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The Science of Snowflakery
Contemporary life makes us hypersensitive. What can we do about it?
Every few days, the public square is roiled by another round of offense taken and apologies given. Sometimes the stakes are incredibly low, as when Bon Appétit issued an apology for publishing an irreverent piece about a Jewish pastry. Sometimes the stakes are greater, as when Apple canned a new hire after more than 2,000 employees signed a letter claiming they were “profoundly distraught” by misogynistic statements in his critically acclaimed gonzo-style memoir.
There are a few competing theories about the new hypersensitivity that has become a feature of our public culture. When someone makes hay of their victimhood in a way that someone else who comes from the same background would play down, it raises questions about why they do so—and why so many more young people do so today than used to.
One theory is that they are merely putting on a manipulative performance.
Another is to take them at their word and accept the professed offense as a sincere reaction to hurt feelings, which raises questions about why the same things hurt some people so much more than other people.
Could this be because they have cultivated the sorts of habits of mind that cause them to experience deep pain from what would be, to most people in the world at most times in history, minor and passing harms? What if the people right-wing media once spent a lot of time deriding as special “snowflakes” are as fragile as they claim? Would this not be an occasion for psychological inquiry about how they ended up that way? What if those who say they’ve been deeply wounded do feel intense pain because they’ve been trained to magnify their pain?
In their article and later book, The Coddling of the American Mind, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt argue that solicitude over microaggressions can amplify one’s emotional reactions—the exact opposite of well-validated practices taught by cognitive behavioral therapists. As someone who has led mindfulness meditations for more than 10 years and is the author of a book on the topic, I too find that focusing a microscope on slights goes against what is considered the wise practice in my field: namely, that it’s best to pare down one’s reaction to insults and to cultivate equanimity regardless of circumstances.
Let’s be clear: the left doesn’t have a monopoly on hypersensitivity. To pick just one example, the right-wing meltdown over Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the national anthem shows this to be a bipartisan malady. Donald Trump’s enduring appeal lies in his pandering to those who feel insulted or excluded by liberals.
Increasingly, when Americans hear something we don’t like, the instinct is to try to control the other person’s speech and behavior. But controlling other people, besides being obnoxious, is often beyond our ability. Shifting our emotions to handle offense with aplomb is well within our grasp.
To understand how this can happen, it’s worth taking a deep dive into what scientists have to tell us about pain. Consider this anecdote from the Journal of the American Medical Association:
When a builder recently arrived at an emergency department, writhing in pain with a 12-inch nail lodged in his foot, nurses carefully removed his boot to find that the nail was harmlessly inserted between two toes. Seeing this, the man's pain suddenly vanished.
This is a key point: the amount of pain we perceive is not necessarily a true indicator of the harm we’ve experienced. Psychological factors can amplify it dramatically. Clearly, in this case, the man’s pain was emotional—there was no actual damage to his body—and he was able to turn it off in a snap once his cognition changed.
Scientists have studied emotional pain by scanning the brains of volunteers as they recall being dumped by a romantic partner and while being treated unfairly by others as they play an online game. UCLA neuroscientist Naomi Eisenberger and colleagues found that social rejection activates some of the same brain circuitry as physical pain. Although emotional pain may not manifest in the body, it’s real.
Pain perception can be modulated by our thoughts. University of Michigan psychologist Ethan Kross and colleagues found that people who react less to social exclusion have more activation in cognitive control regions of the brain, while people who react more strongly have less activation. It’s likely these cognitive control regions came into play when the builder mentioned earlier realized he was physically uninjured.
Then there is the placebo effect. Placebo treatments are non-physical—the active ingredient is persuading the patient to believe. Kross and colleagues found that, compared to a control group, those receiving a placebo nasal spray—supposedly a powerful analgesic but actually a neutral saline solution—experienced less pain while viewing photos of romantic partners who’d dumped them. This pain perception reduction corresponded to increased activity in cognitive control regions of the brain. One can think of these regions as pain’s volume knob. Placebos for pain are known to elicit the flow of internal opioids. They provide relief from dental pain that rivals a significant dose of morphine. If a placebo-inspired belief can end a toothache, mental attitudes can surely affect the anguish that comes from being subjected to offensive speech.
Research shows that rejection-sensitive people perceive rejection in ambiguous behavior—in other words, they take a no out of a maybe or an answer that’s still being formed. And this kind of anxiety and projection actually causes them to react in ways that make the rejection come true. Although one can point to unambiguously bad behavior among political actors, it’s also true that each side of the political divide emulates the rejection-sensitive by seizing upon ambiguous behavior and becoming outraged by it.
The way Americans currently relate to one another makes us more rejection-sensitive, and it heightens our sense of being “othered.” It magnifies our pain. Although talking about a negative experience can help, venting can also trap us into a cycle of repeating the harm in our mind. “Venting” may be the wrong metaphor, as it implies that the more you feel an emotion in connection with some memory or person, the less you will in the future; you’re using up the supply or letting the finite amount out through the valve. But we’re creatures of psychological habit, and going over and over the bad memory doesn’t get the bad feelings out, it deepens the groove those bad feelings run on. The habit of ruminating has been linked to anxiety and depression; “co-rumination” occurs when we drag a conversation partner into our negative spin cycle.
I spoke to Michigan’s Ethan Kross, who writes in his new book, Chatter, about how the way we talk to ourselves changes the way we feel. Here’s how he put it:
You often see us engaging in these mass co-rumination sessions on Twitter where we’re just reverberating around the negativity about the political or organizational force that we hate.
Talk radio and evening cable TV programs give viewers a sense that they are under attack. Why does pain-inducing news draw eyeballs? The simple answer may be that evolution formed us with a bias toward the negative. Threats draw our attention far more than pleasure, because while it’s nice to find lunch, it’s essential not to be another animal’s lunch. The 24-hour news cycle makes us overly vigilant to threats and winds us up like a spring.
One more factor that may increase hypersensitivity is having official authorities tell us to pick up on and run with minor problems rather than letting them roll off us. There are surely plenty of examples of the political right taking minor perceived offenses against its honor or dignity and dwelling on them and putting all its media focus on the matter. But on the left, this is institutionalized in diversity education programs via that concept of “microaggressions.”
Although the term “microaggression” was coined by Harvard psychiatrist Chester Pierce in 1970, it was popularized upon the publication of a 2007 paper by Columbia psychologist Derald Wing Sue and colleagues, “Racial Microaggressions in Everyday Life.” One of a number of examples Sue gives is of a Latino couple who receives poor service at a restaurant and shares the experience with white friends, only to be told, “Don’t be so oversensitive,” thereby invalidating their perception of racism. In what strikes me as an inculcation of rejection sensitivity, this perspective teaches the “victim” to interpret ambiguous behavior as hostile. A list adapted from Sue’s paper that’s been widely distributed, especially on college campuses, includes as microaggressions arguably trivial examples. This, for example, counts as microaggressive: “Everyone can succeed in this society, if they work hard enough.” When a cliché like that sets off your threat detector, you may be hypersensitive.
In a scholarly paper reviewing research on microaggressions, the late Emory University psychologist Scott Lilienfeld noted that microaggression trainings often present a simple stimulus-response model by which an offense directly triggers distress in the victim. But we have an ability to cope with conflict and choose how we react. The ancient Stoic philosopher Epictetus famously said, "What disturbs one’s mind is not events but one’s judgment about events.” These days, coping is disfavored in comparison to fighting for change. But learning to let things slide for our own well-being—to process fewer parts of life as discriminatory and offensive rather than ambiguous or innocuous—would be a much-needed change for many people who are causing themselves needless suffering by letting their thoughts spiral over arcane categories of offense.
One advantage of coping is that you do have control over your own thoughts. We can’t control the speech of other people except through coercion, whereas we can control our own reaction through self-mastery.
Exactly when it’s wise to let things roll off or to turn on an offender is not a matter for science. The only wrong answer for when to become offended is “always.” As the psychologist Ethan Kross modeled it for me, you can learn to react by downplaying not how evil others’ behavior is, but by minimizing how much you let things get to you: “My name is, maybe, mispronounced or misspelled often. And there’s a little pinch. But I realize it’s not intentional, and I don’t hold it against someone.” This is actual psychological self care. If someone intentionally mispronounces a name, like when then-Senator David Perdue of Georgia mockingly fumbled the name of his colleague, Senator Kamala Harris, that could be a healthy moment to choose according to ones values—intentionally—to snap at someone. But that’s a different matter from going through 24 hours a day, seven days a week looking to find offense at honest errors or sloppy involuntary mistakes.
Psychological research and applied therapy practices offer tips that sometimes run totally counter to the habits and ideas that we are cultivating in our public discourse. Online, and in opinion writing and in politics, it’s always time to cry offense and magnify every slight. But for a healthy life, neither total snowflakery or total remove hits the sweet spot. There are times to just take it, and times to fight. University of California-Berkeley psychologist Özlem Ayduk studies distancing strategies such as thinking about oneself from a third-person perspective. With regard to an injustice that one witnesses, she told me, “You may want to immerse yourself to understand somebody else, to really empathize with another perspective. This is a case in which, maybe, you do have to go through the pain of putting yourself in that situation, learning about it, but then you have to zoom out and put it in a broader context.” She added, “It’s a dance of immersion and distancing. That’s what smart behavior is.”
A practice that can be useful is to find emotional distance by, for instance, imagining the situation was happening to someone else. Looking at it from a fly-on-the-wall perspective, is this state of affairs objectively worth getting aggravated about? Another technique is to imagine a time in the future when one can look back at the situation and perhaps laugh. One can also borrow a technique from mindfulness and step back from one’s own thoughts and feelings, observing them as if they were clouds idly passing by.
Social justice activists can often make bad advocates for the important causes they champion. That’s because, simply put, they can be annoying to people who don’t share their emotional fixations and sensibilities. They have cultivated unhealthy psychological habits that give them painful feelings but little perspective. By understanding how people amplify their emotional pain, and learning techniques to de-escalate our sense of alarm, we can achieve a healthier life balance and body politic.