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How Social Media Dissolves Society

April 11, 2022
Jonathan Haidt


This week our guest is social psychologist, Jonathan Haidt, who has authored several of my personal favorite books including the Happiness Hypothesis, The Righteous Mind, and the Coddling of the American Mind. We're lucky enough to have Jon join us to discuss his just released Atlantic article entitled, 'Why the Past 10 Years of American Life Have Been Uniquely Stupid,' which explores his upcoming book about social media.

In this episode we discuss the key points of this article, exploring what dynamics shifted in American life as a result of social media and the resulting impacts on our children’s mental health, on our politics, and on the fabric of society itself.

Visit TheCoddling.com or LetGrow.org for more information on raising and mentoring Gen-Z kids to be less anxious and depressed.

And if you wish to learn more about viewpoint diversity in academia, visit Heterodoxacademy.org


Host: Steven Parton - LinkedIn / Twitter

Music by: Amine el Filali


The following transcription was created automatically. Please be aware that there may be spelling or grammatical errors.

Jonathan Haidt [00:00:00] Basically in Silicon Valley, they invented electrodes that go right into every kid's brains. The buttons are distributed to all strange strangers. And we said, here, you know, here, strangers, the rest of the world, you get the buttons, you get to train my kids. I don't I have no control over them. But you get to shape my kids. And guess what? They're coming out incredibly sad and broken. 

Steven Parton [00:00:33] Hello, everyone. My name is Steven Parton and you're listening to the feedback loop on Singularity Radio, where we keep you up to date on the latest technological trends and how they're impacting the transformation of consciousness and culture. This week my guest is social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who has authored several of my personal favorite books, including The Happiness Hypothesis, The Righteous Mind and the Coddling of the American Mind. And we are lucky enough to have John join us to discuss his just released Atlantic article entitled After Babble How Social Media Dissolve the Mortar of Society and Made America Stupid. In this episode, we discuss the key points of this article exploring what dynamics shifted in American discourse as a result of social media and the resulting impacts it had on our children's mental health, on our politics, and on the very fabric of society itself. So without further ado, let's get into it. Everyone, please welcome to the feedback loop, one of my absolute favorite thinkers, Jonathan Haidt. All right, then what? I think the best place to start then is to just jump straight into it. And to that end, you recently wrote an article for The Atlantic called After Babble How Social Media Dissolved the Mortar of Society and Made America Stupid. What I would love to know is how you relate social media to the Biblical Tower of Babel. And if you can just unpack this idea a bit so we can have a foundation for this conversation. 

Jonathan Haidt [00:02:03] Sure. So so I, I have been studying morality and cultural psychology and and and I got interested in political psychology and rising polarization in the early 2000s. And I was studying it and watching it get, you know, a little bit worse each year. And then there was a phase change. Something weird happened to the universe around 2014, and I've been trying to figure it out for eight years now. And it first hit us first class on campus. That's the first place where it became visible. So now I see in hindsight that we were the canary in the coal mine. Something very strange happened to us, and maybe we'll come back to the campus stories a long way. But the point is, I've been reaching for metaphors. I think in metaphors, I write in metaphors. We all do to some extent, but I do it a lot more than any normal person would. And I probably drop way too many metaphors in this conversation. So I plead with a whole bunch of them and, you know, one, one that one that I was going with before I found Babble was suppose you were the California Department of Forestry or whatever you have out there. And you have 100 years of experience fighting forest fires. And you know everything about the interaction of humidity and sunshine and the winds north. You know, you have all this data and intuition and then all of a sudden in 2014, the Earth's atmosphere goes from 20% oxygen to 50% oxygen, and now everything's just going up in flames. Any spark a you can't like, none of your knowledge is real. I mean, it's sort of relevant, but not really, because everything's a conflagration and, you know, and you're saying, you know, what has changed? And people say, well, maybe the wind's a little bit stronger. Like, no, no, it's way beyond that. Way beyond that. And so that was the metaphor I was using for a while where it seemed to me that social media, by connecting us, you know, of course, connection is generally a good thing. But it wasn't just like, oh, we're more connected. It was connecting us in a fundamentally different way that we'd never been connected for, which is more about performance than actually relationships. And so that's the way I was thinking. And then I can remember when I looked back at the BABBEL story, but, you know, it's very early in Genesis. I think it's about Chapter nine, and it's a very simple story. And the key is so that Noah's descendants are, you know, they're fruitful, they're multiplying, just spreading out from Mt. Ararat, I guess, and they come to the plane up and they decide to build themselves a city and they decide to give it a tower to make a name for ourselves, which is a little ambiguous, but it suggests pride, arrogance, and then God sees what they're doing, and he's not pleased. And he says, Look what the people are doing. And, you know, soon nothing will be denied to them. They'll be able to do anything. And he says and here's the key line. He says, Let us go down and confound their language so that they may not understand one another. And he goes down and he everybody he just waves his hands, I guess. And everybody now speaks a different languages. So you can't even talk to that. You can't understand the person next to you. And it doesn't say in the text that he destroys the tower. But you know, the story that we all like the visualization. If you remember anything from childhood, it's you know, it's God knocks over the tower. So so imagine being imagine everything is amazing and your people are building, you know, something taller than the Empire State Building. And it's, you know, it's 900 B.C. or whatever it is, you know, the all the pride that you would feel. And then all of a sudden, one day, one day, everything is in ruins and you can't talk to anyone. And that's what happened to us in the 20 tens, or at least metaphorically. I think that, you know, that source domain helps us understand the target domain of American social and political life. 

Steven Parton [00:06:10] And what was the phase change like? What was the core thing that took place there to really drive that paradigm shift? 

Jonathan Haidt [00:06:18] Yeah. So, so it's like a lot of things with a sort of kindling and then a spark. So simply connecting people. Like if you just give everybody a free telephone line to everybody in the world, that would probably be, you know, maybe a good thing. But it'll be an interesting thing. It might not be terrible. So just connecting everybody. You know, and we were kind of connected by telephone before then. You know, telephone calls got real cheap. And then on the Internet, you know, we got e-mail. And by now you can talk to anybody for free, but it's totally private. It's just you and the person. So the connectivity is the background and that's generally a good thing. I'm not critical of hyper connecting people. It's the innovation of connecting people. So they don't talk privately, they talk publicly, and then others comment on what they're saying. So if I'm talking to you, I don't care about you. I don't care what you think. I'm only talking at you because I'm totally focused on what everyone else is commenting and liking, following me and giving me prestige. So that is that's the first transition is that I guess actually it's helpful to think it out. Stage one hyper connect everybody stage to make the connections public, not private. So it's performative. Stage three, the like and retweet buttons. That's the that's really the key. That's the turning point where it becomes really dark. So it's one thing if you're just saying, you know, early Twitter was a very nice place, you know, oh, you know, look, I had this nice hamburger for lunch. Okay, fine. It's not a problem. But but once people start liking it or retweeting it, you know, because so Facebook ads the like. But in early 2009 and Twitter adds the retweet button in late 2009 and then of course, Facebook, Twitter copies the like button Facebook likes to share. But so over the next couple of years, all of their products have these two features and then all of the rest of the platforms have these two features also. So in 2008, social media was not so viral and explosive. I mean, there were dancing babies. You know, you could you know, things got around. Of course, there were viral phenomena, but they weren't so nasty and it wasn't so easy. Once you have like an retweet it, then Facebook uses algorithms. Now they have so much data on what makes people click. So now they can algorithm a size the feed to give you the stuff that's most likely to get you to click, which especially means things that make you angry. So this is when everything changes 2009 to 2012. It's not just connecting publicly for performance, it's connecting publicly for performance while everybody else has buttons to, like, reward you and and and then retweet you can retweet you can add comments which are often incredibly nasty. So by 2012, it's a different place. And then what also happens around then? Because now Facebook and Google, too, but they're sucking up all of the app. I mean, think of all the money spent on advertising in the world. Imagine an industry that goes from like all the money in the world to most of it going to these two companies. So everybody's desperate. And so they have to adapt or die. Most of them die, most local papers die, but many, even places like The Atlantic, The New York Times, everyone has to adapt to be more clickbait, too. So there's this this tight embrace now between mainstream media and what happens on Twitter and especially on like right wing, you know, on cable TV and especially on Fox. So much of the news on TV is about what someone said on Twitter. It's crazy how much TV is now about Twitter. Yeah. So so you go from having some sort of a civic life that evolves gradually over hundreds of years to everything is about stupid things that extremists said on Twitter. And everyone's angry about it. By everyone, we mean the 3% that are doing most of the tweeting. So, you know, that's the phase change. 

Steven Parton [00:10:06] Fair enough. Is this an issue of kind of like evolutionary adaptation, I suppose, where something that was very natural, like, you know, even something like righteousness or morality or cultural, you know, in-group favoritism meets a tool that just turns turns it up, hijacks it, and suddenly it becomes a really maladaptive function for our society. 

Jonathan Haidt [00:10:31] As well as the first past. You could say that, but I, I like to think of it in a different way. So I used to always be on the left. And when I was writing my second book, The Righteous Mind, what while I was just beginning to think about writing it, I happened to stumble across a book on conservative writings. It was this book on really, you know, the intellectual tradition of conservatism edited by Jerry Mueller, who is a great intellectual historian at Catholic University. And I read the introductory essay, and I'm a very well-educated American, so I had never encountered a conservative. I knew nothing about it other than that it was bad. But I read this essay that talked about the philosophical roots of it, especially Edmund Burke and and David HUME to some extent. But, you know, Burke is the quintessential conservative and the wisdom of saying, you know what, institutions are really complicated and we don't understand them and they evolve gradually over time. And our ancestors were not idiots. Our grandparents were not idiots. And. The things that they bequeathed to us. We should assume they are of value. Of course we should update them. Of course we should change them. But slowly, I think Burke says something like We should operate on our institutions as we would operate on our father. You know, if you're doing search on your father, you're not just going, hey, you know what? Let's take out the gallbladder. What the hell? You know, you're going to be really careful. I'm sure that was a paraphrase. I don't know if you said institutions, but anyway, so that is one of the great insights I got from the conservative tradition. You know, all the way up through, you know, was Oakeshott, British 20th century philosopher and to Thomas Sole. Anyway, my point is it's not just a sort of a capitation which, you know, anyone who reads evolution is used to think about, oh, you know, we've got Paleolithic brains in a modern. Yeah, there's that. But I want to really bring in the temporal component here, that cultural evolution. So biological evolution, you know, we used to think it takes, oh, you know, millions of years. Nobody it takes hundreds. It takes synch with millennia. Let's say millennia is the proper you know, you can get biological evolution, assimilate cultural evolution is much faster, you know, decades, you know, maybe, you know, some things in a couple of years. But institutions will change, like marriage has changed, but many times over the last 300 years. But it takes, you know, several decades for each new model. That's the speed of things. And then, you know, so let's imagine if you had, like, evolution happening in a forest between like predators and prey, and then let's suppose the predators suddenly become A.I. and they can evolve in microseconds like it's not it's not evolution anymore. Like there's no, you know, the timescale is so off that you can't even have evolution anymore. That's I hope that wasn't too abstract, but that's the way that I see it, that that social meat is connected us and disconnected us from especially young people, disconnected from anything that happened more than a week ago or a year ago and hyper connects them to each other. And so like the normal interaction of cultural evolution is completely shot. 

Steven Parton [00:13:38] You said before in your article, I believe that, you know, social media has cut us off from the past and potentially part of that is the the speed of change. Do you think that we're in a particularly unique time where it's especially bad now because it happened so quickly that we haven't had time to respond and re fortify institutions? Or. Or is this something that is more of like a long term change that you don't really see us suddenly adapting to without, like major, major institutional change? 

Jonathan Haidt [00:14:14] Well, like many people, I've heard of the term singularity and I have a vague sense of what it is. And I would say, well, no. Like this is the singularity. Like this is when the laws of gravity have changed. And, you know, we're not in the third dimension, we're in the 7.8 dimension because the normal, you know, the just the normal processes by which we communicate have been changed. The path by which children develop normal social skills has been decimated. So I don't think we have a generation coming up. We'll get to this in a minute, I hope. But but the effect on young people has been such as to render them, I believe, much less capable of being adults in a democracy. Now, let me be clear. We, as older people were missed it. We messed it up, not them. I'm not blaming them for anything. But. But the ability to deal with conflict and then reach some sort of resolution and say, okay, look, we disagree, but we've got to keep going. You know, social media has has is raising a generation of kids that expect to be able to block someone, counsel them, call in punishment, report them. They don't have the skills that that Democratic theorist said for a long time are essential for a healthy democracy. So in answer to a question, I think I think that evolution was going along, you know, cultural evolution and, you know, bio psycho cultural evolution was going along and speeding up. Of course, people had this critique of modernity for, you know, since the 19th century, speeding up, but still within human capability all the way up to the 1990s, early 2000, I think was still within human capability to evolve. And then if you go from, you know, the cycle being on, you know, a matter of a couple of years to a matter of a couple of days, which is what you get with this viral social media. That's the phase change. And that, you know, I shouldn't say, will never adapt to it because I do think that, of course, many things are getting better amazingly quickly. I don't want to be a complete pessimist, Luddite and our material world, our ability to feed the world nutrition, health, longevity, women's rights, you know, all sorts of things are getting better. I don't want to deny that. But but democracy is really hard. There's very little margin for error. The founding fathers knew that it was hard and that democracies usually go up in flames pretty quickly. And so they designed a system like a kind of an elaborate clock that would, you know, slow things down and tame the passions and pit faction versus faction. James Madison was just brilliant as a psychologist and as a political theorist. So it's sort of like, you know, he designed a clock, but then we're running the clock on Jupiter rather than on Earth, and it's just not working. 

Steven Parton [00:17:04] Yeah, you mentioned the the impact on children there. And specifically, I'm thinking a lot about the cultural shifts that are taking place and then the fact that these kids are growing up viewing the culture that is now dominant and seeing that as the normal world, and therefore they're evolving their concepts of life to match this culture that we've created. What are these impacts of this cultural shift? When to kids? What is happening to young people as a result of this? 

Jonathan Haidt [00:17:32] Okay, so in everything we talk about, I'd like to urge listeners to don't think about what's easy and what comes to mind, which is content. And so what you just did is the normal thing is you think, well, kids are being shaped by what they're seeing. Yeah, I suppose they are. You know, kids were shaped by television, although not as much as we thought. And, you know, yeah, kids are probably affected by this. I'm not interested in that. That's just not that's like. Sure, that's but that's tiny compared to these other changes. And the other changes are like this. You know, when I was a kid, you'd make jokes and sometimes occasionally people get mad at you for making a joke, but usually not. They've just grown. And so there was a lot of humor. And then we're older, there was flirting. And sometimes you're, you know, you make a fool of yourself. But kids need to learn by trial and error, and they need thousands and thousands of trials. You need thousands of contacts with your friends, thousands of jokes that go bad, thousands of attempts at flirting. And all of that needs to happen in a space where there's. It's very safe to. And kids used to have that up until 2009. They had that. And what happened and there's so in the next iteration of this, the coddling the American mind. Know this? Yes, we cover this in there. So there's data on what American high school students do with their time. And you can see that for for the older millennials. And before they would get the driver's license, as soon as they turn 16, they would go out on dates. They would work for summer money. High school students used to do all sorts of things. And that all begins to drop with the millennials and it plummets with Gen Z. They don't do much of any of that because if they after school, they just have either after school activities or they're on their phone. That's a there's no you don't go over to a friend's house. You don't have any of this stuff we were just talking about all of your life is through the screen. And it's not it's not stuff that you really learn much from. It's you sort of you if you can imagine what a dog would be like if it frequently got shocked for making mistakes, that's not the way a puppy should grow up, right? But that's the way a lot of kids have grown up now. You know, some kids are doing okay with it, but the numbers are horrific. I mean, the rates of depression, anxiety, self-harm and suicide have more than doubled for pre-teen girls, more than doubled. I mean, the suicide rate, more than twice as many girls are killing themselves now as was happening before 2012. It's and it's right at 2012, 2013, you get an elbow. So that's the singularity right there. And the first people who suffer are the kids, especially the girls. 

Steven Parton [00:20:12] Yeah. And I know you've you've said the past that a lot of that, especially for the girls, comes down to gossip and whatnot. But I wonder and this is just maybe my own speculation, but, you know, I'm quite a fan of like young and the idea of like The Shadow. I think that's a really interesting concept. And I wonder if there's any aspect that you see here where. People are conforming and you know, yeah, I guess just conforming to like the social standard, the trendy and social standard and kind of suppressing the parts of themselves that are more authentic. And we see this kind of great conformity taking place and pushing, pushing away this sense of authenticity that people feel. And maybe there's some like neuroses or pathology that results from that. Is that something that says. 

Jonathan Haidt [00:20:59] Well, tell me what? Tell me more, more about the shadow I used to love. And I went through a young stage when I was in graduate school. And, you know, it began, you know, when I encountered Joseph Campbell, the mythologist in the 1990s. And I read I read some young I really loved him. And then because I got a Ph.D. in in social psychology, you're not supposed to talk about young and he's not respected and the Myers-Briggs is garbage. And so, you know, even though I loved using my dating life, it really helped me understand, you know, who I connected with. But anyway, so just to just say more about that, what do you mean by the shadow here? 

Steven Parton [00:21:33] Yeah. I mean, like, as you said, empirically, it's not the most sound idea, but this idea of repression, really, or just the fact that we take the parts of ourselves that we don't think society will accept and we hide them, and we instead take on traits that society will accept us for. And in the process, we, the things that are we're naturally good at or naturally enjoy the things that are intrinsically motivating, kind of die in this shell. And instead we take on these extrinsic motivations like attention and, you know, narcissism and things like that. And as a result of that disconnect, there's, you know, stress and pathology and sense of nihilism and just a lot of things kind of seep through. 

Jonathan Haidt [00:22:15] Yeah. So yeah, I think that that is helpful. So, so kids, so, so little kids are very playful and, you know, they want to please their parents and they do silly things and you can't embarrass them by putting a cute shirt on them. And then, you know, around age, Pennsylvania was five or six or seven. They get much more conscious of what other kids think of that. And by the time they become teenagers, that's all that matters. I mean, that is so desperate and it's what others think of them. And and they still have a playful and a funny side. They have all kinds of aspects. And if they have a good group of friends, maybe they'll get to develop that. But if not, maybe not. And then when we hit the singularity, now there are differences, there are gender and political differences. So there's a really interesting finding that I think very few people know is that the spike in depression is much, much bigger in girls on the left than anybody else. And I think what's going on there is girls on the left may not be clear when you're 12, 13, but certainly when you're 14, 15 girls on the left, what what sort of came up politically was oppression, racism, sexism, global warming. And so it's all about shared horror, about how terrible the world is, how dark the future is, how oppressive everybody is, how vulnerable we are, and how anxious I am. I'll never forget I gave a talk on the book, The Coddling the American Mind in 2019. I gave a talk in Australia and afterwards a 16 year old girl came up to me and she said, Oh my God, this is what's happening. She said, All my friends are depressed and anxious, so I have to pretend that I am too. And you know, and so. So girls are always more subject to contagion than boys. Girls are just more socially connected. Boys are bit more autistic. They're not as plugged into feelings. So feelings expressed really radiate through girls networks. And so if depression and anxiety are what is fashionable and I'm not making light of it, you know, they're not saying they're lying. In fact, what I'm saying is, since girls already have higher rates of depression, anxiety than boys and the gap increases at puberty. So you already have you've always had a number of two up depressed, dangerous girls if they're encouraged to not just broadcast it, but it becomes part of their identity. That is widely validated. It is prestigious. That is going to make others look for signs in themselves that they are and become that if we think that labels can feed back, you know, if you embrace a label over and over again, it can become the truth. So this also I think there are many processes that explain why the rates double between around 2011 and 2015. The rates double like 100% increase. There's no precedent for this. And I think that contagion is a big part of it. And it might be part of what you say that, you know, these girls are complicated human beings and they're at puberty. They're like they're developing and it's all in flux. What should develop? And if all of a sudden. One part. It's like, you know, let's raise this one up 100% and then there's nothing less. The other parts just die. So, yeah, I think yum yum could be of some help. I hadn't thought of that. 

Steven Parton [00:25:41] Maybe it wasn't, as you said, a big part of growing up as play. And I think more specifically than just play is getting things wrong. And it seems like social media is very adverse to getting things wrong. There doesn't seem to be a lot of room for saying I don't know or having uncertainty. 

Jonathan Haidt [00:25:59] That's right. And the cruelty, I mean, you know, the you know, so I think there's a kind of psychology we need to bring in here that people don't talk about as much, which is behaviorism. I guess people do talk about like slot machines and variable reinforcement schedules. I guess that is in play. But the degree to which the degree to which you learn if with one trial, if you get a huge electric shock. Okay. So, you know, most of us as parents, we try to get our kids to make their beds and we can't do it, you know, like we try, you know, we nag, we we, we make deals. We, you know, I'll raise your allowance. It's very hard to influence your kids behavior. But if we could just put a little electrode in their brains and give them a shock, which is incredibly painful or give them pleasure. If we had buttons, we and we so that we could give feedback within a few seconds, we could try and do anything. And so what we've done is even though we wish that we could have some more influence on our kids, basically in Silicon Valley, they invented electrodes that go right into every kid's brains. The buttons are distributed to all strange strangers. And we said here, you know, you're strangers. The rest of the world, you get the buttons, you get to train my kids. I don't I have no control over them. But you get to shape my kids. And guess what? They're coming out incredibly sad and broken. 

Steven Parton [00:27:19] Yeah, I wrote an article a while back called An Outrageous Orgasm. It was based on the idea that we get dopamine when we punish the social norm. Social norm violations. And a lot of us seem I don't know if this is something that you see on social media, but it feels like so many of us are waiting to just use those darts, as you call them, those punishments, weapons to call out other people. And that's actually our main motivating form of socializing in a lot of ways. Now, for a lot of people, that is the fundamental aspect of our interpersonal dynamics. Do you think that's true? 

Jonathan Haidt [00:27:54] Well, so one thing I've learned in speaking about social media is that we should never say we, because all we know is what we see and what we see is never represented it. There's no way to know what people actually think in the social media world. You know, it used to be over know, over time, you know, something happens and over time you get a sense from talking to lots of people privately, you get a sense of, oh yeah, actually, no, most people are upset about this. And so we have mechanisms for for sort of feeling out what what's general sentiment. But those are all gone. Those are all gone. So what happens on social media is, you know, there's no indication of what people actually what the majority actually think. So as I say in the article, there are four groups that that really love to shoot these darts and, you know, the Met. So the metaphor in the article is that social media is like passing out dart guns. It's the engine. One of the engineers at Twitter who created the retweet button when he saw it in action, he saw that Twitter mobs. He said, we may have just given a loaded gun to a four year old. And so the metaphor is his metaphor. But rather than a gun, let's make it a darknet, because people don't die. But, you know, it really suck to get hit with a dart. Like it would really hurt to have a dart, you know, a metal dart going like an instant that would really hurt. But the thing with Twitter is you could get 100 darts. And so if there's a risk of getting 100 darts, like you're not going to open your mouth, you're not going to make a mistake. You're not going to come to someone's defense that, you know is innocent. So let's see where we. Oh, yeah. So it I it's not that most people want to do this. It's not that most people get pleasure from darts. I think most people don't. But what we see on Twitter is it's looks like most people do because so many people that are doing it, but most people are just watching. They're not doing it. 

Steven Parton [00:29:45] So. So do you think this is a situation where a loud minority are being amplified by the technology and and that even though it is such a small percentage, it's so, I guess, contagious or it causes such a scare that it then has all these institutional impacts. 

Jonathan Haidt [00:30:02] Exactly. That's right. So this is it. This is exactly the transition from individual individual pathologies or problems to what I call in the article structural stupidity. And so it's exactly as you said, it's it's like if everybody has a dart gun, but most people don't shoot any darts. There's only four groups that do almost all the darting. And that is the far left. The far right. Rolls. That is, these are almost all men who enjoy hurting people and disrupting things. And basically they enjoy being assholes. They get a sense of importance. They're all men. And this is work by Michael Peterson in Denmark. There's a bunch of people studying trolls and Russian intelligence agents because they've been really messing with us, you know, since the fifties or earlier, trying to mess up our democracy and divide us. And, of course, Twitter and Facebook. And now, you know, Tik Tok and all those, they make it so easy for the Russians. So those four groups are the ones who are really trying to spread outrage and shoot a lot of darts. And so part of my argument is that Facebook, what social media has the look of democracy, and as Mark Zuckerberg frequently says, how could it be wrong to give more people more voice? You know, well, Mark, if you could give every one voice within some range, you know, multiple of ten, like some range that everybody has voice, that might be a good thing. That's not what you did. And, you know, and here, you know, Twitter is pound for pound. Twitter is worse, I think, than much worse than Facebook. But Facebook is so big and so important around the world that Facebook, I think, has done more damage. So the answer is, you know, in a democracy, we don't expect everybody to speak up equally. And it has always been the extremes to speak up more in the middle, the moderates less so if that was our distribution function was like that before 2009. Once social media gets hyper, hyper, I realized and weaponized the distribution function goes from that to, you know, like, you know, the middle 80% goes down and the extremes go way up. So yeah, I don't think you can have a democracy when you lose the middle 80%, when it's just the left and the right yell at each other. And I recently, you know, in talking about this, I always say the left right yelling at each other. Yuval Levin, a really brilliant conservative intellectual at the American Enterprise Institute, he was what he yes, he and Pete WAYNER. And he pointed out in an email discussion with a group of people that was on, he pointed out, oh, no, this was on his in his discussion with Barry Weiss. Yes, it was a Barry Weiss podcast, had a great discussion. And he said it isn't really the two sides yelling at each other. What the culture war actually is, is the two sides retreating into their separate spaces and yelling about things that the other side has no idea even happened. So, you know, everyone the right would be all upset about this thing. So know today it's the furries thing, the oh, the school in Indiana or Iowa where, you know, they put out a litter box for the kids whose gender identity is furry. They think they're a dog or a cat, you know, isn't that disgusting? And so, you know, so this like a big thing on the right and they're all yelling at go the liberals. But of course, that didn't happen like that never, ever happened. But that doesn't mean it doesn't matter. So the culture war is each side retreating into its own spaces to drive each other into foaming insanity about things that the other side might or might not be doing. Often. There's often it's a real thing, sometimes not. But it's like a thing that a guy did. Like, how can you have a nation of 350 million people where we get upset about a thing a guy did? That means we'll always be upset. 

Steven Parton [00:33:49] And is this where the institutional breakdown starts to happen is that these radical groups on the edges appear so threatening to, I guess, the powers that be or the the institution of trust itself that we end up passing policies to catered specifically to those small groups. 

Jonathan Haidt [00:34:08] So the analysis that I offer in that essay is that there's an A, there's an interesting asymmetry. So, so we'll start with the right. The the the right. The Republican Party used to be a center right, you know, a center right party. And they stood for fiscal fiscal conservatism, strong family, strong. You know, it was just what you would expect or want in that balance of, you know, a center left and a center right part of that. That's a healthy democracy. And, you know, it came together under Ronald Reagan with that combination. And then that around that time in the eighties, of course, cable TV, the Fairness Doctrine goes away. Cable TV flourishes. Fox meat, you know, Fox News gets going in the mid nineties. And so the Republicans begin to radicalize, in part because the influence of Fox News, that really changes the Republicans. And cable TV never really influenced the Democrats very much. They never able to get the formula. So the Republicans begin to radicalize before social media. And the Republicans now are really influenced by things even further right than Fox News. And it's especially the old old people are really influence so social media has not this my view is the Republican Party became kind of an insane party without necessarily it wasn't social media wasn't as central as it was on the left. And the fact that, you know, that there are two horrible, horrible political events I've observed in my life. Watergate was nothing. I was a kid, but Watergate was a trivial event. Not letting not letting a president have a Supreme Court nomination like seven months in advance. That was an unbelievable hijacking. I mean, that was the worst thing I had ever seen until the time that the president tried to steal an election when he had no evidence. Oh, yeah. Then there was the time that the Republican Party said, okay, you can do that. You know, we'll help you and we won't. You know, so the Republican Party has become an incredibly irresponsible, crazy party, has no connection to Edmund Burke. It is not a conservative party. And the reason they've gone so insane is that they've shot all of their moderates. And this is straight. John Stuart Mill. John Stuart Mill is my favorite philosopher, used to be Edmund Burke when I was studying moral psychology. Now that I'm studying political dysfunction, it's it's John Stuart Mill on Liberty Chapter two. And if you you know, if you don't have viewpoint diversity, if you don't have people pushing back against your confirmation bias, as Mill puts it, he who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that. You have to have the gift. And that's why Madison's design for the Constitution was brilliant, because you you take these factions and you harness them so that they push on each other. But they have to come to some agreement. They have to you know, you have to have majority. You have to have all kinds of mechanisms to reach compromise, to get anything done. So the Republicans go gradually insane during the Twins day. So, okay, but enough about that. But the key thing is they shoot their moderates. Yeah, the Democrats, it's different. The Democrats, they have this radical wing, but the radical wing actually usually loses. You know, Biden was the nominee, not Sanders. They, you know, in Congress, there's a tension. But that's healthy. It's healthy to have far left and the moderates pushing against each other. So the Democratic Party is not insane. I'm sure many listeners will disagree with me because they don't like the policies. But structurally speaking, the Democratic Party has moderates, it has dialog, but you don't know who's going to win. The problem on the left is different. The problem on the left is that so many of our institutions are epistemic institutions. That is, those that generate knowledge are epistemic institutions just so that they sort of naturally attract people on the left. So universities, media, arts, journalism, tech, all these all these industries of knowledge workers tend to lean left. And I've been getting alarmed that universities were going so homogeneous left that we didn't have any more conservatives like in my field in psychology. So I was alarmed about that in 2011 before I was thinking about social media. And then social media comes along and what happens on the left, you have these dart guns passed out. Now, everybody at the New York Times is on the left, but the older people are baby boomers who believe in free speech, and the newest hires are Gen Z, who believe that speech is violence. And our goal is not to find the. With our goal is to fight fascism, racism and the right. Okay, now you can do that on your own time, but the New York Times is a crucial institution in this country. And if the Times is not first and foremost a journalistic enterprise, but a social justice enterprise, why would anyone trust it? It's not it's not built for social justice. It's built for investigative journalism and not so. So what happens is this this internal fight in which the younger the younger progressives use the charge of racism or sexism or homophobia, transphobia. And as far as I can tell, no no leader, no white leader on the left can stand up to that charge. So if you're being called racist, you can't say, no, I'm not. Here's why. You have to say, okay, what do you want? I'll give you what you want. So. So what's been happening on the left first with universities in 2015 is the complete capitulation of the older, progressive, older liberals and I mean liberal in the sense of true liberals. Free speech, free association, a liberal arts. 

Steven Parton [00:39:57] Classic. Liberal, classical. 

Jonathan Haidt [00:39:59] Liberal. Yeah. Yeah. They're not libertarians, but they are. Well, I would just say liberal in the philosophical sense. So it's sort of classical liberal, but not libertarian. You know, they're all Democrats, they're all progressive in that sense. They are now getting darted right and left by not all of the kids, because most of them are perfectly reasonable. Most Yale students want to learn and want to hear multiple opinions. But if some of them start, you know, start firing these charges and writing these essays, everyone capitulates. And no one, you know, this is the dynamics of a witchhunt. Nobody dares come to the defense of, say, you know, Nicholas Christakis and his wife at Yale. For those who know all those stories, I don't want to go into it. So anyway, my point is what we've seen beginning in 2015 in universities and going all the way through journalism in 2018, 2020, attack and you know, is it's not left right culture war. It's moderates getting darted by the far left and then everyone goes silent. People are afraid to stand up. And when you don't have that give and take of opinion, the institution gets stupid. And by stupid I mean unable to process information, unable to enact policies to make things better, prone to enacting policies that backfire. But nobody cares. It's expressive. It's not functional. 

Steven Parton [00:41:17] Yeah. And and how are you feeling about things looking forward? Are things getting worse? 

Jonathan Haidt [00:41:23] Are they? Don't ask. 

Steven Parton [00:41:24] Yeah, well. 

Jonathan Haidt [00:41:26] Go ahead. Ask. 

Steven Parton [00:41:26] Yeah, yeah. Well, you've mentioned I think I'm thinking of things like GPT three, the artificial intelligence technology and its potential to make outrage and misinformation. But I know you have some thoughts about like structural and cultural things that we can do to kind of defend against this. So I guess, can you talk about some of those defenses and. Sure. How effective you think they might be? 

Jonathan Haidt [00:41:48] Yeah. Yeah. All right. So first, I'll just finish on the pessimistic case notes, which the optimistic perfect that's the pessimistic case is. However, however bad these trends are now, they're not very few of them are pendulums that are going to swing back so that they're not what is it, a negative, a negative, a negative reinforcement or what's called a negative feedback loop? Negative feedback loop. They get that the negative feedback loop is the further out it goes to get that right, the further out it goes, the more the force that pushes it back to the center where the positive feedback loop is like a tower. The further it tilts, the stronger the force tilting it. Mm hmm. So. So I think that there may be a few things that are negative feedback loops, but a number of these are positive feedback, which is very alarming. So one of them is the amount of garbage and lies that, you know, to quote Steve Bannon, you know, on a political campaign, the way you deal with the Democrats, he said, is you flood the zone with shit, just keep putting shit out there. And then people just overwhelming, you know, their eyes and ears are stuffed with shit and they can't think. And that's also the Russian firehose of falsehood technique. So however bad that is now, however much we're all drowning in garbage and lies and and crazy stuff like this, you know, this fake story that a school in Indiana put out litter boxes for the kids whose gender identity is furry. However much there is, there could be a thousand times more of that, a thousand times more in a couple of years, because artificial intelligence has advanced to the point that everyone's by now heard of of deepfake videos. And those are going to be a dime a dozen. Anyone will be able to make deepfake video of anyone say anything but basic writing of stories like you could write a whole newspaper full of stories. You could already do that with GPT three, although a lot of them would just be weird. Like it wouldn't be, you know, if you if you. If a person. Works with GPT three. Like you can create huge numbers of stories very quickly, but it's getting smarter as it digests more information. As I understand, I'm not an expert here, but from people in AI that I've spoken to, you know, and there's debate, there's some get my friend form in what you call a Gary Marcus is very skeptical. But you know some others I've spoken to say that GPT is very close to the point of of really writing stuff that is indistinguishable. And so and you know, and there are consumer products, I think it's called writer. You know, you tell it, you say here's, you know, here's the here's a few sentences. I want it to be angry. I want to be funny. I want it to be deep, you know, and it'll write it for you. So pretty soon, the amount of shit generated by anyone, not just Russian agents, but anyone, could be thousands of times more than we have today. Yeah. And that's a reason to be cheerful. 

Steven Parton [00:44:42] That's the negative side of things. But what kind of stuff can we do to defend against that? Specifically, I'm thinking of some of the solutions that you present, such as hardening democratic institutions, reforming social media, and preparing the next generation. 

Jonathan Haidt [00:44:56] Yes. So. So, you know, if my analysis is right and, you know, that's for people to decide and I hope I argue about. But if my analysis is right that we are drowning in outrage in ways that undercut the ability of our democratic institutions and epistemic institutions to function, and in ways that are making the young generation anxious, depressed and unable to do basic conflict resolution. If if that is our current situation, then there are three buckets of reform, just three areas where we need to really take action. So just as with climate change, we've got to lower CO2 output. We have to do that. But we've also got to start pouring concrete. We know that sea levels are going to rise. Tidal floods are going to come up in New York Harbor, etc.. So we've got to start putting a lot of concrete in the same way. I think we have to harden our democratic institutions so that they can function even if there's ten times more rage and 100 times more violence. Right now, there's not very much actual killing. There's some, but there's there could be. I don't think we can have a civil war, but I think we could become like a Latin American country that tries to have democracy with weak institutions. And if you do that, you'll have more political violence. So if that is in our future, then we have to have elections that can function, even if there are armed insurrections or all kinds of conspiracies, efforts to warp elections. So we have to have the redistricting process has to be nonpartisan. It's insane that the winners I mean, imagine, you know, I don't I'm not a sports fan, but, you know, if the Yankees and the Red Sox, you know, whoever wins, whoever wins last season gets to design all of the rules, you know, that they want. You know, I mean, that's a totally unfair. So things like nonpartisan redistricting, election supervision must be done in a nonpartisan way. You can't have one of the parties control who gets to monitor everything. So we've got to harden our institutions and accept that the the factionalism, the polarization that James Madison feared is here to stay. And, you know, they saw in their time I mean, the original fight, I believe, was between those who wanted the Constitution, who were the Federalists, and those who did so know he understood party passions. So we have to we have to really improve our democracy are voting. There are a lot of changes to Congress that would allow it to actually function, you know, much more social life between the parties. Yeah, we changed the calendar. Newt Gingrich changed it so that he and he literally said of I believe the message he conveyed was, don't move to Washington, because if you move to Washington, you're going to make friends with Democrats and your wives are going to be friends. Your kids are going to be at the same base. So don't do it. You stay in your district. I'll make the calendar be Tuesday to Thursday. And they don't do anything by a house in Washington. They just say they have five Republican congressmen bunking together like college. So this this is no way to foster the ability to work together across parties. That's bucket one. We've got to harden our democracy against polarization. Bucket two is we've got to make social media less toxic to institutions. And so the biggest single change, I believe, is, is identity verification. And everybody freaks out and says, but, you know, anonymous this and, you know, you need people to. And that's not what I'm saying. You can be anonymous, but but before and this is not about who gets to speak. This is about who gets to be amplified before you. Before you can get amplified to millions and millions of people, you simply have to verify that you are a real human being, not a bot. You're in a country and you're old enough to be in the platforms. Right now. You know, the Internet is not built for kids, but kids go anywhere they want. So if you have identity verification in order to get a Facebook account, let's say anyone can open an account and you can watch what goes on. But if you want on a on a large platform, if you more than I don't know what some number if it's a large platform, it has responsibilities to civic life and it just has to verify because, you know, by some accounts, by some measures, most of the accounts opened are by bots, trolls and Russian agents. And that's insane that that's our that's become our public square for democracy. 

Steven Parton [00:49:21] And you've also mentioned I want to quickly touch while we're on this point, raising the age limit for access, correct. Because of the impact to kids? 

Jonathan Haidt [00:49:30] That's right. So that's the third bucket is so we have hardened democratic institutions make social media less toxic and there just to finish up that. Everyone talks about content, moderation. Everyone's like, Well, what do you mean you're going to censor people? But I don't care. I'm not interested in content. I'm really not like, Yeah, it matters, but I'm interested in the architecture of the dynamics. I'm interested in the exponential features, the virality. That's what we can change. That totally bypasses free speech concerns because it's it's totally neutral. As for it's irrelevant what you're saying, all we're saying is you can't have a platform where and this is from Francis how happened with Facebook whistleblower she said that you know they learned a lot of Facebook like people who invite thousands of people to join groups. They're almost all conspiracy theorists. Normal people only invite, you know, a few dozen people a week to join groups. But if it's thousands, that's really bad stuff. So she's just put a weight limit on it. You can invite up to X where X is whatever the 95th or 99th, most frequent person is write letters. So all kinds of things to play with the dynamics. And those are viewpoint neutral and language neutral because content moderation is pretty much only in English. Facebook does, I'm sure, Facebook posts and stuff in Italian, but they do nothing in almost all of the world's languages. So so that's so that's the second bucket. The third bucket is we're basically losing a generation of kids to depression, anxiety, fragility and basically a lack of the skills that Alexis de Tocqueville admired in Americans in 1830s, that we have the ability when there's some some problem, we get together and we work out how to fix it. And he specifically said, whereas in Europe, people would wait for the king or the nobles to take it, to do it. And we've raised our kids to be morally dependent. That is, if someone if you know, if someone sits in there, hurts your feelings, don't take care of it yourself, report it. Tell an adult this is bullying or whatever. Tell an adult you don't handle yourself. And so I don't think, you know, we have this like flaming. Well, no, I shouldn't say that. That's going to say our democracy is a flaming pile of something or I'll just. Which I don't mean. I don't mean I just mean. Are democracy in bad shape? Yeah, it's like it's on fire. And we're saying here, kids, we kept you inside your whole childhood. We didn't let you play outside. We kept you on social media. So you have no idea how to resolve conflicts, and now you get to run this flaming democracy. And so I don't think that's going to happen. Don't that's going to work. So we've got to stop this. I mean, obviously, the humanity like of, you know, my kids are 12 or 15. I care a lot about my kids. I care about Gen Z, I care about the mental health crisis. But in this conversation, we're focusing on what it's doing to democracy in the future. And if we don't if we don't start raising stronger kids, then I don't see any way, no matter what we change about the technology, I don't see any way that America could continue as a liberal democracy or a deliberative democracy that can't deliberate. 

Steven Parton [00:52:43] Yeah, and on that last point, I wonder maybe if you agree with this, but could there be another reform or another solution where it's focus just on general betterment? We mentioned briefly before the podcast, the self-determination theory. And, you know, one of the things that holds true, too, is people who have more social belonging and more financial security and more intrinsic motivation are less likely to engage in a lot of the behavior that's driving this. Do you think like the just general, like better care, like taking better care of our citizens would be important for this as well? 

Jonathan Haidt [00:53:22] Well, first of all, there's a lot of disagreement about what that is like. We could certainly have a department of public betterment, but boy, left and right aren't going to agree on what that is. I think self-determination theory is particularly important for kids. And so this is Ed D.C. and Rich Ryan. Really important theory from, I think the seventies and eighties that we have three basic psychological needs autonomy, competence and relatedness. And kids really need that in order to grow into strong enough adults. And so autonomy, we've totally denied them autonomy. They're always supervised. We think they'll get kidnaped. If, you know, if a ten year old goes to a park alone, we think that he'll get kidnaped. And so we have to arrest the parents for doing that. Yeah. So we've denied our kids autonomy. They don't learn skills. They're all there on their devices all the time. So, you know, basic things like how do you open, you know, how to use a corkscrew, how do you fix the vacuum cleaner? You know, all sorts of basic skills. We've denied kids, a lot of kids. Now, you know, if you search online, what is it like? Kids who don't know how to roast a marshmallow because their parents never, ever let them play with fire, ever like 14 years old. You can't learn, you know, light matches. So. The Germans, the Germanic cultures are doing very well here. They still send their kids out to forest schools. The kids learn to make fires and handle fire when they're six or seven years old, as kids have done for millions of years. For a million years. So. So, yeah, autonomy, competence and most importantly, relatedness. And, you know, 12, 15 years ago, we could have said, hey, you know, kids are connected and, you know, LGBT kids can find out the LGBT like this can be great. This can be so amazing that they can just connect all over the country. And in theory, it could have been. But now we know it's not. It's not. There are some good things about it, but connecting to lots of people through a especially asynchronous platform, you know, if it was all Zoom calls and phone calls, that probably would be good. But it's not connectedness performance. Getting back to what we're saying at the beginning. When people are hyperconnected in performative ways, that's not relatedness. In fact, that's an obstacle to relatedness, I would say. So so that's why I think the most important things we can do for kids are, one, raise the age of Internet adulthood to 16 and enforce it. Right now, it's 13. It's not enforced. So, you know, no parent wants their kid on Instagram, but every parent is in the same situation. Mom, everyone else is on it. I'll be totally excluded if you don't let me on it. So. So I think that the relatedness needs and the. Gosh, all three. Yeah, all three are so crucial. And modern American parenting, especially in the age of social media, has just devastated their development in all three domains. 

Steven Parton [00:56:13] Well, John, I want to respect your time because we're coming up on it here. But do you have any closing thoughts, anything you'd like to point people towards, do you know? Yes, I know the article might be part of a bigger project. Is there anything you want to talk about with that? 

Jonathan Haidt [00:56:26] Yes. So. So if you have kids, especially if you have kids under 18, I urge you. Well, you can check out the coddling the American mind and go to the coddling dot.com. And we have a page on applying these ideas to raise kids. Or as a teacher, if you employ Gen Z, which everybody running a business does now, I mean, there's people having a lot of problems incorporating them. So we have a lot of advice on the site, the coddling e-com, especially if you have younger kids below eighth grade. I urge you to read Lenore Skenazy book Free Range Kids and then go to let go dot org. It's a it's a it's a nonprofit that Lenore started. I'm on the board of it and we advocate for letting kids play. Let them go outside and play without adult supervision. That's how they learn the most. They're not going to get kidnaped. Someone calculated. At present, rates of child abduction. If you leave your kid unattended in a car with the windows rolled out, you'd have to leave them there for some 50,000 years before they would get abducted. Because it almost never happens. It's never so. So check out Let Grow. Lots of ideas for what you can do to raise free range kids who are going to be less anxious, less depressed, and more successful in life. And if you're concerned about issues of if you're if you're listening to me, if you're a college professor, if you're at a university, please go to Heterodox Academy dot org. It's an organization I co-founded to advocate for viewpoint diversity in universities. We're not on the right or the left. We love universities and want them to work well. And if you're just interested in what's happening to our country, I hope you'll read my book, The Righteous Mind. And then after that, The Coddling the American Mind. And then the book I'm working on now is called Life After Babble Adapting to a World We Can No Longer Share. And this Atlantic article that just came out is basically a summary of the sort of some of the central ideas of that book. 

Steven Parton [00:58:28] Wonderful. Well, we're going to link to all of that in the show notes, John, so everybody can find it. And I can recommend to listeners right here and right now that all of that is fantastic because I have personally explored it. So thank you so much for your time. 

Jonathan Haidt [00:58:40] My pleasure. It's been great fun talking to you and speaking about the singularity that we're currently passing through. 

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