Jonathan Haidt on Why We’re So Divided and What to Do About It

Jonathon Haidt
I’m Alan Alda, and this is C+V, conversations about connecting and communicating.
Jon:Suddenly from out of nowhere in 2013 to 2014, students are acting as though words are dangerous, books are violent, speakers will be traumatizing, so we start hearing the first talk about students requesting safe spaces, trigger warnings, talking about microaggressions. It’s as though suddenly some students were very, very thin skinned, easily harmed, and frightened. … I want to stress we don’t know the cause, but the two best hypotheses are social media, which I’ll come back to, and before they got social media, the vast overprotection that we subjected kids to, we basically took away childhood from them in the 1990s.

Alan: 00:00:00 Jon, I’m really glad that you were able to come in and talk with me today, because what you deal with, what you’ve studied and written about and talked about is something that seems endemic to the way we live today, which is how we’re divided up into two camps and each camp can’t stand the other. If we have conversations about relating and communicating that seems to be central to the question. For instance, it seems to get more extreme in your new book The Coddling of the American Mind, but you’ve written earlier about this whole question of how each side doesn’t trust the other. Where does that come from?
Jon: 00:00:45 In terms of picking my retirement stocks, if I had just always done the opposite of everything I did, I would be a richer man today. But in terms of picking subjects to study, soon after graduate school I picked moral psychology and then I switched over to political psychology, and then specifically how processes of polarization make us all incredibly stupid as we think about how we can beat the other side. This is the topic I picked in the early 2000s, and, my God, am I a wealthy man today in terms of picking an academic topic to study.
Alan: 00:01:18 Is that actual wealth or is that wealth of knowledge?
Jon: 00:01:20 Well, it’s wealth of knowledge although I guess it does translate into invitations to speak, so I suppose there is some sort of conversion factor there.
Alan: 00:01:27 You sure? There was one TED talk you gave that got three million views so far.
Jon: 00:01:32 It was on how left and right have trouble understanding each other, and I gave that in 2008. That’s right.
Alan: 00:01:37 Not only does that show, I think, not only that we’re divided, but that we’re hungry to be undivided.
Jon: 00:01:44 Well, yeah. There’s a lot of survey work showing that the great majority of Americans want politicians to be more civil and they want them to compromise, but that mostly means they want the politicians on the other side to be more flexible and to compromise.
Alan: 00:01:57 I was wondering about that. I take it that … research has shown that the liberal mind is more open to change, and the conservative mind is less so or opposed to some extent to change. When you have two groups who ought to reach out to one another, does that mean that the liberals are going to be more likely to reach out and accept the conservatives and vice versa?
Jon: 00:02:29 If everything else were equal … Ahem.
Alan: 00:02:33 That’s fine. We’ll cut that out.
Jon: 00:02:37 If all else were equal, then there is some truth to what you just said. One of the big findings in personality research about politics … I’m sorry. [inaudible 00:02:47].
I think I’ll start that again.
If everything else were equal then there is some truth to what you say, because one of the big findings in personality research on politics … What’s different about the personalities of people on the left and the right is that people who have one of the big five traits, the five main personality traits, one of them is openness to experience. Kids who are born … It is partly heritable. People who are born and raised … When they’re kids they just like trying different things, they like exploring different things, they’re more open to new foods and experiences, it’s a fairly stable personality trait. Such people tend to be more attracted to progressive or left-wing causes. People who like order, predictability, stability, routine, they do tend to be attracted more to conservative parties, and that’s true around the world. So there is a stable personality difference and I’ve also found …
I’m active in a lot of organizations that try to bridge the divide, and it tends to be mostly central-left people and then there’s one guy who is a kind of a Rockefeller Republican who shows up for the meetings. So there is some truth to what you say, but with that said, before we lose all the conservative listeners, a factor that swamps that is the degree to which each side feels that it is defending sacred values and it is in a tribal warfare mindset.
Right now, both sides are extremely tribal. Both sides are extremely closed minded. Both sides will attack anyone one their side who shows any nuance. For example, if you’re on the left, think about the last time a friend of yours said something like, “Well, I really hate Donald Trump, but I gotta admit, he was right on points A, B, and C.” No, you can’t do that in most circles. It has to be straight down the line.
Alan: 00:04:48 Yeah, that’s true, and I was raising the question because it doesn’t appear to me, in fact, that the left is more willing to see any good in the right than the right is in seeing any good in the left. On the contrary, the tribalism seems to be so acute, severe, that we do … When Kellyanne Conway talked about alternative facts, I remember being shouted down in conversations because I said, “You know, there is a way of seeing that as not stupidity.” There are facts that some people pay more attention to, give greater weight to, than other people do. A scientific controversy could be an example of that, but before they know more about a question, you might give evidence on one side more weight than on the other side. How does that sound to you?
Jon: 00:05:45 Well, it sounds to me like you just violated the cardinal rule of the partisan life, which is you actually try to find whether there is some truth in what she said, rather than putting your stake in the ground, saying “She’s wrong. Everything she says is wrong, and now I will use my prodigious intelligence to find five reasons why she’s wrong.” So yeah, that’s a great example-
Alan: 00:06:03 I came out … I did raise the question which I thought was worth raising, is is there a way of looking at it that holds water, but then when I heard a fact is not a fact I started to go the other way.
Jon: 00:06:19 Yeah, that’s right. There’s a funny thing going on in our country … It’s not funny. It’s tragic. Studies that show the degree to which we hate the other side, the surprising finding is that back in the ’70s and even to the ’80s people gave very high ratings to their own party, but their ratings of the other party were only a little below the midpoint. They mildly disliked the other party overall, on average. Then those lines, sort of the cross partisan dislike lines, they begin sloping up in the ’80s and the ’90s and then they accelerate their slope after 2000, so the 2000s have been really bad for polarization.
To get back to your point about what happens when you show nuance or whether the left or right is more open now, beginning with the George W Bush presidency we began to use the phrase “Bush Derangement Syndrome.” As long as Bush was in the White House there were people on the left who would believe conspiracy theories ’cause they were really, really angry, and if you’re angry, you’ll believe anything that make your opponents look bad (a psychological fact that the Russian are very, very aware of), so the left kind of had Bush Derangement Syndrome from 2001 to 2009, and then Obama comes in and now it’s the right’s turn to have Obama derangement syndrome, which means some of them will believe any crackpot theory that makes Obama look bad. Then Trump come in and now the left has Trump derangement syndrome.
I don’t mean to say that Trump and Obama are equal or equivalent. I just mean to say that whichever side controls the White House, the other side should probably get free automatic government-paid Xanax. If everybody on the other side were given Xanax they would be a little calmer. I’m not saying we shouldn’t fight, I’m just saying they would be less self-destructive because they wouldn’t be so crazy.
Alan: 00:08:03 This is a new angle on healthcare.
Jon: 00:08:04 Yeah, as long as we’re talking about healthcare reform.
Alan: 00:08:08 Well, I do remember just in my personal experience when I was in my 20s and 30s I think I would have identified myself pretty much left of center, and people right of center would tease me, try to get a rise out of me by saying things they knew countered what I would probably have believed as someone left of center. But it was teasing,
Jon: 00:08:37 Yeah. Teasing is normal.
Alan: 00:08:38 And then the teasing grew into sneering, and then it became … It was hard to find myself in the conversation with somebody right of center ’cause they would move in completely different worlds.
Jon: 00:08:52 Now, that’s right. I think you’re right in observing that process. That is part of what’s happened to us. A theme in all of my books … I always try to take an evolutionary view and look at what is human nature, and then I always combine it with a cultural psychology view about with “What are the networks of meaning that we participate in and what are the social structures and how are they changing and evolving?” I think there’s little doubt that human beings evolved for both competition and cooperation. We’re really good at both. It’s fashionable these days to talk about tribalism. I do it a lot. We have to remember though that real tribes are actually very good, not just at fighting each other but also at trading and cooperating, learning from each other.
Alan: 00:09:34 Isn’t it true that there’s no collaboration like that within a tribe, especially when that tribe is at war with another tribe?
Jon: 00:09:43 Exactly.
Alan: 00:09:44 The cooperation just shoots up.
Jon: 00:09:46 Yep, I can say it more succinctly by quoting the Bedouin proverb. This is one of the most perfect distillations of social psychology ever, which is “Me against my brother, me and my brother against our cousin, me, my brother and cousin against the stranger.” Human tribalism has this kind of recursive or nested or Russian doll quality to it, so it’s healthy if we have a lot of different identifications. You can have a rival or [inaudible 00:10:13], so college football rivalries are generally healthy. There’s no violence. That’s one form of identity, [crosstalk 00:10:20]-
Alan: 00:10:20 Well, except for the concussions.
Jon: 00:10:22 Oh, on the field. You’re right. Okay, fine. So off the field there’s generally no violence. Americans belong to different religions and there’s generally no violence. If we have-
Alan: 00:10:35 But you’ve got to be careful nowadays. I don’t know if this was always true, but you have to be careful not to wear a Red Sox cap at a Yankees ballgame and vice versa.
Jon: 00:10:45 Would there be actual violence? Would you actually [crosstalk 00:10:47]-
Alan: 00:10:47 Yes.
Jon: 00:10:47 Okay.
Alan: 00:10:47 There can be.
Jon: 00:10:49 Okay, good, but-
Alan: 00:10:50 And the soccer teams in Europe are just nuts with violence.
Jon: 00:10:54 That’s exactly where I’m going with this. People are really good all right cooperating and competing, and we cooperate best in order to compete, and when we do that, when the competition is within certain parameters or bounds, it’s fun, it can be productive, and it’s not violent. But when things accelerate, like if a lot hangs on it or if at the last match somebody did punch somebody, now our side wants revenge. If were not careful it can accelerate to the point of English soccer hooliganism, where people bring pipes and hammers to the games in order to actually kill people on the other side. So yes, this is human nature. We’re not doomed to fight in tribal violence. We actually did quite a good job of transcending tribalism in the 20th century, but it’s back.
Alan: 00:11:42 It’s so interesting that we now have the means to have virtual tribes. In a way, we had that before. In the ’60s you could be identified by your haircut as which tribe you belonged to.
Jon: 00:12:00 The Mods, the Rockers, and the … Mm-hm (Affirmative).
Alan: 00:12:03 Now across the world you can be identified by a catchphrase that you share with somebody on social media, and you know what tribe you’re dealing with pretty quickly.
Jon: 00:12:16 That’s right. Now, when people send me emails, I can tell within the first sentence whether they’re on the right or the left, typically. There’s certain-
Alan: 00:12:22 What would be a clue?
Jon: 00:12:23 Well, if people talk about postmodernism or identity politics or SJWs or something, it’s clear that they’re on the right. If they talk about Trump or fascism or whatever, it’s clear they’re on the left. Part of our tribalism is we identify gang signs, and traditionally the most reliable gang sign is your accent. We’re very good at placing people by accent. We try hard to display. We’re virtue signaling. We’re loyalty signaling, and that happens a lot.
You raised the topic of social media and virtual tribes. This is the main reason that I am pessimistic about the future. I’ve been studying polarization and the danger of political polarization since around 2003, 2004. I switched my research over from looking at how countries differ in morality to looking at how left and right differ, as though they were different countries. I’ve been studying it for about 15 years now, and social media is extremely alarming because sort of the normal speed at which things rise, at which outrage is triggered, the intensity of it, the ease of forming mobs … It’s as though somebody reached into the social network, the social fabric that had been slowly evolving over centuries in terms of cultural evolution. Somebody reached in one day in 2006 and just said “Let’s just take all these connectors, these wires, and let’s make them 10 times faster. Let’s connect people 10 times more and let’s see what happens.”
Of course, that was the year that Facebook opened up to the world, and in the early days many of us were Utopian, like “Wow! Let’s connect everybody. Won’t that be great? This is the direction of history, is more connection, and the printing press and the telephone and telegram … ” It sounds good, especially if you are on the left.
Now the left tends to have a more Utopian view, a positive view of human nature. Very much the John Lennon view. “Imagine if there were no countries … No religion! Just all the people connected in one giant social network. Wouldn’t it be great?!” Conservatives tend to have a much darker view of human nature, and they think that people are naturally more selfish, greedy, and violent, and that they need social structures and traditions and laws to restrain them. The early days of social media, the left seemed to be more right. Now I think we’re seeing more of the dark side.
Alan: 00:15:03 You mentioned five traits.
Jon: 00:15:05 The big five.
Alan: 00:15:07 What do you mean by that? What is that?
Jon: 00:15:10 There have been thousands of studies of personalities since the early 20th century when psychology really took off, and in the 1980s I think it was, a couple of researchers, Costa and McCrae in particular did like a meta-analysis of all the different theories of personality out there. A big factor analysis or cluster analysis. They concluded that if you take everybody’s theory, some have 10 factors, 15 factors, 2 factors. The most stable or reliable way of parsing the data is that there are five.
Alan: 00:15:44 Five factors of what?
Jon: 00:15:46 The five personality traits, or the master personality traits. You can remember it with the acronym OCEAN. The five are openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness or niceness or non-neuroticism, and the last one …
Hold on a second. I blew it. Wait. Let’s start that one again.
You can remember the five with this simple acronym of OCEAN. The five are openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. They’re not all equally heritable. I forget which are the most heritable. But identical twins separated at birth tend to be somewhat similar, and-
Alan: 00:16:34 On those five points.
Jon: 00:16:36 Yeah.
Alan: 00:16:39 Assuming that those are the basic features of personality, you come in with that when you’re born … I love the idea that you talk about in something I read of yours or heard you say … You were quoting somebody who said that you’re born with the first draft of morality, and then I assume it’s altered by your experience after that.
Jon: 00:17:08 That’s right, and actually this is a great opportunity for me to clarify something given that I’m sure some of your audience are people who are interested in science. There’s a lot of talk about human nature and innateness, and a lot of people … I often see the phrase, “hardwired”. “Well, it’s just hardwired that we’re tribal” or something like that.” Alan Alda’s audience, please listen to me. Never say “hardwired” unless you’re talking about teeth or lungs or something like that.
Alan: 00:17:33 Teeth!
Jon: 00:17:34 ‘Cause when it comes to personality or anything more psychological, here’s the amazing finding of 40 or 50 years of behavioral genetics. Pretty much everything is heritable. Identical twins reared apart are going to be somewhat similar on just about everything. But nothing is heritable at more than about .6 or at most .7, a correlation coefficent of .7, which means that about half the variance is explained by genes. Everything interesting, like our personality, our happiness, our IQ, all of that is partially influenced by genes, but it’s not completely determined by the genes.
The way to think about it, and this comes from Gary Marcus. I think it’s his book The Birth of the Mind. He says “The genes create a first draft of the mind,” and evolution guided the selection of those genes. It’s a first draft. We are all born with a first draft. But experience revises it somewhat. It can’t completely rewrite your play into a poem, but experience influences things, so don’t say anything is hardwired. Say we are “predisposed” or we are “prone to” turning out a certain way.
Alan: 00:18:42 And it may not last forever, right? It seems to me that the wiring of the brain through the plasticity of the brain can change given the environment that we’re exposed to.
Jon: 00:18:56 That’s right, especially in childhood. This is actually very important for … Well, if we’re going to talk about my new book, The Coddling of the American Mind, it’s very important to understand that the brain is very plastic when you’re very young. The human brain is not that capable when you’re young, but it’s full of potential. It’s very plastic. Then as you go through life and you have experience … If you’re raised in a warrior culture you’ll develop certain virtues. If you’re raised in a trading culture or a fishing culture you’ll develop other virtues … So there’s a period of plasticity, and the frontal cortex in particular really begins kind of locking down or laying down especially around puberty through your early 20s, or to some extent late 20s. What we do to kids, the way we raise kids, sort of the macro environment that we raise them in, can have some major effects that can show up as generational differences.
Alan: 00:19:54 So … Ahem … Excuse me … Ahem. I’ll just choke for a minute here.
What has that led to in terms of a culture of over-attention to safety that you talk about in your latest book? What’s the connection between the personality traits you have and how they’re affected by the environment you’re in? What I think you feel is too much early attention on keeping kids safe.
Jon: 00:20:35 Exactly. That’s right. Here’s the mystery that launched the book. This is a book that I wrote with Greg Lukianoff, a friend of mine who is the President of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. Greg is prone to depression. He had a terrible depression in 2007. He made very specific plans on how he was going to kill himself, and at one point in time he lost his nerve and called 911 and broke down crying. They convinced him to check himself into a hospital. When he got out of the hospital he learned cognitive behavioral therapy, where you learn to challenge the distorted thoughts, the catastrophizing, the emotional reasoning. He learned to challenge those thoughts and it helped cure his depression. He’s been much better ever since.
He goes back to his job defending student free speech rights against administrators who are always trying to limit them, to limit their liability. Then suddenly from out of nowhere in 2013 to 2014, in that academic year, Greg finds that some students are acting as though words are dangerous, books are violent, speakers will be traumatizing, so we start hearing the first talk about students requesting safe spaces, trigger warnings, talking about microaggressions. It’s as though suddenly some students were very, very thin skinned, easily harmed, and frightened. Greg was very puzzled by this, because they justified their requests or demands sometimes … They justified them by using the exact same cognitive distortions that he had learned to stop doing. If the speaker-
Alan: 00:20:35 Like what?
Jon: 00:22:14 Like catastrophizing. “If this speaker’s allowed on campus people will be traumatized. It will be violence.” Overgeneralizing, catastrophizing. Greg comes to talk to me about this, and he says, “Jon, if students are beginning to think this way, if somehow they’re learning to think this way at college, isn’t this going to make them depressed?” I thought this was a great idea ’cause I’d just begun to hear about this stuff too. We spent about a year writing an article which was eventually published in the Atlantic, and my job at the time was to find the statistics to show that college students were now becoming more depressed. I couldn’t do it. The stats weren’t there. Everyone was talking about it. I kept hearing counselors and college psychologists say that they’re overwhelmed, but I couldn’t find hard data to show that there was a national wave of depression and anxiety, especially among college students.
Well, there was, but it takes about two years between the time when something happens and the time when a paper is published on it. Things really exploded in the fall of 2015. A lot of student protests, a lot more of an idea that the students are in danger on campus. They need protection from words, books, speakers, and ideas. We expanded the article a lot and did a lot more research, so the result is our book “The Coddling of the American Mind”.
I know I’ve been talking too long here, so I’ll just get to the chapter. The key thing for our discussion at this moment is Chapter 7 where we go through the mental health statistics. I can describe the graph over the radio in a podcast.
Imagine lines showing the levels of depression and anxiety for teenage girls and boys. Girls have higher levels of depression and anxiety. That’s always been the case. But they’re fairly stable until about 2011, and then all of a sudden from out of nowhere the boys’ rate starts going up a little and the girls’ rate starts going up a lot.
It’s not just that they’re more comfortable talking about these things. You find the exact same trends when you look at self-harm. This is the degree to which teenagers to which teenagers are cutting themselves to the point where they have to be hospitalized. There the boys don’t go up at all, but the girls go up spectacularly, horrifically, especially the young girls. The preteens.
Alan: 00:24:27 What’s that associated with?
Jon: 00:24:29 Anxiety. It’s a form of an anxiety disorder. Anxiety disorders manifest in many ways. Anorexia, bulimia, social phobia, self-harm, self cutting.
Alan: 00:24:40 Is the anxiety rising because there’s more attention to safety or is there some other factor?
Jon: 00:24:48 We don’t know. This came out of nowhere. It’s gigantic. It’s happening in the same way in the UK, Canada, Ireland. Those are the countries I’ve looked at. I now have some people looking into continental Europe and East Asia because the two leading factors … Again, I want to stress we don’t know the cause, but the two best hypotheses are social media, which I’ll come back to, and before they got social media, the vast overprotection that we subjected kids to, we basically took away childhood from them in the 1990s. What I mean by that is … When I speak about the book I always do this simple demonstration. I just ask the audience “Everyone born before 1982,” so before the millennials, “How old were you when you were let out? How old were you”-
Alan: 00:25:37 Let out to play by yourself out of the house?
Jon: 00:25:40 That’s right. The leash was taken off you. Your parents weren’t watching you. You could actually walk outside. You could walk six blocks to a friend’s house, and then you and your friend could walk to a park and play in a park. The answer is always “Six”. Six, six, six. It’s sometimes five, sometimes seven, but there’s a really strong mode of six because first grade, that was the norm. Kindergartners, you don’t really trust them to walk to school, but by first-
Alan: 00:26:01 Yeah, that was true for me too, about six.
Jon: 00:26:03 That’s right. First grade, that was the norm. At first grade, kids can do it. So that was always the case. Then I say, “Just those born after 1994,” so kids born in 1995 and after are not millennials. This is very important. They are not millennials. College students today are not millennials. They are Gen Z or Gen Zed or iGen, for the internet generation. Then I ask them, and the answer for them is always between 10 and 14. Hardly anyone was let out before …
Alan: 00:26:30 Between 10 and 14 to let out of the house by yourself, that’s amazing.
Jon: 00:26:34 Well, because think about it. Nowadays if you let your kid out of the house at age 10 and that kid is caught playing in a park with a friend, you can be arrested in some places.
Alan: 00:26:44 Wait, this sounds a little extreme.
Jon: 00:26:46 It doesn’t happen often, but it happens often enough that we all know you can’t let a nine-year-old out-
Alan: 00:26:51 I saw in your book a piece of paper that a kid could take with him saying “If you find me and I’m by myself, I have permission from my parents and I’m not in danger.”
Jon: 00:27:00 I wrote that myself. I was very influenced by Lenore Skenazy, this wonderful woman who wrote a book called Free Range Kids. She let her nine-year-old ride the New York City Subway. My parents rode the New York City Subway when they were eight and nine years old, but we stopped that in the ’80s and ’90s I guess.
There’s been an increasing norm in the ’90s especially. We freaked out about child abduction. Just totally freaked out about it.
Alan: 00:27:24 What was this prompted by? Were there suddenly more newspaper reports of people being abducted?
Jon: 00:27:30 Yes. The rate has been fairly constant, except that it’s actually gone down somewhat, like all crime has gone down. Crime was plummeting in the 1990s. Just as the crime rate was plummeting, we freaked out.
There’s a couple of reasons for it. There were a couple of very high profile killings. There was Etan Patz in 1979 in New York City. But the more important one was Adam Walsh, which I think was 1980 in Florida. These are horrific, horrific crimes. After that, Adam Walsh’s father devoted himself to protecting other families, other kids from this happening to. I certainly respect him for his motives, but the net effect was that the fear that we now all have and that we imparted our children I believe has done far more harm than the crime themselves. That is, the increased … I didn’t even mention the increase in suicide. The increase in teenage suicide is so big now, this dwarfs any victimization by crime in this country.
Set up Pt 2

This is C+V, and now back to my conversation with Jonathon Haidt

Alan: 00:28:30 You know what’s interesting to me is you talk about this kind of over-attention to safety and leading to safe spaces, requests for safe spaces on campuses and that kind of thing. And the demand that certain people not speak is primarily coming from the left, which we said earlier in our conversation was more open to change, more open to other ideas. I thought that was the implication. This sounds like it goes against itself.
Jon: 00:29:10 That’s right. That why I said if everything else is equal, then the left would be more open.
But everything else is not equal. We are all subject to this problem that when we are put into a bubble or an echo chamber with zero moral or political diversity, then the things that we believe seem to become facts. They seem to become just obviously true, ’cause everybody thinks that. This is called orthodoxy. Since universities generally lean left in terms of the faculty, and our elite universities lean left in terms of the students as well, leaning left is not a problem. The problem is when either the lean is so far or when it’s enforced so forcefully that the minority is afraid to speak up, and at that point you can get the dynamics of orthodoxy.
Now, I’ve spoken at a lot of left-leaning places and right-leaning places. But even, say, the military academies, which lean right, or the Wall Street Journal, which you might think to lean right, even there the professors and the reporters tend to lean left or center left. I don’t know of any places that are so far right that everybody’s on the same page. They must exist, I just have never been invited to speak at them. But in universities, especially in the northeast …
There’s interesting data from Sam Abrams that for some reason in New England the left-right ratio of faculty is vastly higher … I think it’s 20 or 30 to 1 … I can’t remember what his numbers were, but it’s much higher than it is in the rest of the country. In New England and then along the coastal strip of the West Coast, that’s where we tend to get the shout downs. That’s actually where almost all of the shout downs have occurred, because I think they suffer from a lack of viewpoint diversity.
Alan: 00:30:51 The connection between the over-attention to safety and this divide between left and right … I’m not sure I understand that yet.
Jon: 00:31:05 You shouldn’t ’cause I haven’t explained it yet. First let’s back up a bit and let’s really trace out how the overprotection leads to anxiety. The human brain is this amazing thing that comes with a lot of potential, and we evolved with the … There’s what’s called experience-expectant development. All mammals play, and that’s because we have these big brains that are not really preprogrammed … They’re not preprogrammed entirely. Evolution in a sense expected mammals to play, and as they play they’re practicing the skills for adulthood, and they’re getting the experiences that allow the frontal cortex and the rest of the brain to wire up properly.
Part of the wiring up is risk taking. Animals explore the boundaries of their ability, which are very limited when they’re infants, but then they test them. They extend them, extend them, extend them. When kids learn to, say, skateboard, if you look at kids who learn to skateboard, they don’t just skateboard down a hill and go back and do it again and again and again. Once they’ve mastered it they try skateboarding down the stairs or down a railing.
This is the developmental program. Kids have to be given thousands and thousands of opportunities to take risks, face them, master them, fail at some of them, try again. If you interrupt that, if you don’t let kids experience risk after risk after risk, then they’re not going to push out the boundaries of their ability and they’re going to find the world much more threatening and dangerous.
That’s what we did to our kids in the ’90s when we locked them up. When we said the principle period of childhood from age 8 to 12, the period when almost all children’s stories take place, When kids go off on an adventure with their mom and dad? No. Not with their mom and dad. They leave their mom and dad behind. They go off and have an adventure. That’s when adventures happen, between 8 and 12, and we said “No, you don’t get any adventures until it’s too late. Once you hit puberty, then we’ll let you out but we have to track you, track your cell phone … ”
Alan: 00:33:03 Because then you’re more dangerous when you hit puberty. Your adventures can get to be serious.
Jon: 00:33:07 Well, actually that’s right. We’re doing everything wrong about this. But with good intentions. That’s the subtitle of the book, is How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure.
Alan: 00:33:19 How does that connect to the divide? Tribalism and that kind of thing.
Jon: 00:33:24 The national data is very clear. The rise in anxiety and depression is everywhere. It’s boys and girls, but more girls. It’s black and white. It’s upper and lower social class. So it’s national, and when I speak about the book, I find wherever I go the professors, the track coach, everybody, is noticing that the kids are just much more fragile, easily discouraged, easily reduced to tears. That’s everywhere.
But where does it get politicized? That is, where does this idea that students are vulnerable and that any sort of right-wing ideas or speakers or books are threatening, dangerous, or violent … The idea that words are violence and we must stop these violence ideas, these violent speakers from coming to campus, that is not everywhere. That’s not at most schools. There are 4,500 institutions of higher education in the United States. Most of them are commuter schools or nonselective. There’s not safe spaces and microaggressions there. That’s mostly at the more elite schools, especially in the northeast and the West Coast.
Alan: 00:34:29 That still raises the question in my mind that you’re talking about these schools that tend to be more on the left, and therefore if they follow the construct you said before they would tend to be more open and would not be the ones to say, “So and so can’t talk here. It’ll be too violent for me.”
Jon: 00:34:49 That’s right. You would think that if you go to a more progressive school it should be more open to provocative speech. It should be an edgier place where people can push limits. You’d think so.
Alan: 00:34:58 So why isn’t it?
Jon: 00:34:59 Because thinking is for doing, and a lot of what we do in a time of polarization is we take everything we can and we turn it into ammunition against the other side. Most of the students who say, “Oh, this is traumatizing. This is dangerous,” they’re not saying it for themselves. Very rarely do I hear a student say “I was subject to this trauma and therefore I will be traumatized” if some conservative speaker comes to campus. It’s “She will be traumatized.” It’s standing up for others. It’s what some sociologists have called a “victimhood” culture. That’s is, a culture in which you get prestige not by being the smartest, not by being the most beautiful or the best athlete. You get prestige either by showing off how much you’ve been a victim, or if you can’t do that, then you have to really, really vigorously stand up for victims. It’s only in the most politically uniform places that are very egalitarian, that this victimhood culture can get started.
Our claim in the book is that this is really, really bad for students, the very students that you most want to help, students who are from historical marginalized groups, for them to come to campus and be told, “This is a racist place. This is a homophobic place. This university hates you. People here hate you even if they don’t know it. It’s implicit bias.” We have the set of ideas that are useful if you want to prosecute the right, if you want to say everything’s racist and sexist and homophobic. That might help you rhetorically, but in the process, you’re hurting your own team. You’re hurting the young people on your own side.
Alan: 00:36:39 This really raises the question for me, what do we do about all this? When you said at one point “When you have an opinion about somebody you’ve never even met,” I assume because you’re picking up cues from them and therefore you think from two or three cues you know everything about them, and you don’t have to meet them because you know roughly what they think and that’s anathema … Is meeting people part of the solution?
Jon: 00:37:15 Yes, but it won’t work once things have reached a certain level of tribal hatred. If we’re gonna talk about solutions I think we have to break it into three parts. The first … And this is the most urgent because this is bipartisan. This is national … Is we have an epidemic of depression and anxiety especially among teenage girls. We’ve got to address that. The more depressed and anxious people we have on campus … We didn’t put much of it in the book, but there’s research that if you have a depressed or anxious person in the classroom they’re going to jump to the most negative reading of everything they can and they’re more inflexible. It’s harder to get them off that reading with evidence. This is part of what has disrupted our ability to have open conversations on campus, is that there are a lot of people among us who are very negative and inflexible.
Alan: 00:38:03 And you feel I take it that this overprotection that we’re inflicting on children is helping make them more anxious?
Jon: 00:38:11 Yes. That was our original idea. That if the world really is going to kill you, then it’s good to be paranoid, but if you have a physically safe place, as almost all universities are, most of us when we went to college we had a sense that the world is our oyster, that there’s all kinds of possibilities. If we’re going to tell students “No. Be in a defensive mode. Everyone’s out to get you,” this is a way to prevent them from seizing the opportunities of college. From expanding their mind and enjoying the cornucopia of possibilities and ideas.
Alan: 00:38:50 What can people do? Here they are, anxious, convinced that the other side is evil. Bad for the country, your own side won’t allow any nuance in how you feel about the other side. How do we reconstitute ourselves as a tribe that extends across the nation and doesn’t just cover those of us who are in our half?
Jon: 00:39:21 That’s right. That’s the billion dollar question. That’s the question upon which I think the survival of this country depends. There’s no short-term fix. I think things will get worse before they get better. But if we think long-term and we think that America has been through some incredibly divisive periods before, obviously, the ones people talk about are the Civil War and then 1968 and that era where the forces pulling us apart were stronger than. However, the forces holding us together are actually fairly weak now.
But I would break that up into three parts. One is we have to raise stronger kids. We have to let kids out again and let them have the experiences that their brains are expecting to have so that they can become autonomous adults, able to face books and speakers and ideas and people on the other side and not feel that they are in physical danger. There’s a wonderful organization called I urge anybody with kids under 16, please go to Sign up. Lenore Skenazy runs it. You’ll learn how your family and your school can give childhood back to kids. We think this we’ll lower the rate of depression and anxiety. They’ll be much more prepared for college. They will be much more prepared for life. That’s the first piece.
Second piece is we’ve got to get social media out of middle school. Again, we don’t know for sure, but the skyrocketing rates of self-harm and suicide among teenagers, teenage girls especially, are so high that this I think counts as a national emergency. The millennials got social media when they were in college, and it doesn’t seem to have harmed them. Their brains were more developed. In college there’s not much bullying. But in middle school it’s hard enough to be a teenage girl already.
It’s harder to be a teenage girl than a teenaged boy. Their social lives are more complex. They have a lot more relational aggression. Boys’ aggression is physical. When iPhones and social media became common around 2011, 2012, it didn’t really change boys’ aggression. They just played video games with their new phones. But it really ramped up girls’ bullying, girls’ relational competition and aggression, their stress levels. So many teenagers sleep with their phones near their bed, so if people are talking about them they’re checking overnight.
If anyone is listening to me, please. You gotta tell your kids “No screens in the bedroom. You have to take all the devices out by half an hour before bedtime,” and you’ve got to talk to the principal of your elementary and middle school and ask them, “Please set a norm for us. Please. Because if I tell my son …” I have a 12-year-old son. If I say “You can’t be on Instagram,” he says, “But most of my friends are,” and I say, “Well, I’m sorry. This is just so bad for you. I can’t let you do this.” It’s hard.
Alan: 00:42:04 Is there hard data that supports this idea that there’s a real connection between cell phones and anxiety?
Jon: 00:42:15 Yes, but it’s complicated. To put it in its briefest form, there’s a large amount of correlational evidence. If you look at just how much time kids spend on screens and are on social media, up to two hours a day of screen time does not appear to be harmful. I’m not saying, “Oh, they can’t have screens.” Up to two hours a day is not harmful. Correlationally, kids who spend more than four hours, four, five, six, seven, eight hours, the more you spend the more depressed and anxious you are. The more likely you are to commit suicide. All sorts of bad things go with heavy usage.
Alan: 00:42:48 We don’t know if you do that because you’re depressed on account of something else and that drives you to your screen to fill the time or reduce your anxiety.
Jon: 00:42:58 Exactly. That’s a plausible hypothesis. However, there are ways you can look at correlational data, look at time lag, look at when you increase the use and when the symptoms increase, so even the correlational data at least hints at causality. More convincing to me is now there’s a bunch of studies where you experimentally, randomly assign people who are social media users, you randomly say, okay. You fifty stop with the social media for a month, and you fifty just go on as you were.
This study was just done at the University of Pennsylvania. The results were very clear. For people who are low on depression and anxiety, it made no difference, but for those who are high on depression and anxiety, the half that were told to stop using social media almost immediately, within one week, their symptoms improved. So there is experimental evidence of this as well.
Alan: 00:43:47 That does sound like there’s probably a connection.
Jon: 00:43:53 That’s right. I think the evidence is strong enough, and we’re not freaking prematurely. There are many studies. We have a site for the book, We’ll be putting up all the studies we can find, and we cite a lot of them in the book. I think the case is strong enough, not for a law … I’m not saying we need a national law. But we need norms, and it’s very hard for an individual parent to set norms. If you have anything to do with an elementary school or a middle school and you’re listening to this, please ask the principal to set a norm and recommend that parents do not let their children even have a social media account until they get to high school.


Alan: 01:03:16 You mentioned three things we can do to make things better along these lines. What are they again?
Jon: 01:03:24 The first thing is we have to give childhood back to kids, give them a lot of unsupervised free play time so that they will become more risk-tolerant and more strong and independent. The second is we have to get a handle on social media and device time, limit social media exposure, keep it out of middle schools entirely. These two steps will reduce the rate of teenage depression and anxiety. The third thing is that leadership in all organizations has to define things so that differences of viewpoint are seen as potentially good things, as ways that we learn from each other. We need leadership to say, “Here’s how you handle differences of opinion. Here’s why we actually need differences in order to grow and learn.”
Jon: 00:57:06 That’s right. Oh, so you were asking about what to do about it, and I only gave you a little bit of an answer. There’s a lot of things we can do. So on college campuses, much stronger clear leadership is necessary to make clear what is our mission here. What are we doing here? Why do we actually need difference? Why do we actually need dissent? Leaders of universities can create climates in which dissent and disagreement and the discomfort of hearing ideas that you hate will be seen as part of the mission, as part of what we all need to do to get stronger and smarter. If you go through your four years in college without being challenged, you’re not gonna be very good at arguing or standing up for your side when you get out.
More importantly though, what’s happening just in the last year as members of Gen Z have begun graduating from college and joining the corporate world, I hear increasing numbers of stories that their taking these norms from the university into the corporate world and I think it’s going to lead to a lot more conflict within companies, within all sorts of organizations. So I think it’s important, again, for leadership to set norms about what are we trying to do and how we have to give each other the benefit of the doubt. Diversity cannot work if we don’t give each other the benefit of the doubt. Diversity can be divisive or it can yield enormous benefits of creativity and learning, and if we handle it in the wrong way, it can actually make groups worse. If we handle it in the right way, it can make them a lot better.
Me and some colleagues at NYU, we’ve created a program which we call Open Mind. If you go to you can just use it for free. It’s right there on the web. It’s five steps. Each takes about 10 or 15 minutes and we walk you through some of the insights from moral psychology, from Dale Carnegie, why is it good for you to talk to people on the other side. We have some exercises … A little bit, not quite as sophisticated as yours, but the ranting [inaudible 00:59:03] able to put that one in.
There’s a lot you can do to improve dynamics within any group you’re in.

Alan: 00:44:29 Well, that sounds like it’ll help in the long run. If it’s going to help, it’ll help in the long run.
Jon: 00:44:35 That’s right.
Alan: 00:44:37 Those of us who are a little less patient don’t have that much time to wait. Is there anything you recommend we can do now that can help bridge the gap? One of the things that we’re dedicated to on this podcast is talking about ways we can improve relating and communicating. You talk about empathy in one interview in a TED talk. It seems to me that the notion of actually valuing empathy and learning how to improve your empathy can enable you a little better to face someone who you previously thought belonged to the tribe that had the plague.
Jon: 00:45:37 There’s a lot of research on empathy. It’s very popular among academic researchers. There probably is a lot there. I only know that research a little bit. I am much more a fan of looking at this from the point of view of moral psychology and saying, “We very quickly and easily get into an “I’m right, you’re wrong” sort of thing, and just as we get into it easily, it’s actually pretty easy to get out of it. What I have found …
Alan: 00:46:04 To get out of what?
Jon: 00:46:05 To get out of a conflict. There are certain skills that you can learn that will make you a kind of a ninja, an expert at social relationships. The most simple of all the principles is basically start by acknowledging something that the other person is right about or something that you are wrong about, and this comes straight out of Dale Carnegie …
Alan: 00:46:31 I love that you refer to Dale Carnegie.
Jon: 00:46:34 He’s a great social psychologist.
Alan: 00:46:36 Do you have a sentence or a principle that you get from Dale Carnegie that’s helpful in this?
Jon: 00:46:41 Oh my God. Here … I happen to have brought this book into the studio-
Alan: 00:46:44 You’ve got the book with you.
Jon: 00:46:44 Right here in the studio.
Alan: 00:46:45 I love this. The yellowed book with stiff pages.
Jon: 00:46:48 People should read the original edition from the ’30s. He’s talking about all these things from the 1910s. It’s amazing.
Alan: 00:46:55 We make jokes about the title, but he had really usable ideas. What’s one of these ideas?
Jon: 00:47:01 You just read the table of contents. Here: “If you want to gather honey, don’t kick over the beehive.” Let’s see … Actually, some of them are a little cryptic. “If you don’t do this, you’re headed for trouble.” He’s actually doing a sales pitch here, so he keeps them a little bit secret. But the gist of it is, don’t start off with saying, “No, you’re wrong and here’s why.” ‘Cause that instantly puts the person into defensive mode and they’re looking for reasons that they’re right. But if you start off by …
Basically, it’s all contained also in the Sermon on the Mount. “Why do you complain about the speck in your neighbor’s eye when you do not see the log in your own eye?” If you start off by saying … Let’s just model a conversation. If I’m on the left and you’re on the right … You’re the famous Uncle Bob who’s a Trump voter at Thanksgiving. Well, let’s not do Trump voter. That might be too hard. But in general, left-right.
Alan: 00:47:51 Let’s do a “The trouble with you people … ”
Jon: 00:47:54 That’s right. “Have you no compassion?”
Alan: 00:47:57 The trouble with you people is you want let all these foreigners in and take away our jobs, and you don’t care about the real people who are living here now and hurting and starving and out of work.
Jon: 00:48:07 Well, you know Uncle Bob? I know that there’s this big left-right divide on immigration, and I gotta say when people on the left don’t even distinguish between legal and illegal immigration, when they act like it doesn’t matter how you came here, I think that’s wrong. I think your side is actually right to say we gotta get control of the border and not just have people coming over willy-nilly. But then, at the same time that we have to have order and a process and it should be a fair process, then I think that at least the people who are here and who came in, we should treat them as humanely as possible. What do you think, Uncle Bob?
Alan: 00:48:45 I think I’m still right.
Jon: 00:48:47 Well, okay. But …
Alan: 00:48:49 No, but you’ve made me pause because you’ve shown that there’s something that we have in common, and I have found that that works and we teach that when we teach communication.
Jon: 00:49:07 How do you put it? What’s the principle?
Alan: 00:49:10 Well, we have an exercise where one person rants at the other, and the person who’s listening to the rant then has the task of introducing that person to the rest of the group only in terms of the most positive things that the person-
Jon: 00:49:24 Oh, my God that’s great!
Alan: 00:49:24 It’s a really good exercise.
Jon: 00:49:26 Dale Carnegie and I both approve. I love it. I’m gonna try that.
Alan: 00:49:30 It has a wonderful positive effect on both the listener and the ranter because it’s interesting to hear your rant translated into only positive terms.
Jon: 00:49:38 Wow.
Alan: 00:49:39 “This person cares about the country.” Whatever it is.
Jon: 00:49:44 That’s right. And that’s one of the keys to moral psychology. The subtitle of my last book … The book is called The Righteous Mind, but the subtitle is, “Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion.” Because the research shows even murder, even genocide, often is driven by moral motives. I don’t mean that they were good. What I mean is people think that they’re pursuing some virtue. They’re saving the country. They’re standing up for something.
We as a species, we evolved all these moral emotions. It doesn’t mean that we’re always nice. We’re often willing to use violence to pursue them. But we think we’re service some good, and if you can at least acknowledge that “I hear that you have these concerns and I think you’re not crazy to have them. In fact, I think you’re right about a couple of them,” it practically pushes a button in your forehead, the reciprocity button. It’s gonna trigger you to maybe make a reciprocal acknowledgement about me. Doesn’t always work, but sometimes it does.
Alan: 00:50:40 That seems to be something we’re born with, thanks to our cousins in the animal world. On the science show I did, I interviewed Frans de Waal and got to know some chimps fairly well. One young chimp gave me a sock in the jaw. Knocked me over. But he was being playful probably. After he knocked me over, the people standing around said, “Oh, look. He’s apologizing. He held out his hand with the knuckles showing forward, which was a sign among the chimps of “I’m sorry. Excuse me.” Whatever it means to him. “Don’t hit me back.” I don’t know what it meant. That little gesture of what they were describing as apology sounded to me like an inborn trait-
Jon: 00:51:34 That’s right.
Alan: 00:51:35 That we probably share with them, this desire to smooth over the rough parts between us.
Jon: 00:51:44 That’s right. I love Frans de Waal’s work, and he gives us the phrase “building blocks”. His work, he talks about how chimpanzees have the building blocks of morality. He doesn’t say that they have a morality, but it’s a fine distinction. They have sympathy. They have alliances. They have hierarchy. His work, his book Good Natured was one of the most important books I read in grad school that led me to look not at moral reasoning but at moral emotions, moral intuitions, many of which we share with other primates. So yes.
The one thing I would say though is that with reciprocity per se, there are hints of it in chimpanzees but it’s not quite so clear, whereas with human children, there are a lot of ways in which human children … There’s much more direct reciprocity, a much more direct understanding that if we work together at some task we’re gonna share the gains.
Alan: 00:52:41 I took part in an experiment with a scientist in I think Leipzig …
Jon: 00:52:45 Michael Tomasello I imagine.
Alan: 00:52:47 Could be … Who showed that these little children when I deliberately let papers drop and made a mess they would help clean it up. There was a desire to help or to point to where I could get something I needed and that kind of thing. That was striking to me, that their research showed over and over again that there’s a desire to help.
Jon: 00:53:15 That was from Michael Tomasello’s lab. I forget which of his students did that particular study, but yes. If you put De Waal and Tomasello together I think what you see is that many of the building blocks of human morality are present in chimpanzees, but humans have some unique stuff, and beginning very early on, we have joint attention. Tomasello points out that you can see the whites of our eyes. Why would that be? No other primate gives away where they’re looking, but we actually are evolved to cooperate. We give away informations that we’re better cooperation partners. It starts very early.
Alan: 00:53:49 Whites of eyes. I hadn’t read that in Tomasello. That’s really interesting.
Jon: 00:53:53 Yeah, and it you just sort of look at a clock … While you and I are talking we’re looking at each other’s eyes right now, but if my eyes suddenly dart to the left in a certain way-
Alan: 00:54:02 I can read all kinds of stuff into that. Does he want to get out of here? Is he worried about talking too long?
Jon: 00:54:02 That’s right.
Alan: 00:54:07 And I notice often walking down the street, almost a half a block away somebody can tell if I’m looking at then more than the socially acceptable second or second and a half, whatever it is.
Jon: 00:54:22 Exactly. What I learned from Tomasello is to see, almost like laser beams coming out of our eye … We all see where everybody’s looking. We’re an ultrasocial species. Chimpanzees are social but we are ultrasocial. We are beyond normal animal sociality. We’re almost up at the level of ants and bees and wasps and termites. Just in terms of being like-
Alan: 00:54:41 It sounds like we’d be better of if we were further along in that regard! Except they don’t seem to make too many personal decisions, but who knows?
Jon: 00:54:49 Well, that’s true. You’re right. [Crosstalk 00:54:51]-
Alan: 00:54:51 Who knows how many we make by the way? We assume that we’re free to make a decision about almost anything, but when we get dressed in the morning I don’t think we are aware of how many decisions have been already made for us by the culture. For instance, very few people leave the house wearing a toga. And there was a time when very few people left the house not wearing a toga. That was a decision made for us by everybody around us.
Jon: 00:55:24 So that fits with the general perspective that we have this evolved nature that constrains the possibilities, but the most amazing innovation that humans made that chimpanzees didn’t make is that we create these moral matrices, these cultures. There’s a wonderful phrase from Clifford Geertz, and anthropologist. He says, “Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance that he himself has spun.” It’s sort of like we build castles in the air and then we live in them, and no other animal can quite do that.”
Alan: 00:55:57 Well, we don’t think so anyway. It’s awfully hard-
Jon: 00:55:59 We don’t recognize that we’re living in … Yeah.
Alan: 00:56:00 We can hardly read one another’s thoughts. It’s pretty hard to read the animals’.
Jon: 00:56:05 That’s right, but to get back to the political split, that’s part of what’s happened is that left and right have built different castles in the air and we think we’re living in the same country but if you talk to people on the left or the right there’s a different US constitution in those two moral matrices. There’s a different climate science. There’s a different economics.
Alan: 00:56:24 You seem to be saying that people on the left and the right have equal dispositions, equal reluctance to cross over and imagine what it’s like to live in the other matrix.
Jon: 00:56:38 Well, what I’m saying is that if everything else were equal then people on the left would be a little better at doing that than people on the right. They’re more likely to read novels about other cultures, things like that. But what totally dominates that is the degree of cross-party hatred or the mob mentality or the tribalism.
Alan: 00:56:55 That’s what I mean. We’re now ensconced in these tribes,
Jon: 00:57:00 Yep. And that spawns everything else.
Alan: 00:57:02 And we’re equally reluctant to cross the border.
Jon: 00:57:06 That’s right. Oh, so you were asking about what to do about it, and I only gave you a little bit of an answer. There’s a lot of things we can do. On college campuses, much stronger clear leadership is necessary to make clear what is our mission here. What are we doing here? Why do we actually need difference? Why do we actually need dissent? Leaders of universities can create climates in which dissent and disagreement and the discomfort of hearing ideas that you hate will be seen as part of the mission, as part of what we all need to do to get stronger and smarter. If you go through your four years in college without being challenged, you’re not gonna be very good at arguing or standing up for your side when you get out.
More importantly though, what’s happening just in the last year as members of Gen Z have begun graduating from college and joining the corporate world, I hear increasing numbers of stories that their taking these norms from the university into the corporate world and I think it’s going to lead to a lot more conflict within companies, within all sorts of organizations. So I think it’s important, again, for leadership to set norms about what are we trying to do and how we have to give each other the benefit of the doubt. Diversity cannot work if we don’t give each other the benefit of the doubt. Diversity can be divisive or it can yield enormous benefits of creativity and learning, and if we handle it in the wrong way, it can actually make groups worse. If we handle it in the right way, it can make them a lot better.
Me and some colleagues at NYU, we’ve created a program which we call Open Mind. If you go to you can just use it for free. It’s right there on the web. It’s five steps. Each takes about 10 or 15 minutes and we walk you through some of the insights from moral psychology, from Dale Carnegie, why is it good for you to talk to people on the other side. We have some exercises … A little bit, not quite as sophisticated as yours, but the ranting [inaudible 00:59:03] able to put that one in.
There’s a lot you can do to improve dynamics within any group you’re in.
Alan: 00:59:07 Sometimes it sounds as simple to me as showing respect for the other person. That not assuming that what they’re saying is born of stupidity or a venal nature, but to give them the benefit of the doubt just long enough to listen and try to hear something that’s positive.
Jon: 00:59:30 That’s right. That’s the first step, because there are certain games we play repetitively and we’re expecting the other person to play that game too, and boy do you see that on Twitter or in the comment section of a Youtube video. When we’re not in a community, when we’re not accountable to each other, when we don’t even know who each other even is, that brings up the worst.
Alan: 00:59:51 Right, and an example of this to me is a video I saw that was intended to help you improve diversity in a corporate setting, and it showed a scene where people were at a conference table and somebody said something about a Turk store they had been to. I think this took place in England, and apparently a Turk store is a way of identifying a store run by a Turk, but it’s somewhat derogatory to identify the store only by the nationality.
A woman at the table says, “That’s not okay,” and the person says, “What’s not okay? I don’t get it.” Then it plays out how difficult it is after that, but they never explore in that video, and I always have wondered if there’s a second video that explores how okay it is to tell somebody “That’s not okay” in front of other people. The calling out is considered okay, but that doesn’t show much respect for the person you’re trying to help question their behavior.
Jon: 01:01:07 That’s right. This is the heart of the problem we have at universities and it’s spreading out to the corporate world. If you get credit for calling someone out, if you get social credit for shaming someone, you have a recipe for eternal conflict in your group. What Dale Carnegie would recommend and what I would recommend is when someone says that, afterwards you go to them privately and you say, “You know Bob, when you said a Turk store, I know you didn’t mean any harm by it, but it might be better if you just avoid doing things by nationality.” Well, now the person recognizes first of all you didn’t shame him. You could have shamed them publicly, but you didn’t. Right there you’re showing respect for them and you’re also showing that what your goal is is to actually fix the problem, not to get points by humiliating them. Already you’re three steps ahead of whatever they were recommending in that diversity video.
If you treat people as people, if you assume good intentions, and if you take a gentle approach, then you can actually change people, and you can learn all of this by reading How to Win Friends and Influence People.
Alan: 01:02:07 And reading your books.
Jon: 01:02:10 Right, you can learn some of it in The Happiness Hypothesis, some of it in The Righteous Mind. But yeah, that’s the problem, the call-out culture. A lot of the things that we do now to promote diversity and inclusion have very little evidence to support them, and some of them the evidence suggests that they’re gonna backfire. If we do this wrong, then the more we do the worse the problem will get.

Alan: 01:02:31 Well, I’ve loved talking with you. We’d like to talk with you more. I’m getting signals from the control room.
Yes. [inaudible 01:02:38]. Yeah.
Can you hear this?
Jon: 01:02:42 The climax.
Oh. Mm-hmm. (Affirmative). Yeah. Mm-hmm. (Affirmative). In middle school. Yeah. Yes. It was. It was the leadership. We have to set norms about [crosstalk 01:03:03]. Yeah.
Alan: 01:03:05 But just list those three things to make it easier to edit?
Jon: 01:03:08 Yeah, I think so. If you just summarize. “In conclusion …
Alan: 01:04:53 This has been so much fun. I’d love to talk to you more. I’m getting signals from the control room we have to wrap it up. What we usually end our conversations with if you’re willing to do it is seven quick questions that invite seven quick answers.
Jon: 01:05:09 Okay. Who knows what’ll happen?
Alan: 01:05:09 They’re roughly about communicating and relating.
Jon: 01:05:10 Let’s give it a try.
Alan: 01:05:11 Number one. What do you wish you really understood?
Jon: 01:05:16 What do I wish I really understood … Oh, man. Actually, this is a great question. It’s gonna take me a while to think about it. So if they’re like this … Can we start again?
Alan: 01:05:26 Yeah.
Jon: 01:05:26 Wait, let me think of the first answer to that just so we get off on a good start.
Alan: 01:05:28 Yeah, take a second.
Jon: 01:05:33 Well, right now … Okay. Let’s start again.
Alan: 01:05:39 [Crosstalk 01:05:39] What do you wish you really understood?
Jon: 01:05:41 What I wish I really understood is what increasing social connectivity is really doing to us. I think it has profound effects, but I don’t know what they are yet.
Alan: 01:05:53 Number two. What do you wish other people understood about you?
Jon: 01:05:57 Oh my God. What I wish they understood about me is that I’m not on the right. People assume because I am working on college campuses and I’m critical of aspects of things that happen on college campuses so I’m sometimes critical of the left, people assume, “Oh, well, he must be on the right,” and there’s this new term “right-adjacent”. Well, yeah. As a centrist, I guess I am right-adjacent.
Alan: 01:06:18 God, they got so many new phrases now. Heck, it’s hard to keep up.
Jon: 01:06:20 Oh, it changes everything.
Alan: 01:06:22 Number three. What’s the strangest question anyone’s ever asked you?
Jon: 01:06:26 What’s the strangest question anyone’s ever asked me? I don’t know. I can’t label it.
Alan: 01:06:35 Maybe it’s this one.
Jon: 01:06:36 Yeah. I’m totally stumped and I’m not often stumped, so maybe it is this one.
Alan: 01:06:42 How do you stop a compulsive talker?
Jon: 01:06:45 How do you stop a compulsive talker?
Alan: 01:06:46 How do you do it?
Jon: 01:06:46 How do I do it? Well, I’m a lot ruder than my wife is. My wife sometimes thinks I’m a little pushy in conversations. I just kinda look for a little pause and I just start talking a little bit because sometimes people just don’t know that they’re going on for a long time, so if you just give a signal then sometimes there’ll be enough of a pause.
Alan: 01:07:09 I sometimes give a signal and I see the signal coming back “I’m not finished with this sentence yet, and I have another paragraph I usually follow it with!”
Jon: 01:07:20 Actually, I think one of the best ways is to sort of agree with him, like, “Oh, yes. I agree with you about that, and in fact let me … ” You can kind of hijack it.
Alan: 01:07:27 Ah, yeah. You “Yes, and” them.
Jon: 01:07:31 There you go.
Alan: 01:07:33 Is there anyone for whom you just can’t feel empathy?
Jon: 01:07:40 Yeah. I don’t feel any empathy for President Trump. I have a lot of negative feelings for him and I’ve not tried to feel empathy, and now the thought that I should do so is causing all kinds of second order negative feelings in me. So, yeah, I’ve not made any effort. I do try to make a big distinction between the President and the people who voted for him. I don’t judge them harshly. I often can understand the reasons for voting for him, but I have no empathy for him.
Alan: 01:08:09 With the idea that empathy doesn’t mean sympathy or feeling sorry for, or wanting to be friends with, but just trying to understand where the person is or comes from.
Jon: 01:08:19 Oh, I see. You know, I actually haven’t tried very hard on that. I should. No, that’s a real failing. I really have not tried.
Alan: 01:08:26 How do you like to deliver bad news? In person, on the phone, or by carrier pigeon?
Jon: 01:08:32 Well, of course you prefer to do it by carrier pigeon, but I guess you have to do it in person. You have to try to … Gosh, I don’t know. I don’t have any deep advice on this.
Alan: 01:08:49 What, if anything, would make you end a friendship?
Jon: 01:08:52 If someone just is really boring. That’s really the main thing.
Alan: 01:09:00 That’s the first time we got that one.
Jon: 01:09:01 No, ’cause I can take some arrogance. If somebody is a name dropper or they show off. If somebody is truly racist, not just a casual comment just ’cause it’s so easy to interpret things, but if somebody’s truly racist or if they’re really boring. Those or the two things that would do it.
Alan: 01:09:21 That’s great. Thanks so much for being part of the show. I really enjoyed talking with you.
Jon: 01:09:25 I did too. My pleasure, Alan. Thank you for having me on.
Alan: 01:09:31 Thank you.

This has been Clear + Vivid, at least I hope so.

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Jonathan Haidt is a social psychologist at New York University’s Stern School of Business – and he’s a best selling author of 3 books:
The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom;
The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion; and
The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting Up a Generation for Failure — which he co-authored. The Righteous Mind and the Coddling of the American mind are both New York Times bestsellers.

His research examines the intuitive foundations of morality, and how morality varies across cultures––including the cultures of American progressives, conservatives, and libertarians.

At NYU-Stern, he is applying his research on moral psychology to business ethics, asking how companies can structure and run themselves in ways that will be resistant to ethical failures. You can learn more about his research at And you can find out more about Jonathan at: and

This episode was produced by Graham Chedd with help from our associate producer, Sarah Chase. Our sound engineer is Dan Dzula, our Tech Guru is Allison Coston, our publicist is Sarah Hill.

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Thanks for listening. Bye bye!