The 9 Cognitive Distortions Taught in College…

… and why students pay to learn them.

Thomas P Seager, PhD
10 min readSep 9, 2018


It’s pretty reasonable to expect that Americans go to college for lots of reasons that include how to improve their thinking. But Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt suggest some college classes are doing the opposite in their book called The Coddling of the American Mind.

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Haidt became well known for his two previous books, The Happiness Hypothesis and The Righteous Mind which I’ve quoted before in posts like Moral Foundation Theory. In these previous books, Haidt introduced the metaphor of the Rider and the Elephant to debunk the utilitarian theory of human behavior based on the teachings of 18th century English philosopher Jeremy Bentham. According to ultilitarian theory, people are happiness maximizers, who perform some sort of hidden calculus to determine what decisions will make them most happy, and then act in accordance with this happiness (i.e., “utility”) maximization principle.

If a utility maximization theory of human behavior doesn’t already sound like a bunch of dangerous garbage to you, then allow me to elaborate.

Haidt says that the rational, cognitive processing necessary to make decisions as Bentham describes requires a lot of brain power, which makes it the job of the metaphorical Rider. According to utility maximization theory, once these smart Riders gets things worked out about what will them happiest, they direct the metaphorical Elephant on where to go and what tasks to perform.

Except that Riders are pretty slow, and by the time the Rider has thought through all the options, the Elephant has already made the decision and walked halfway down whatever path was most familiar to it. (See Thinking Fast and Slow, Kahnemann 2011).

Elephant behavior is like a bad habit. By the time we realize what we’ve done, it’s already too late to undo it.

Rider behavior is like a New Year’s Resolution. You spend months thinking about it, imagining it, savoring it, until…