Cognitive distortions are errors in reasoning that are not based on evidence, but stem from negative intuitions (e.g., perceiving a small negative event as a disaster, believing one’s feelings are facts). Authors of the book, The Coddling of the American Mind, (Lukianoff and Haidt) make anecdotal claims in their book that college students’ “safetyism” beliefs, which are beliefs centered on the prevention of emotional pain or discomfort, are rooted from cognitive distortions. A new correlational study, published in Personality and Individual Differences, found empirical support for these claims by finding an association between frequency of cognitive distortions and stronger safetyism-inspired beliefs.
“While all people engage in cognitive distortions to some degree, Lukianoff and Haidt argued that students’ justifications for safetyism reflect a more pronounced pattern of distorted thinking,” study author Jared B. Celniker and colleagues wrote.
“We provide the first empirical examination of the association between college students’ self-reported prevalence of cognitive distortions and their endorsement of safetyism-inspired beliefs, the belief that words can harm, and the broad use of trigger warnings.”
Participants were recruited from the University of California Irvine Human Subjects Lab Pool and participated in the study online in exchange for course credit. Researchers achieved a final sample of 786 adults for analysis, which was mostly female but ethnically and economically diverse.
Researchers surveyed participants for safetyism-inspired beliefs (e.g., intentions don’t matter, emotional pain or discomfort is dangerous, speech can be violence), for support of the use of trigger warnings, and the extent to which they believe words are harmful. Participants also reported how much they engage in 10 common cognitive distortions. Participants filled out other potentially relevant psychological measures such as conflict avoidance, resilience, analytical thinking, and social/economic liberalism.
Results suggest an association between higher cognitive distortion scores and higher safetyism-inspired beliefs. There, too, was an association between higher cognitive distortion scores and the stronger belief that words are harmful.
Higher conflict avoidance, higher social liberalism, and higher economic liberalism were all associated with greater safetyism-inspired beliefs as well. On the other hand, greater safetyism-inspired beliefs were associated with lower resilience and lower analytic thinking.
Some exploratory mediation analyses indicated cognitive distortions may predict increased support for trigger warning support through the increase of safetyism-inspired beliefs and through the belief that words can harm. However, these results are exploratory, observational, and should be taken with great caution.
The researchers also urge caution when interpreting their findings more generally. “Our data cannot speak to the causal structure of this relationship. While these variables may causally influence one another, they may merely co-occur as a function of other causal forces. It is also possible that cognitive distortions are associated with extreme beliefs in general rather than safetyism-inspired beliefs specifically.”
The researchers also caution that their measure of safetyism-inspired beliefs was new and created for this study and so future research should develop a more precise measure for these beliefs.
Altogether, results provide support for the claims made in the The Coddling of the American Mind. “The association between cognitive distortions and safetyism-inspired beliefs remained significant when accounting for other relevant psychological and demographic variables, like resiliency and analytic thinking,” wrote the study researchers.
“Furthermore, this study revealed that cognitive distortions were a robust predictor of students’ belief that words can harm and the number of reasons they selected for endorsing the use of trigger warnings.”
The study, “Correlates of Coddling Cognitive distortions predict safetyism inspired beliefs, belief that words can harm, and trigger warning endorsement in college students“, was authored by Jared B. Celniker, Megan M. Ringel, Karli Nelson, and Peter H. Ditto.