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Jonathan Haidt on Religion, Psychedelics and the Anxious Generation

Jonathan Haidt on Religion, Psychedelics and the Anxious Generation

Elizabeth Oldfield speaks with social psychologist Jonathan Haidt. 27/03/2024



Hello and welcome to The Sacred. My name is Elizabeth Oldfield and this is a podcast about the deep values of the people who shape our public conversations. Every episode I speak to someone who has some kind of public voice or public platform and I try and get a sense of their story, their principles, the way they see the world and how they have got to where they are now. I speak to people from a really wide range of professional, political and metaphysical perspectives, in the hope that as we listen across these differences, we can all build our muscles of empathy and curiosity. I see it as a form of resistance towards the systems that are continually trying to polarise us and encourage us to see people who are not like ourselves as less than fully human.

In this episode, I spoke to Jonathan Haidt. Jonathan is Professor of Ethical Leadership at the New York University Stern School of Business. He’s a leading social psychologist and a writer of many bestselling books, including The Happiness Hypothesis, The Righteous Mind, The Coddling of the American Mind, and coming out right now, The Anxious Generation. We spoke about a lot of things, including his sacred value of truth, his atheism, his experiences of using psychedelics, and why he thinks we are over protecting children in the physical world and under protecting them and in digital and online spaces. We’ve covered a lot of ground. I really enjoyed this conversation and there are some reflections from me as usual at the end. I hope you enjoy listening too.

Jonathan, we are going to kick off with not your everyday warm up question, which is what is sacred to you. And you can take it any direction you like, it’s something that you’ve touched on in your work. Some people like parameters, and I tend to offer a value or a principle, which you’ve, you have at least tried to let guide your life. But it’s just supposed to be a kind of generator of provocation, what bubbled up for you as what might be good for you?

What’s sacred to you? Jonathan Haidt responds 

Jonathan Haidt

Well, unfortunately, I’ve studied this and written about it academically so much, that I can’t give you some deep, personal, spontaneous answer. I’d have to say that I’m an atheist, I’m born and raised Jewish, ethnically and culturally, but I’m an atheist, who actually has a very positive view of religion, which I came to from my work. And that’s probably why you reached out and that’s why we’re talking. And so as a secular, scientific sort of person, sacred means inviolable. Biblically, it means set apart. You would not trade any amount of something for like, your son’s little finger, it’s horrible to even think about that kind of a question.

I would have to say that, for me, as a professor and a social scientist, what I’ve lived my life around mostly being sacred is truth. That is, I feel I can never lie. Now, of course, I do sometimes lie, we all do. And then we justify it to ourselves, but there’s an ongoing debate, going back to before my wife and I were married, about truth versus beauty. And for me, truth is sacred. And so if someone asked me a question, I answer truthfully. And my wife has what I call aesthetic compulsive disorder, she must make things beautiful. She must make things beautiful and she must make stories beautiful, and she will sometimes make stories beautiful, then I’ll say wait, that wasn’t really true. That’s not how it happened. But you know, it’s a beautiful story. That was always it’s always been a point of tension with us. But it reveals that I treat truth as sacred and as an academic, I feel we all have to. I certainly treat truth as sacred and I see my life’s mission and the mission of all of my guild to advance truth. And then so much of my work since to 2015 has been that we have just violated that right and left, we’ve let ideology trump truth.


Many of my guests have not had so much opportunity to think about the sacred. So when I’m trying to say to them, you know, a lot of the time we can go through life not really conscious of it had an academic record, you often don’t know until it’s transgressed, you get that ick reaction when someone asks you or invites you to compromise on the thing that is sacred, and you just know that you can’t. Have you had moments in your life where it’s affected your decisions, where it’s shaped the direction that you went in?

Jonathan Haidt 

Oh, let’s see. There was one time in my life when I did something with data that was not proper. I ended up undoing it, but it was exactly when I was under pressure. I was a postdoc, so I got my PhD, and I had a wonderful postdoc position. I was applying for jobs as a professor and my publication record was very thin, I had a set of experiments that weren’t going quite right and it was about whether disgust changes moral judgement. I interviewed a bunch of people in a public space in Philadelphia, I was at the University of Pennsylvania, and I went to a park and I and I asked people if they’d participate in my study. And I collected all this data. And the effect that I was looking for was sort of there, but it wasn’t statistically significant. I looked closely at the data and there was a real outlier. And it was a guy who had been smoking pot a while I was interviewing him. So I thought, I should just cut him. But part of me knew, you can’t just do it post hoc.

I somehow sort of persuaded myself that, well, you can justify this. It was only because I was so desperate to get a job because I failed to get a job my first time on the job market. And so my whole career was on the line. I’ll cut out these two outliers, and I didn’t feel right about it. And I thought, but okay, I’m not going to write this paper up. I’m not going to submit it. Let me run more. Let me collect more subjects, to be sure about this. So I collected more subjects, and I didn’t get the effect. So I dropped that line. But I felt I did feel it. I was kind of aware that I was aware that I was doing it and it felt wrong. But I did it anyway for at least a few weeks. I think that actually now that you mentioned it that might be that that incident actually could well be part of why I in particular and treating truth as sacred. I think more so than then some other people in the academy.


Helpful. Well, lots to come back to there. But first I want to wind back to the beginning of your story and just locate you and where you where you came from. So I’d love you to tell me a little bit about your childhood and particular the big ideas that were in the air, philosophical, religious, political, that were formative on young Jonathan when he was running around. 

The route to psychology, becoming atheist and religious wisdom

Jonathan Haidt 

Well, you know, young Jonathan had a very standard upper middle class suburban American postwar childhood. Born in 1963. Raised in Scarsdale, New York, a suburb north of the city. My father was an attorney, prototypical, quintessential Ashkenazi Jewish story. My grandparents all arrived from Europe in 1907, fleeing terrible conditions, dirt poor, worked in the garment industry, their children went to college, their children were successful. A very typical American Jewish story. And while my parents were raised in a world that had a little anti semitism, America has been fantastic for the Jews compared to anywhere else on the planet, by the time I came along, it was like nothing. It was gone in the 70s and 80s. It’s back now, but it was gone for a number of decades. While I wasn’t in any sense an intellectual as a child, I was very curious. I always love to take things apart. One of my favourite things to do is just figure out how things work. I was always taking things apart to understand how they work.

I loved the sciences, I thought I’d go into the sciences. I went to college, I went to Yale, undergrad major in philosophy. I had a sort of an existential crisis, my senior year of high school, at age 17 after reading, Waiting for Godot and other existential literature. I was already an atheist by that time, if there’s no God, if the whole earth was destroyed tomorrow, what would it matter? So I just decided to major in philosophy for that reason, which was totally unsatisfying, because American and British philosophy in the 1970s was really analytical, dry, nothing to do with the meaning of life. It’s just not satisfying. But I took some psychology courses, which I loved. I loved my literature classes. I sort of thought that great literature and psychology, that’s actually how you get to the meaning of life. I majored in philosophy with a psychology track and I got summer jobs in computers. PCs were everywhere and I learned to program. I didn’t know what to do with my life but I had those interests and I got a job writing computer programs for the US government through one of my professors. I lived in Washington DC for two years after college graduation, and was so bored and kept thinking every day, what am I going to do with my life? It was a real sort of chronic anxiety.

I made a list all the things that really matter to me. What are the things that I really don’t want? Money would be nice, but it wasn’t essential, whereas being around smart, interesting people who are not just after money, that was essential. I made a list of all these things, I looked at and it said, oh, you should be a college professor. That had never occurred to me ever. So it was from that, that I decided to apply to graduate programs. Originally, it was going to be in computer science and go into artificial intelligence. But that felt too dry and dull once I got into it and visited a few schools. I ended up applying in psychology, thinking I could go into cognitive science. One school took a chance on me, Penn. And once I got there, I switched my topic from sort of cognitive science and the psychology of humour, I switched it to the study of morality. And once I got that, it all clicked and I never looked back and it’s allowed me to study everything in the world.


Were those kinds of questions live in your childhood? Was there a sense of kind of discussion about politics are about meaning? Were your parents more religiously Jewish? Do you feel like they planted a seed that you pulled on about the meaning of life or not at all?

Jonathan Haidt

My mother was very literate and cultured. I got a lot from her in terms of just a broad cultural, cultural upbringing. I only found out at the end of her life that she had been an atheist all along, she just thought it was important that we be exposed to religion to make a decision for ourselves. My father, I think, was a little more religious. He and I would sometimes argue, as I was becoming an atheist about God, and is there a God. Personality is highly heritable. The way you are, the things that really turn you on, that’s not what you learn, that really is just the way your brain works. I can’t believe how lucky I am, that I have this job that so perfectly fits who I am and what I want to do.


This is a very private question but do you remember why you became an atheist? 

Jonathan Haidt 

I remember that at my Bar Mitzvah, I was not an atheist. So when I was 13, Jewish kids take part in the Saturday morning service. And you read a part of the Torah, rather than having the rabbi read the whole Torah section. And so at 13 I know I was not an atheist. But neither was I religious. Around 14 or 15, I remember having arguments with my best friend, Krista, whose father was a minister, Episcopalian. Krista eventually went to divinity school when I was actually at Penn. It was really just the basic atheism 101. If you take the Bible, literally, it can’t be true. Really? You think Mary was a virgin? It just didn’t seem very likely to me.


So earlier you said, I was the kind of guy who would have been a New Atheist. And then something else happened. What stopped you going down that path?

Jonathan Haidt 

New Atheism refers to Sam Harris, Richard Dawkin, a set of men who are amazing writers. They made it fun and exciting. But they all took the Bible literally and then said like, this clearly isn’t true and evolution is true. And they had an animus towards religion, which I used to have. I remember reading the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, in college. And I was shocked, I was really shocked at some of the things that God commanded the Israelites to do. I thought that religion was generally a pernicious force in the world. I was on the left, never far left, but I was a standard, progressive type person in my 20s. Democrats and Republicans used to be equally likely to go to church, but that really has segregated and especially as the left has embraced gay marriage, that really drove a wedge where people on the left just automatically thought, oh, you’re Christian, you’re homophobic, by definition. So while that wasn’t quite me, that was just sort of in the water, in the 80s, and 90s, and into the 2000s. So as I went into the sciences, and psychology, I was on track to be the person who would write about religion, and show all the foolishness of it. 

Two things happened to prevent this. One was a very influential book, David Sloan Wilson’s book Darwin’s Cathedral, who makes the argument: does evolution just work on the individual? Or does evolution work on groups, because groups actually do compete with groups and groups do replace other groups? And we are all the descendants, not just of the individuals who prospered but of the groups that did. And it’s really clear, groups that are religious, are more cohesive, they have more trust, they can do more. So there was that intellectual thread. And at the same time, in my work on moral psychology, I was studying conservative/liberal differences. And when I was actually reading the writings of the best conservative writing, I was like, wow, I never encountered these ideas. Family and tradition and structure and authority and constraint, people really need these things. And this kind of society that progressives push for actually tends to fall apart. So a bunch of things converge. 

The third thread was writing The Happiness Hypothesis, and really reading the religious tradition reading, like every piece of wisdom literature I could find, east and west. There really is an accumulated body of wisdom that comes largely from the religious traditions, although many modern secular people have come to the same view, but just to see that religions that have evolved over time tend to evolve culturally to create ordered and not always humane societies. Usually, and especially in America, where religions had to compete with each other for converts, they have to be really nice. Whereas there are other parts of the world where it’s not like that, and religions can be much more brutal. I don’t want to defend religion everywhere. But at least in America, where we have a free market, religions actually really do make people nice, on average.


I was going to build up to this later, but it’s related to what we’ve just been talking about, which is, I speak to quite a lot of people on this podcast who’ve come to a similar position to you. I spoke to a guy called Freddie Sayers recently and Freddie says he’s been speaking to Richard Dawkins recently and pushed him and said, do you believe that religion gives us evolutionary benefits? Basically, do you believe it is generally good for society? And he sort of agreed that it was I haven’t gone back and checked the transcript so I want to but this is Freddie who was interviewing. I have lots of academic male friends, many of whom who’ve done this like New Atheism to warm and open move. But the thing they say to me, late at night over a bottle of wine is I can see it’s good for society, I can see it’s good for individuals, but I just can’t get there. Do you might as far as you feel comfortable, why can’t you? What stops you, what holds you back? I’m just really curious about it. 

Psychedelics: religious empathy and awe

Jonathan Haidt 

I’ll answer that both as a psychologist and as a person who’s had a certain class of religious experiences. So as a psychologist I’ll say that there’s two master dimensions of both brain development and personality. They are systemising and empathising, and people who are high systemisers tend to be attracted to math logic. They can read subway maps, they like to understand how systems work and I’m a high systemiser. Then there’s empathising, when you feel others pain, you like to think about people in their motives. Like most men who are systemisers, I’m lower than average on empathising. That’s like what a science person generally is, not always, you can be high on both. This is a long, roundabout way of saying, just the way my mind works, the way I approach the universe, evolution, science, that all makes sense. Whereas for many people, they feel it in their heart, they feel it.

I was I was raised reformed Jewish, which means we have bad music, not a lot of ritual, most of the services are in Hebrew, which as a kid is incredibly boring. So there was just wasn’t much there for me when I was growing up. Whereas I could see as an adult, I could see that for Christians, especially in some denominations, where they sing and dance, they have sometimes really good music, they build these beautiful cathedrals, it has a lot to offer. I belong to a beautiful synagogue in New York City Central synagogue, which actually is really thrilling and uplifting and we have a fantastic rabbi who does give inspiring sermons. So I do have more of it now than I did when I was a kid. So it just has an intuitive thing. I think religious feelings come from people’s hearts and their experiences. And some people have them, they have a calling, they feel the Holy Spirit, some people don’t.

Now, that’s the first part of my answer. The second part is that as I was preparing to go do research in India, when I was a postdoc at the University of Chicago, in June of 1993. I was preparing to go in September, and I was at Chicago, and I went back to Penn where I with my grad school friends, and one of them got LSD, and we all tried it together. It was my first time trying LSD, I was 29 years old. That was in so many ways the kind of religious experience that William James writes about. There’s 33 features of spontaneous peak experiences, according to Abe Maslow. Do you know the book Religions, Values and Peak Experiences? It’s a brilliant little book, I recommend that to all your listeners. So I had that psychology, everything looked beautiful, like really beautiful, dualisms were transcended. There was a sense of pervasive meaning. I had a full blown deeply religious experience from that and it kindled an extraordinary interest for many years in psychedelics. Now that I’m comfortable talking about it with you now, I kept it hidden for a while in the 90s, but now the stigma is gone.

I instantly was like, okay, how do these things work? What are they doing to the brain? I read the cultural history of LSD, that was just thrilling to read. So I learned a lot about it. I grew mushrooms with my then girlfriend. We explored them together. I feel like that has all given me a much better understanding of religious experience, just as a psychologist. On these drugs, sometimes you get the feeling you’re being contacted by alien intelligence, like that did occasionally happen. Even though I believe that’s just a drug effect, if you at least have the experience of feeling like there are other dimensions of reality, and there are other intelligence out there, then at least it becomes more plausible. I don’t think that that is true, but I’m really open to the idea that it could be. The universe is certainly far weirder than we can possibly imagine and boy, does it look weird as is. 


I’m so glad you brought this up. I promise I’ve read all of your books for this. And we will, if we have time, we will get to my planned questions, but I wanted to offer my amateur hypothesizing. So my friends who are male academic leaning people, what’s happened in recent years is they have been taking psychedelics and the psychedelics has made their previously often New Atheist materialist worldview weaker. One person said to me, the mushrooms weren’t a religious experience, but the mushrooms made me open enough, made me able to open my heart to the religious experience. And regular listeners will laugh because I’m always quoting Martin Buber, Blaise Pascal or Iain McGilchrist. But sometimes I wonder if the heritage of my kind of charismatic conversion and then being immersed in the rituals and practice of both charismatic and contemplative Christianity has meant my kind of right hemispheric forms of attention, the idea of God seems plausible to me. When you have very left hemispheric forms of attention, some of what psychedelics can do, is just open that space to see what I would say, is actually an already there. But is the inattentional blindness makes it difficult for us to see. How does any of that land?

Jonathan Haidt 

That lands perfectly. In my academic research, the first principle of moral psychology is intuitions comes first and strategic reasoning second, so I’m an intuitionist. And in everything I do, I try to first trigger intuitions, get the right intuitions, get the right sort of emotional framing or background. Then when you put in your main idea, now, it sort of it all fits in the person has a feeling of yes, that all connects. And this is why it’s so hard to persuade people normally of political things, people don’t take the time to look at it from other person’s point of view. 

As a rationalist science oriented kid, the idea that Jesus was a the Son of God, this all seems so implausible to me. When I thought about religion, it was within that framework that would lead one to the New Atheism. It was only after I had this experience that I did the research on religion, about the evolution of religion. So perhaps, when I encountered all that, thinking about the evolution of religion, and if I had not had those psychedelic experiences in the 90s, I might not have been as receptive as I was. So I guess what I’m saying here is, I totally see how psychedelics shatters your constructs, and you then have to rebuild. 

And that actually right there is a definition of awe. I have a review paper, a literature review paper with Decker Keltner at UC Berkeley, it was the first review paper on awe from a psychological perspective in 2003. And what we concluded from a lot of our reading of other people’s theories was all happens when two things happen. One is a perception of vastness. The second is a perception that you can’t fit it into your existing constructs. And when you look at religious conversion experiences, Saul on the Road to Damascus, Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita, that shatters your constructs that you have to rebuild. And I was like, wow, what just happened to me? I’m going to learn everything I can about this scientifically, like, what happened? That was incredible. But I can totally see other people are like, wow, what happened to me? This is like a glimpse of heaven, like, how do I want to get back there. And I think it’s relevant that a lot of the pioneers of the whole psychedelic movement in the 60s, I think very few of them stayed with psychedelics a lot, like a lot of them moved on to Indian religions. People became spiritual seekers. So I think that is a natural evolution.


Fascinating. So you wrote The Happiness Hypothesis, which became this sort of leading light in, in positive psychology, and then The Righteous Mind came along. What I have loved about reading all your books in order is the seed of the next book is in the one before, and it’s just like following a little thread. Is it fair to say your identity as a liberal got complicated? Tell me a bit about that identity shift? Because you went into it thinking how can I help the Democrats use psychology to win elections? And that’s not where you came out?

Shifting liberalism and writing amid culture wars

Jonathan Haidt 

We have to do two things. One is we have to talk about the word liberal. Which etymologically is from liberty, what is the life virtues of a free person, the liberal tradition is a tradition of freedom, freedom of religion, free markets. And in Europe, you’ve largely kept the word liberal, close to its original meaning of liberty. In America, sometime in the early 20th century, we did this really confusing conflation of liberal meaning left. That is what’s confused everything. So yes, I always used to be a liberal and it seemed to me that a liberal wants liberty for everyone. If you’re in favour of gay rights, civil rights, women’s rights, then you’re on the left, and you’re a liberal. And if you’re in favour of the old order, which is patriarchal, and then you’re a conservative. So everything seemed to line up, at least in America, to say the liberal is liberal means left. And then Ronald Reagan pointed out a lot of the contradictions. Ronald Reagan poisoned the word liberal, so that the American left, which had a huge long losing streak from the early 70s until Bill Clinton and is I think about to have another huge long losing streak for the exact same reasons as it did in the 70s. So the word liberal was poisoned for a while, and the word progressive replaced it. And so the Democrats would say they’re progressive.

So as the culture wars heated up, and as George W. Bush became president who I thought was a terrible president, and as the Democrats kept losing, they lost twice to George W. Bush in elections that I thought they should have won. I was like, screaming at the sky, why do you keep saying these stupid things? Like, don’t you understand how American morality works? Like the flag is important. The left has a lot of trouble with sacredness, and the right sees many things as sacred. If you think the borders of the country, and the citizens are important, and that a nation is an emergent entity, well, then, immigration is not a problem. But illegal immigration is, or immigration without assimilation is. And the Democrats have never been able to understand that. So I kept trying to say like, here’s why you keep losing, here’s what you have to say. And I did some empirical research to back this up and I developed moral foundations theory. 

I gave my first TED Talk in 2008, which was on this theme. And if you look at that TED talk, it really was my manipulative way to lecture my liberal audience by putting them at ease, intuitively, at first by making fun of conservatives. The talk was relatively popular, but it had no, no, I mean, had no real effect on the Democratic Party. While working on The Righteous Mind, this is like 2009/2010, I committed to really understanding conservatives in order to write about them. So I’d record like the Glenn Beck show. I mean, these are right wing commentators, I would record these shows that were kind of taboo. If you’re on the left, how can you watch that? Those were fascinating, because I saw like, wow, you know, I can see what they’re doing. And some of it is over the top manipulating, but actually they sometimes make some really good points. I subscribed to National Review, which is the premier conservative magazine in the United States. And the writing was really good. You know, people like Jonah Goldberg, he was funny and incisive, and it was a real pleasure to read. And I learned so much from reading the best conservative writing. And then reading some conservative sociology, there used to be some, there isn’t any now, there’s some amazing sociologists who understood the need for order, structure and tradition. 

All these things came together. So that by the time I got to writing, I think was chapter eight of The Righteous Mind, which is called the conservative advantage, where I lay out here’s what the left believes equality of outcomes. Here’s what the right believes, proportionality, karma. That’s what always wins. Like, that’s what human beings mostly believe. And after writing that chapter, especially about fairness and liberty, I said to my wife, I don’t think I can say I’m on the left anymore. I think we we need both sides. So that’s where I came to by the time I wrote the book, I’m no longer on the left. I’m no longer on any team. I still continue to vote for the Democrats. I thought the Republican Part was becoming stranger and now it’s gone off a cliff. If you don’t have a responsible centre right party pushing against the responsible centre left party, you’re not likely to get good policy. And so in America, we haven’t had good policy in a long time, and we may never have it again. 


Did you lose friends? When that happened? 

Jonathan Haidt 

I didn’t lose friends. I lost a number of acquaintances, but I was never cancelled. People on the far left, they will not read my work. They don’t actually know what I say. But they’ve all heard that I’m a conservative, or I’m a fascist or I’m right adjacent. Because you know, if you’ve ever taken geometry, if you’re a centrist, you are literally right adjacent, that is true. So people on the far left, many of them really do dislike me, but I’m actually pretty popular centre left to centre right. And libertarians actually all love me. Because those groups, they can all see the extremity. Progressive or democratic intellectuals, they all see the crazy stuff going on to the left, which is poisoning the democratic brand and pushing people with a shovel towards Trump. So actually, the centre left tend to really like The Righteous Mind and President Obama has referred to refer to me a couple times. He’s the sort of liberal that I think is very admirable, and I do still call myself a liberal in that sense, I believe in individual liberty, I believe that the purpose of the of the state is to help individuals flourish. 


That’s really helpful context. Because when I came to this interview, having known your earlier work, and knowing The Righteous Mind really well and it was actually one of the influences early on in the podcast for wanting to listen deeply to different perspectives, but I hadn’t checked back in with your work for a while. And The Coddling of the American Mind, the title did make me go hmm, maybe that transition away from the left has taken a more direct turn. I have very weirdly eclectic political people in my life. And when I said I was interviewing you, those who are on the harder left did go, oh dear. He doesn’t understand identity. So then I came to it. And one of the things you do early on in the book is you go we didn’t love the word coddling. And by coddling we did not mean we, you’re very careful to say this is not sneering. This is not denying problems. This is out of care and concern for a generation. 

It doesn’t have a culture war tone to it, it doesn’t have a war on woke tone to it, it has a very careful sense of how sometimes ideas work and the power of the stories that we tell ourselves, and what that means for our resilience. In the in the noisy tribal information environment, one of your earlier books has a very dry title. I can’t remember what it is I was looking at, it’s something very factual and dry. And thus, I’d never heard of it. The Coddling of the American Mind does not have a dry title. So it achieved cut through, but put off a bunch of people who assumed you were saying something that you are not saying. As you’re trying to navigate that as someone with a public voice, how do you reflect on that dynamic and what your role in it is? 

Jonathan Haidt 

When I got to NYU, I wrote a mission statement. I spent most of my career at the University of Virginia in the psychology department. And when I got to Stern, learning about business, everybody has a mission statement. So I wrote one. Basically my mission is to use my research and that of others in moral and social psychology, to help people understand each other better, and to help important institutions work better. I could see that the culture war was causing people to adopt positions that are really stupid and destructive, but nobody can question them, because then you’re giving comfort to the other side. And a lot of things were being done, young people who were on the left or in progressive spaces were being steeped in a set of ideas about victimhood and oppression, many of them are factually wrong in terms of their claims about history and their claims about the level of racism and sexism today. But they are psychologically devastating. Students were saying, like, we have to shut we have to get this speaker disinvited because if he comes and says these things, people be traumatized, bodies will be ripped up. How are they going to die from a talk that they don’t have to go to? Where did these ideas come from this because it wasn’t like this in 2012. In 2012, students would come to class, you could give a lecture, they would talk with you about it. But by 2015, some students were just waiting for you to say anything they could be offended by, and then they report you or they’d raise a fuss or they’d tweet about it. 

And so in 2015, we had this transformation of higher ed, in which it really was a cultural revolution. It was very much like the Chinese Cultural Revolution. It was young people led pulling down, professors pulling down, statues destroyed. Hardly anyone in the academic world stood up to it. Now, conservatives were up in arms about it, but they didn’t matter because they weren’t in the academy. There’s a number of us who really were writing about this and actually coincidentally, at the same time that Greg and I were writing the Coddling article in 2015, independent of that I co founded Heterodox Academy because I could see that on the left we’re getting a lot of things wrong. Anything about immigration ,inequality. Since people can’t really talk about it without getting shot, if you disagree, we end up reaching stupid conclusions that backfire. So I think that’s a role that I’ve played. I’ve tried to navigate very carefully, so I’ve never been cancelled. There was one talk at a school in New York City where I paid me to give a talk. And then some people objected, like, you can’t have Jonathan Haidt. they cancelled it out of fear. But that’s the only time I’ve ever been like literally cancelled. I have tread very carefully, in part because I study moral psychology. I kind of feel like, you know, I can see the operating system here, I can see where the trip wires are. I’m going to step over them carefully. Whereas other people when once they get angry, they just like, go charging ahead, and then you get right into the left, right, dynamic. 


So the coddling of American mind was about over protecting in the real world and the anxious generation under protecting online. What has the journey been to writing this book? 

From play–based to phone–based: four norms to heal mental health 

Jonathan Haidt 

It comes directly out of the coddling. So Greg and I published The Coddling the American mind the book in September 2018. And immediately, some psychologist and psychiatrist challenged us and said, ah, you know, there’s no, there’s no epidemic of teen mental illness. It’s just an illusion. It’s another moral panic. You know, young people, they’re just very comfortable saying that they’re depressed and anxious. But that’s a good thing. They’re honest about it. And so I was like, wait, did we get this wrong? I really have to look into this. That’s why I started putting together these Google documents to collect all of the data I could find in the United States and the UK, and then later have expanded it to many countries. 

And then others challenged us because we said very gingerly in the book, social media and phones, the timing is exactly right, maybe smartphones and social media also contributed to this. And we said that very tentatively. And then some people say, oh, you know, you’re doing moral panic. Again, there’s no evidence. It’s just correlational. So I created another Google document, these are all public Google documents on Once I put it all together, like one document shows, it is a it is a tidal wave, it is an epidemic of mental illness. It hit it hit kids in all the English–speaking countries in 2013 plus or minus a year, I hit girls especially hard in the same way. The rates of self harm and hospitalisation for self harm skyrocketed for girls in all the English–speaking countries at the same time. 

There is no other explanation for this, no one has come up with even with a theory to explain it other than this. So I was I was looking at the epidemic, and then looking at the evidence that it is tied to social media and smartphone use. I began debating with people and I would do this very publicly. And I would put things out there. And I would invite criticism, this is something I learned from studying moral psychology. If you ask the world to make you smarter, they will. Most of the objections are not relevant, but some are. So you know, as I refined my view, and got more and more confident, okay, this is a huge epidemic. It’s international. Once we were solid on the evidence that it’s international, it starts around 2013, it’s very closely linked to social media, I decided actually to write about this more, originally was going to be one big book about how social media is damaging teen mental health in the first chapter, and then I was going to go on to democracy because that’s a whole other thing that we haven’t talked about is what social media is done to liberal democracies. 

But once I started writing that book, it was going to be called Life After Babel, adapting to a world we may never again share. And I wrote chapter one, which was going to be look what happened to the kids, that chapter was so shocking. And it was like, oh, my God, like, I can’t just say, look at the disaster. Now. It’s like, okay, why did this happen? So I had to say, well, you have to look at childhood, what is it the children have to do during childhood? And how is it that a phone based life stops them from doing that? And then I had to have a whole chapter on girls because girls are uniquely suffering, but I couldn’t leave out the boys. The boys’ story is different. So by the time I had four chapters, I realised this has to be its own book. And so I made that decision in I think the fall of 2022. And then wrote the book in the 12 or 14 months after that. 

What’s the theory? What caused it? The explanation that we offer in the book is that from millions of years BC through around 1990, kids had a play based childhood, like all mammals, all mammals have to play. But in the 90s, we begin freaking out in America and in Britain and Canada, we freak out about child abduction, and child molestation, we start keeping our kids inside, just as technology is luring them inside, because now everyone’s got a computer, you got video games every year, the video games are better. So the kids are leaving real world experience, they’re not seeing each other as much anymore. They’re not going outside, they’re not going into nature, they’re not being independent, they’re always at home in front of a screen. And that goes on from 1990 to 2010. 

But mental health isn’t falling in this period, actually, it’s actually pretty stable. And the kids are on flip phones. And a flip phone is very useful for communicating with your friends. And it’s not useful for broadcasting to the world, you can’t do that with a flip phone. So in 2010, very few kids have an iPhone. In 2015, most the great majority of kids do. So between 2010 2015 we went from flip phone with low speed internet and no apps to iPhone with a high speed internet unlimited data plan and a million apps, especially Instagram, Facebook buys Instagram in 2012and 2013 is when their mental health falls off a cliff. 


It has been such a very extremely sobering and illuminating read for me, the mechanism what it is that’s happening in child development, what it is that children need to learn to become functioning adults and the multiple ways the way they are living is stopping that. I would enormously recommend it to readers. But what is what are your hopes for it? If it does what you hope? What you long for? What will it change? 

Jonathan Haidt

So first, I’m in the very enviable position that I’m trying to create social change. I’m trying to change childhood, I’m trying to rollback the phone based childhood and restore the play based childhood. And that sounds insane. That sounds like an insanely ambitious project to change childhood not just in America, but in all of the English–speaking countries. I think the English–speaking countries are all tied together. I’m in the enviable position that almost everybody is fed up with the phones. The parents hate them. It’s their main worry about childhood. It’s not that their kid will get pregnant or abducted. It’s literally that they’re going to be scrambled by the by this phone based life. Everyone hates it. The right and the left actually agree, it’s the only one the only issues in America where left and right agree. The kids don’t even like it. 

It’s what’s called a collective action problem in the social sciences, we’re all stuck in a trap. Because each person feels that they have to do this thing. It is best for them to be on. And each parent feels that ah, okay, my kid wants a phone. And she says she’s the only one without one. And she’s excluded. So, okay, I have to give her phone. So we all do the same thing. We don’t want to do it. But we all do the same thing. Because everyone else is. And we’ve studied collective action problems for a long time in the social sciences, we know how to solve them with collective action. So you need clear norms, and you need to change incentives. And sometimes you need laws, but often you can do without laws. 

So what do I hope to accomplish? I show that phones are experienced blockers. As soon as you give a kid a phone, it’s like, think of all the things that kids might do. They might see friends, they might have a hobby, they might read books, they might ride a bike, think of all the things that you might want a child to do. Now cut all of those by 80% to 100%. Just put this in their face, and this is it. This is the thing they’re going to do for the rest of their life. This is going to be most of their day. It’s 9 or 10 hours a day for most kids. So a phone is an experience blocker. Once you give your kid a phone, there’ll be very little experience of life other than through the phone. So this is a complete disaster. This is huge. Human beings cannot develop in this way. And we’re seeing the evidence of that. So we want to do four norms that will solve for collective action problems and will largely roll back. I think we can reduce the rates of mental illness, not that to 2012 levels all the way with these four norms. But I think we can get halfway there.

The first is no smartphone before high school. So high school here is the transition between middle school, it’s around age 14. So middle school kids should not have smartphones. Now people think well, how are they going to get to school? How are you going to reach them? Flip phones are great, because they’re not easy to text with. With a flip phone, you can say, I’ll be home in 15 minutes, but you’re not going to write a long thing about your emotions, with a smartphone, you will. So give them a flip phone. Now you have to also look out for tablets and computers. But let’s start with the phones.

The second norm is no social media until 16. The current legal age is 13. And it’s so completely unenforced, that any 10 year old can just lie and say she’s 13, and she can get account anywhere. You know, you can go on any porn site, we just you say yes, I’m 18. I mean, it’s insane what we’ve done. So no social media until 16. And there are several bills United States and some states that will raise the age to 16. I think that should be the age. And it can’t be on the parents, because the parents can’t stop the kid from getting the internet. You know, it’s not enough to say you can’t have the app on your phone. If the kid can get to the internet, they can have 17 Instagram accounts. So we have to have a clear rule. No social media until 16, I hope we’ll get a law raising the age from 13 to 16. But, you know, even if we can just get most parents to do it, that will relieve the pressure on other parents because your kid can’t say everyone’s on it. They’re not, only some kids are on it, and you’re not going to be one of them. 

The third norm is really easy. And we’re actually making a lot of progress. The third norm is phone free schools. Most schools say they ban phones, what they mean is, our rule is, you’re not allowed to take your phone out during class, which is complete nonsense. Because as my kids will attest, that just means you have to hide it in a book or you hide in your lap. That’s the rule, you have to hide it your lap, or go to the bathroom, whatever. And then the teacher has to play phone police, and they hate it and they give up and then you then you can just use your phone. So that’s what most schools do in United States. And that is a complete waste of a school day. Why send them to school, if they’re just going to be on the phone all the time. So the rule has to be, the phones go in a locker or a yonder pouch, a lockable pouch, and then you get it back at the end of the day. And that’s actually happening. And in England, it’s changing. My hope is that in England, you have a much more functional political system that we do. I mean, our system is now completely bonkers.

The fourth norm is far more childhood free play and independence. In the UK, you didn’t have nearly the crime that we had here in the 70s and 80s, and 90s. But yet you did the same thing as us, you are locked up your kids too. And don’t let them out until they’re 10 or 12. And it’s too late. It’s too late for them to learn to be independent.


I imagine there’s a lot of people listening who are concerned and want to learn more and work out how we can build that collective action movement. Where should they go? 

Jonathan Haidt 

Well, I hope that people buy the book because that really lays out the action plan in part four of the book, but you don’t need to buy the book to learn what this is about. If you go to my substack, I hope listeners will sign up for that it’s free. It has all kinds of essays for teachers, for parents, for legislators, and then I hope people will go to the webpage for the book, which is It’ll have a lot of resources, again, for teachers, parents, and then legislators. It’ll have links to videos. And we’re doing a kind of a guerrilla art project, which will be featured on the site, but it’ll use a variety of installations to dramatise what we’ve done to childhood. 


One final question, how has it changed how you live? 

Jonathan Haidt 

Well, it certainly has changed the way my wife and I raise our kids. We became friends with a woman named Lenore Skenazy, who wrote a book called Free Range Kids, and that really encouraged us to send our kids out, beginning when they were about eight years old. We live in New York City, and it was extremely safe in the 2010s. That really encouraged us to send our kids out to the park to play, out to stores to do errands. And when they would come back from those trips, they’d be just like, bubbling like, they were thrilled to have that independence because no other kid gets that, you do not see eight, nine year olds out in the United States, I mean, rural areas you might but in most parts of the country, if an eight year old is spotted alone, someone’s going to call the police because no one has seen an eight year old on chaperone since the 90s. So it certainly encouraged us to give them more independence and delay access to smartphones and especially social media. A theme of the book is that we have over protected our kids in the real world where they need a lot of experience. We’ve under protected them online, where they’re where they’re entering an environment that is really unsuitable for human development. 


Jonathan Haidt, thank you so much for speaking to me on the secret. 


My pleasure.

Reflections from Elizabeth


Well. I think a lot about formation and the ways the environments that we spend a lot of time in shape our values and our professional worlds, our professional lives are so much a part of our formation. I wonder if careers guidance counselors should be asking children when they’re choosing the career they want. Not just, you know, does it sound interesting? Will it make you happy? Does it make enough money for you to live on? But, what are the kind of souls that are shaped by this particular professional path? What are the things it’s going to continually reinforcing you? And one of the really positive things I see in academia is about this concern for truth. It’s often the thing that academics say as their sacred value. You know, what does it mean to really rigorously chase down something in my particular field? 

I was really grateful to Jonathan because he was honest. I often ask people about when they have felt their sacred values have been compromised or they have been tempted to compromise their sacred value. It’s a very intimate thing to ask someone, especially if you haven’t connected with them previously like I haven’t with Jonathan. He didn’t admit to a big scandal, but he said something very human and very honest, which is at some point in his academic career, he was really tempted to fudge the evidence. And we know this happens, right? I’ve had previous guests who’ve talked to this. The practice of science is almost as much prey to this instincts in us as anything else, it is really easy for kind of the studies which don’t show anything to get buried, you know, people to just change the p–value or adapt their question to get the results that they need because that is what the incentive structure is set up around and that is how you progress in academia, you show really interesting and new research. I think that it was really helpful for Jonathan to acknowledge that, probably everyone in that field has felt that temptation at some point. It’s very humanizing and I think we’re so judgmental, aren’t we, about other people’s failings and so permissive about our own. So I was just really grateful for him for that. 

I’m thinking about this for other reasons, but it did make me think about how there are really bad ways in which academia can form you. And I think one of those ways is it’s very lonely and very competitive. It’s not at all collaborative or lots of fields aren’t actively collaborative. And that forms you in a particular way, and I think can leave you without those rigorous morally formative communities where you’re really honest and up close with other people working on something together. It’s very much too often, not always, you know, carve the lonely path as the most intelligent and successful individual you can become. 

The Bible made him an atheist. That’s just, you know, a blunt summary, but lots of things it sounds like led to his loss of faith. But one of them was really reading the Hebrew Bible properly. And it probably stuck out to me because that happened to me too. After I became a Christian in my teens, I had spent some time reading the Bible in quite a shallow way, I think, just reading the nice bits and reading the verses that you could put on a fridge magnet or a lovely Instagram square, in beautiful hand lettering. I hadn’t ever really developed my ability to read it in community or with rigor. I hadn’t developed my hermeneutics. That’s how it fell apart for me too. The reconstruction/reconnection with my tradition has been about learning how to read this rich, strange, beautiful, compelling, fascinating, complex, complex book. I wonder how for how many people that Jonathan’s experience brings true as well. 

I loved him talking about the role of music and the aesthetic part of his religious practice. You know, he’s an atheist who’s a member of a synagogue and how it really plays into this thread we were pulling on about different forms of attention. And I will point listeners who are very confused by all the Ian McGillchrist chat to an interview I did with him. But that’s very much about the person, if you want to just get an overview of his ideas, Nick Spencer did two great podcasts with him on his two most recent books. Or a friend of Theos called David McElroy’s written a really good long read overview on the perspectiva substack. For lots of you, this is not going to be interesting. But for the nerds out there who want to chase this down, that’s where I would send you. But in very, very oversimplified summary, McGilchrist’s work has really sense that the left hemisphere and the right hemisphere pay different kinds of attention. And that because our brain is plastic, which means it is continually changing, the more we pay one particular type of attention, the more that attention gets reinforced and it gets harder to use the other form of attention. And his  big thing is that we live in a very left hemispheric world, which is abstract, it likes parts of things, not wholes, it doesn’t see connections, doesn’t see animated creatures often it’s sort reducing things down into the most mechanised parts, whereas the right hemisphere pays attention in this interconnected wholes, sees connections, and it’s where the imagination and intuition and religion and a bunch of other things that we really need rest or sit. It’s very complicated, but that’s the headline. And this has really formed my thinking hugely on lots of things. But one of them  why for some people does the religious instinct feel so common, easy, embedded, the intuition that there is something beyond us that we want to connect with feels very present in some people and very absent in other people. And what does that mean for the way we would choose or choose not to engage spiritually and philosophically? 

So, that was the sort of hypothesis I was putting to Jonathan. Is part of this about the way we have chosen to pay attention? Is part of this about our formation? You know, the world that we’ve been in, is it easier for artists, for example, to keep open the possibility of there being love beyond us because of the way they’ve paid attention than it might be for someone who spent a lot of time breaking apart information into its component parts, for example. I don’t know. It sounded like I didn’t think it was you know, way left field. And partly because that’s what was part of his life, you know, that there’s something about the music, there’s something about the ritual, there’s something about the community that for him, his religious faith isn’t about propositions. I don’t know if I could call it religious faith. His religious practice is not about propositions, it’s about these other things. 

Changing minds and changing tribes. This thing about being a Democrat and going mad at the democratic political machinery about how they communicate fascinates me. One of the worlds is I could well have ended up being someone who did that kind of work in sort of comms theory, you know, storytelling for social change type thing. It still fascinates me. It really feels to me so important for how we are in the world, that both what we believe, what our values are, and then how we communicate them matter. That we can communicate them in ways that do not take into account where other people are starting from, and feel very pure in doing so, and fail to persuade anyone, or even encounter each other. Or we can listen to where else is coming from, what is the language that they’re comfortable with, what are the values of theirs that we connect with and be someone who can communicate across those differences. I think about the world we are creating if we are not someone who’s prepared to do that work, we’re not someone who’s prepared to be associated with people not like us, not prepared to listen to people not like us, quick to write people off. Our world will shrink and we will end up on a lonely island. But we will also lose that language and we won’t be able to communicate across those differences. We’ll be like those terrible English tourists that show up in sitcoms who go other places in the world and think that they’re going to be able to get what they need by shouting louder rather than attempting that work of translating across those. And how much I don’t think we’ve seen that as part of our work as citizens, as part of our soul work, as just part of being a sort of responsible grownup person, to do the work, to communicate, to listen, to hear, to maintain the ability to speak a common language.

Because of all that, how easy it is to be misunderstood. And I really did have one of those experiences where some of the sort of ambient associations with Jonathan that I went into reading his most recent work with and then what that recent work was actually like was so different. And how easy it is to be misunderstood and how things get translated into short headline snappy tweetable, memeable form that does violence to people’s work and they can’t help but be misunderstood. That’s really scary when you’ve got a book coming out. You can do all the work. Try and communicate across differences and you might still be misunderstood and people might well, you know, take exception to you for some really good reasons and I’m sure that’s part of what’s going on both here and in my future scenario also. 

And finally, landing on The Anxious Generation. And this is what really came out from reading Jonathan’s work, that two things can be true, that you can have a rising generation that are more alert to some real deep seated injustices, which are a stain on our societies. And that the way those conversations about those injustices are happening can also really not be serving that generation that are alert to them might actually be harming the generation that is alert to them. How complex that is to be able to say the yes and, not just the no but, to be able to affirm what is good in some of these movements and these moments, what is necessary even though it’s deeply uncomfortable and steady enough to say what about a different story. What does it mean to see ourselves as capable of crossing these divides?

I’m just really grateful for what’s happening around smartphones. Jonathan’s book that’s coming out around now has been really key along with some other thinkers in creating a tipping point. It’s probably what convinced me to really hold the line around some things in our family that and the work of Andy Crouch. I tried to build a little group of parents around it a couple of years ago to say, let’s be the people that hold the line on this. And it was incredibly difficult and there was almost no appetite and a bunch of people felt judged. I didn’t mean to make them feel judged. Now there’s a movement for collective action and that is incredibly hope–making because you don’t often get to see the tipping point when the sort of long patience slogging away for change actually makes things move. So I’m hopeful about that. And I’m aware that there will be some parents who are a few years ahead of me and my cohort who didn’t have strong evidence and didn’t have the strength for collective action and a generation of teenagers that got smartphones and social media really quite young. And I think as this change happens, I really hope we can not create another divide around that. And that as parents, as people who make choices on the best information that they have, we can just avoid as far as possible either judging each other or assuming judgment. Because this is so tender, right? It’s about kids and harm. It’s all very live and very emotional and very easy to feel defended and defensive and judgy and judged. So my word to myself and I hope into this moment is let’s just keep soft hearts towards each other as this big change in attitudes happens, partly driven by Jonathan’s work.

Thank you so much for listening to me on The Sacred. Our production team are Dan Turner, Fiona Hanscombe, and Drew Hawley. And I want to give really special thanks this episode as we draw this series to a close to Sienna James, who’s been helping us with our transcripts. And those are important for accessibility reasons. And I know some of you really like to go back and track down references and lift out quotes and, lifting out quotes and sharing them on social media is a great way to bring awareness to the podcast because as always it so helps when you tweet or share posts on any of your social media platforms or send episodes to a friend if that’s much more your style. We love it when that happens. I will be back next week for our series reflection and then we’re taking a break but until then I really hope you’ve enjoyed listening.


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Elizabeth Oldfield

Elizabeth Oldfield

Elizabeth is host of The Sacred podcast. She was Theos’ Director from August 2011 – July 2021. She appears regularly in the media, including BBC One, Sky News, and the World Service, and writing in The Financial Times.

Watch, listen to or read more from Elizabeth Oldfield

Posted 27 March 2024

Mental Health, Podcast, Psychology, Social Media, The Sacred


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