erroneous impression often persists to adulthood. However, despite the operant conditioning that trains habits into our Elephants, to ignore the agency in our Riders is a cognitive distortion.

Lukianoff and Haidt make the point that many new practices and policies in American classrooms, such as “trigger warnings” and prohibitions on “micro aggression” reinforce cognitive distortions and consequently degrade rather than improve student thinking, based on the medical and moral argument that such practices are meant to prevent students from harm. (As if hurt feelings constituted harm — a different kind of distortion Lukianoff and Haidt call “concept creep”).

The point is that each of these cognitive distortions encourages inferior thinking by promising the reward of superior feeling.

Ray Dalio, founder of the most profitable hedge fund in the world, writes about “mental models” in his book Principles (Dalio 2017). In Dalio’s view, your mental model is your understanding of the cause and effect relationships that govern the behavior or the external world. He is most concerned with the behavior of financial markets, but we could extend the concept of mental modeling to other aspects of the world, too. For example, there are many ideas about how the planets move in relation to the sun. The Ptolemaic mental model positioned the Earth at the center, with the sun, moon and all the other planets revolving around us. This mental model worked alright, but it failed to explain some of thing that careful observers noticed. The Copernican Revolution constructed a new mental model that positioned the sun at the center of the solar system, and these careful observations were all of a sudden much simpler to explain (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 4th ed., Kuhn 2012).

Mental models are never Right. They are always flawed, always in need of updating, if only because our world is always changing. Science is the systematic organization of doubt in our mental models, and the process of improving them. (See Science does not ask “Why?”). As institutions that nurture science, whose principal product is knowledge it is reasonable to expect that our colleges should be dedicated to the elimination of cognitive distortion for the improvement of our thinking — i.e., the improvement of our mental models about they way the world works.

Increasingly, colleges are doing the opposite, and it is important for us to come to some sort of understanding of what drives them to do this. The answer may be that it is in their best financial interests to engage in practices that make their students feel better. In fact, their economic survival may depend upon it.

In If Universities Were Run Like Businesses I wrote about how universities monetize prestige. There are several mechanisms by which they translate prestige to revenue, not the least of which is tuition, followed by sponsored research, and philanthropy.

As universities have become increasingly bureaucratic (to increase efficiency, respond to scandal, manage risk, or reduce labor costs) they have evolved from mission-driven to customer-driven cultures. Consequently, it behooves them to become sensitive and responsive to the different customers concerns that support each of their most important revenue streams. To understand the “coddling of the American mind,” we must understand what customer concerns this coddling serves, and how they are changing.

In each case, university customers are increasingly paying for management of feelings, rather than access to knowledge. It is as if universities have discovered what Pepsi figured out in the 1950’s, Your Customers Want Your Therapy, Not Your Product.

Lukianoff and Haidt cite cognitive behavioral therapy as the most effective mechanism for overcoming the cognitive distortions that are keeping us from getting the things we want. Rather than delve deep into painful childhood experiences, cognitive behavioral therapy is a way of prompting patients to consider and improve their own executive function. The principal disadvantage of cognitive behavioral therapy is that it is hard work, and it feels bad, at least in the short term.

So colleges (the units within the larger university responsible for undergraduate education) are now coddling students because these students, as customers, have the same expectation of their colleges that they have of their soft drinks.

Customers pay money to those who make them feel better.

And why shouldn’t these customers (i.e., students) expect to have their short-term feelings attended to? To some extent, this problem is one that colleges have made for themselves. As tuition sticker prices have spiraled up, so have customer expectations. As students increasingly take on debt to fund their education (or risk being economically left behind without a degree) they increasingly expect colleges to help them manage the anxiety of that debt.

Lukianoff and Haidt bemoan the cognitive distortions now encouraged in their classrooms. They seem to believe that the elimination of these practices, by force of policy, or a return to some sort of pedagogical professionalism, will restore classrooms to their previous state as places to strengthen cognitive processes called executive function. By contrast, I suspect that there may be serious financial repercussions for universities that fail to please their most important stakeholders. Whether these are long- or short-term repercussions, whether they are at all avoidable, I don’t know.

My point is that what happens in the classroom may be a response to incentives that are formed outside.

If we want better instruction from our colleges, we are going to have to figure out new ways to pay for it, because people may not be utility maximizers, but bureaucratic institutions like colleges and corporations often are.