Varieties of Psychological Illusions

  • Wokeness Wars and three Great Untruths;
  • More on that study that explains why people think the past was better, despite evidence.

Jerry Coyne’s website today has this post: Andrew Doyle: The culture war is not fake, but real and dangerous concerning the wokeness wars and a column by one Andrew Doyle, a political satirist.

Jerry Coyne, a professor emeritus at the U of Chicago and author of two valuable books, Why Evolution is True (2009) (summarized at length here) and Faith vs. Fact: Why Science and Religion are Incompatible (2015, as yet unblogged), spends a lot of his time on his blog discussing wokeness from a progressive, academic perspective — the very opposite of those on the right who can’t really say what wokeness even means, except things they don’t like, or that challenge white supremacy — and I’m mentioning his post today not to explore his take on wokeness, but because he invokes another older book that I haven’t gotten around to blogging about yet. (The most substantial books generate the most notes and most difficulty in boiling them down to a blog post.) And that is the book The Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt. I especially revere Haidt for his earlier books The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom (2005), another substantial book I’ve not yet blogged about, and especially The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (2012), which I blogged about over several posts.

What I want to get to today is the core of Lukianoff & Haidt’s Coddling book. (You can find it on Amazon by typing in that one word.) I want to mention it now for the record in case I never get around to summarizing the entire book. The book begins by identifying three “Great Untruths.” To be a Great Untruth, they explain, an idea must meet three criteria: it contradicts ancient wisdom; it contracts modern psychological research on well-being; and it harms the individuals and communities who embrace it.

And the three Great Untruths of their book are (copied from his post today):

1.)  We young people are fragile (“What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker.”)

2.) We are prone to emotional reasoning and confirmation bias (“Always trust your feelings.”)

3.) We are prone to “dichotomous thinking and tribalism” (“Life is a battle between good people and evil people.”)

The opening of the book, in fact, is a tongue-in-cheek description of the authors’ trip to a Greek cave high on Mount Olympus to meet an oracle named Misoponos, who dispenses this wisdom. And the balance of their book dismantles these claims and shows the harms they are causing.

I haven’t even finished this book, but I intend to, just as I intend to blog about Haidt’s earlier Happiness book. Spoiler: he finds much truth in ancient wisdom, with a couple significant exceptions. Modern humans have learned a few things that the ancients did not know.


This article discusses the same study by Adam Mastroianni covered in pieces I noted a month or so ago, here and especially in The Biggest Thing Conservatives Believe That Is Wrong.

The Atlantic, Hanna Rosin, 27 Jul 2023: Are You Plagued by the Feeling That Everyone Used to Be Nicer?, subtitled “Don’t succumb. It’s a psychological illusion.”

Whenever politicians or aspiring politicians make the claim that, you know, “Things used to be better, put me in charge and I’ll make them better again”—that’s a very old thing that we’ve heard many times. And it resonates with us, perhaps because we are primed to believe it, even when it’s not true.

The question is always, *why* should we be primed to believe something even it’s it not true? To summarize a theme in the interview that forms the bulk of this piece, it’s because we worry more as an adult about things we didn’t notice as a child. And people aren’t persuaded by statistics, but rather by personal stories.

Whereas, other kinds of personal stories can persuade people the other way:

In our studies, the much smaller group of people who say that people are better now than they used to be—when we asked them “Why? What were you thinking of?,” one thing that does come up for them is there’s more tolerance. There’s less racism, sexism, ableism; all the isms.

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