3 great untruths to stop telling kids—and ourselves

These psychological principles can make you more resilient.

JONATHAN HAIDT: So my first book, 'The Happiness Hypothesis', was a collection of ten insights from sages around the world that were psychological truths, and one of them is: What doesn't kill you makes you stronger. That gets at the idea, the psychological principle, of anti-fragility. It's a wonderful term. It's actually a clunky, ugly term, but it was made up by Nassim Taleb because we don't have a word for this in the English language, which is that there's some systems that get stronger if they get pushed around, knocked around.

So a wine glass is fragile; if you knock it over it breaks; nothing good happens. A plastic cup is resilient; if a kid throws it off the table it doesn't break, but nothing good happens.

But there are some things that have to get thrown off the table. There are some systems that have to get pushed around, and Taleb wrote this book 'Antifragile' or antifragility because things like the banking system had to be tested or it gets fragile and collapses. Bones have to be tested, used, or they get weak; if you were to fly to Mars your bones would get weak. The immune system, if you protect kids from bacteria, if you keep them in a sterile environment you're damaging their immune system. The immune system has to face challenges in order to learn.

It turns out kids are anti-fragile and when we protect children from unpleasantness, from conflicts, from insults, from teasing, from exclusion, we're preventing their social psychology, we're preventing their social abilities, we're preventing their strength from developing. The subtitle of our book is 'How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting Up a Generation for a Failure'—by over-protecting our children we are setting them up to be weak, to be more easily damaged, to be more easily discouraged.

The next untruth is "Always trust your feelings". It may sound wise, it may sound romantic, but wise people around the world have noticed that we don't react to the world as it actually is, we react to the constructions, the perceptions. Epictetus said, "It is not things themselves that disturb us, but our interpretations of things." This is the basis of cognitive behavioral therapy.

Aaron Beck, a psychiatrist in the 1960s, noticed that depressed and anxious people have a way of constructing these beliefs that, "I'm bad, the future is bad, the world is a bad place," and they're mutually reinforcing. And this is the way the world feels to them, and if you can improve their thinking and break up those beliefs, they're released from the depression. What we've begun seeing on campus is that students are encouraged to follow their feelings; if they feel offended by something then they have been attacked. They're supposed to not question those feelings. But part of wisdom is the ability to say, "Now, wait a second, are there other ways to look at this?"

These are crucial skills for critical thinking, these are crucial skills for mental health, and we need to be teaching young people at all stages to question their first interpretations, look for evidence, and improve the way they interpret the world.

The third great untruth, my favorite, the worst and most dangerous and darkest of all is that life is a battle between good people and evil people. If you think about it for a moment, who are we? What is our species? We evolved in small-scale societies that were locked in struggle with other small-scale societies. Human nature is really, really finely tailored for intergroup conflict, for tribal warfare. This is the way our ancestors lived for a long time. Now that we've transcended it we're so desperate for it we've invented team sports, fraternities. We love these sorts of competitions. Our brains are made for it.

Now, it can be fun or it can get dark and it can lead to racism, all kinds of forms of bigotry. If we're creating multiethnic environments on campuses and in most of our organizations we're struggling to increase diversity, what you should obviously be doing is turning down the tribal sentiments, is emphasizing what we have in common. But on some college campuses and in some high schools we see forms of education, forms of training that teach students to make more and more distinctions, to see more and more binary dimensions between people where the people who are high are bad, the people who are low are good. The more we encourage people to see the people around them as good versus evil, the harder it's going to be to create an inclusive, diverse environment.

The bottom line is that there are some very basic important psychological principles. If we're going to raise kids and educate them and bring them through schools and universities, we should get our institutions in line with these principles. They are: Children are anti-fragile, we are all prone to motivated reasoning and the confirmation bias, and we're all prone to tribalism and black and white thinking. We need to be educating kids so that they do less of this stuff. If we want to raise a generation of kids who can deal with diversity of all kinds, who can go out into a world that's physically actually quite safe and yet full of offensive content, we need to get our educational practices in line with these three psychological principles, not with these three great untruths.
  • Popular platitudes can squash your critical thinking, argues moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt.
  • Always trust your feelings? The world is a battle between good and evil? These popular pieces of conventional wisdom are merely myths—ones that can set us up for failure.
  • "When we protect children from unpleasantness, from conflicts, from insults, from teasing, from exclusion, we're preventing their social psychology, we're preventing their social abilities, we're preventing their strength from developing," says Haidt.
  • He highlights three great untruths and explains the psychological principles that debunk them. Unlearning a few token ideas can make us more resilient and help us grow, rather than break, in the face of adversity.


​There are two kinds of failure – but only one is honorable

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Scientists study tattooed corpses, find pigment in lymph nodes

It turns out, that tattoo ink can travel throughout your body and settle in lymph nodes.

17th August 1973: An American tattoo artist working on a client's shoulder. (Photo by F. Roy Kemp/BIPs/Getty Images)
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In the slightly macabre experiment to find out where tattoo ink travels to in the body, French and German researchers recently used synchrotron X-ray fluorescence in four "inked" human cadavers — as well as one without. The results of their 2017 study? Some of the tattoo ink apparently settled in lymph nodes.


Image from the study.

As the authors explain in the study — they hail from Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility, and the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment — it would have been unethical to test this on live animals since those creatures would not be able to give permission to be tattooed.

Because of the prevalence of tattoos these days, the researchers wanted to find out if the ink could be harmful in some way.

"The increasing prevalence of tattoos provoked safety concerns with respect to particle distribution and effects inside the human body," they write.

It works like this: Since lymph nodes filter lymph, which is the fluid that carries white blood cells throughout the body in an effort to fight infections that are encountered, that is where some of the ink particles collect.

Image by authors of the study.

Titanium dioxide appears to be the thing that travels. It's a white tattoo ink pigment that's mixed with other colors all the time to control shades.

The study's authors will keep working on this in the meantime.

“In future experiments we will also look into the pigment and heavy metal burden of other, more distant internal organs and tissues in order to track any possible bio-distribution of tattoo ink ingredients throughout the body. The outcome of these investigations not only will be helpful in the assessment of the health risks associated with tattooing but also in the judgment of other exposures such as, e.g., the entrance of TiO2 nanoparticles present in cosmetics at the site of damaged skin."

Why are so many objects in space shaped like discs?

It's one of the most consistent patterns in the unviverse. What causes it?

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  • Spinning discs are everywhere – just look at our solar system, the rings of Saturn, and all the spiral galaxies in the universe.
  • Spinning discs are the result of two things: The force of gravity and a phenomenon in physics called the conservation of angular momentum.
  • Gravity brings matter together; the closer the matter gets, the more it accelerates – much like an ice skater who spins faster and faster the closer their arms get to their body. Then, this spinning cloud collapses due to up and down and diagonal collisions that cancel each other out until the only motion they have in common is the spin – and voila: A flat disc.