The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement | David Brooks
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With unequaled insight and brio, David Brooks, the New York Times columnist and bestselling author of Bobos in Paradise, has long explored and explained the way we live. Now, with the intellectual curiosity and emotional wisdom that make his columns among the most read in the nation, Brooks turns to the building blocks of human flourishing in a multilayered, profoundly illuminating work grounded in everyday life.
This is the story of how success happens. It is told through the lives of one composite American couple, Harold and Erica—how they grow, push forward, are pulled back, fail, and succeed. Distilling a vast array of information into these two vividly realized characters, Brooks illustrates a fundamental new understanding of human nature. A scientific revolution has occurred—we have learned more about the human brain in the last thirty years than we had in the previous three thousand. The unconscious mind, it turns out, is most of the mind—not a dark, vestigial place but a creative and enchanted one, where most of the brain’s work gets done. This is the realm of emotions, intuitions, biases, longings, genetic predispositions, personality traits, and social norms: the realm where character is formed and where our most important life decisions are made. The natural habitat of The Social Animal.
Drawing on a wealth of current research from numerous disciplines, Brooks takes Harold and Erica from infancy to school; from the “odyssey years” that have come to define young adulthood to the high walls of poverty; from the nature of attachment, love, and commitment, to the nature of effective leadership. He reveals the deeply social aspect of our very minds and exposes the bias in modern culture that overemphasizes rationalism, individualism, and IQ. Along the way, he demolishes conventional definitions of success while looking toward a culture based on trust and humility.
The Social Animal is a moving and nuanced intellectual adventure, a story of achievement and a defense of progress. Impossible to put down, it is an essential book for our time, one that will have broad social impact and will change the way we see ourselves and the world.
Guest Reviewer: Walter Isaacson on The Social Animal
Walter Isaacson, the CEO of the Aspen Institute, has been chairman of CNN and the managing editor of Time magazine. He is the author of Benjamin Franklin: An American Life and of Kissinger: A Biography, and the coauthor of The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made. He lives in Washington, D.C., with his wife and daughter.
David Brooks has written an absolutely fascinating book about how we form our emotions and character. Standing at the intersection of brain science and sociology, and writing with the wry wit of a James Thurber, he explores the unconscious mind and how it shapes the way we eat, love, live, vacation, and relate to other people. In The Social Animal, he makes the recent revolution in neuroscience understandable, and he applies it to those things we have the most trouble knowing how to teach: What is the best way to build true relationships? How do we instill imaginative thinking? How do we develop our moral intuitions and wisdom and character? Brooks has always been a keen observer of the way we live. Now he takes us one layer down, to why we live that way.
An Amazon Interview with David Brooks
We talked with David Brooks about, among other things, Jonathan Franzen, Freud, and Brooks's own unfamiliar emotions, just before the publication of The Social Animal. You can read the full interview on Omnivoracious, the Amazon books blog, including this exchange:
Amazon.com: Speaking of Tolstoy, I bet a lot of people are going to quoting the first line of Anna Karenina to you: "Happy families are all alike. Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Is there a consistency between what makes a family happy, the way that this family turns out to be?
Brooks: You know, I never bought Tolstoy's line.
Amazon.com: I didn't either.
Brooks: I didn't know many happy families that were alike. One of the things you learn is that we're all so much more complex. We all contain multitudes, so someone who might be a bully in one circumstance is incredibly compassionate in other circumstances. We have multiple selves, and the idea that we can have a very simple view of who we are, what our character is, that's actually not right.
One of the things all this research shows you is how humble you have to be in the face of the complexity of human nature. We've got a 100 billion neurons in the brain, and it's just phenomenally complicated. You take a little child who says, "I'm a tiger," and pretends to be a tiger. Well that act of imagination--conflating this thing "I" with this thing "tiger"--is phenomenally complicated. No computer could ever do that, but it's happening below the level of awareness. It seems so easy to us. And so one of the things these people learn is they contain these hidden strengths, but at the same time they have to be consciously aware of how modest they can be in understanding themselves and proceed on that basis.
A Letter from Author David Brooks
Several years ago I did some reporting on why so many kids drop out of high school, despite all rational incentives. That took me quickly to studies of early childhood and research on brain formation. Once I started poking around that realm, I found that people who study the mind are giving us an entirely new perspective on who we are and what it takes to flourish.
We’re used to a certain story of success, one that emphasizes getting good grades, getting the right job skills and making the right decisions. But these scientists were peering into the innermost mind and shedding light on the process one level down, in the realm of emotions, intuitions, perceptions, genetic dispositions and unconscious longings.
I’ve spent several years with their work now, and it’s changed my perspective on everything. In this book, I try to take their various findings and weave them together into one story.
This is not a science book. I don’t answer how the brain does things. I try to answer what it all means. I try to explain how these findings about the deepest recesses of our minds should change the way we see ourselves, raise our kids, conduct business, teach, manage our relationships and practice politics. This story is based on scientific research, but it is really about emotion, character, virtue and love. We’re not rational animals, or laboring animals; we’re social animals. We emerge out of relationships and live to bond with each other and connect to larger ideas.
From Publishers Weekly
New York Times columnist Brooks (Bobos in Paradise) raids Malcolm Gladwell's pop psychology turf in a wobbly treatise on brain science, human nature, and public policy. Essentially a satirical novel interleaved with disquisitions on mirror neurons and behavioral economics, the narrative chronicles the life cycle of a fictional couple—Harold, a historian working at a think tank, and Erica, a Chinese-Chicana cable-TV executive—as a case study of the nonrational roots of social behaviors, from mating and shopping to voting. Their story lets Brooks mock the affluent and trendy while advancing soft neoconservative themes: that genetically ingrained emotions and biases trump reason; that social problems require cultural remedies (charter schools, not welfare payments); that the class divide is about intelligence, deportment, and taste, not money or power. Brooks is an engaging guide to the "cognitive revolution" in psychology, but what he shows us amounts mainly to restating platitudes. (Women like men with money, we learn, while men like women with breasts.) His attempt to inflate recent research on neural mechanisms into a grand worldview yields little except buzz concepts—"society is a layering of networks"—no more persuasive than the rationalist dogmas he derides. (Mar.)
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“Authoritative, impressively learned, and vast in scope.”—Newsweek
“As in [Bobos in Paradise] he shows genius in sketching archetypes and coining phrases. . . . In The Social Animal Mr. Brooks surveys a stunning amount of research and cleverly connects it to everyday experience.”—The Wall Street Journal
“[A] fascinating study of the unconscious mind and its impact on our lives . . . Brooks has done well to draw such vivid attention to the wide implications of the accumulated research on the mind and the triggers of human behaviour.”—The Economist
“An uncommonly brilliant blend of sociology, intellect and allegory.”—Kirkus Reviews (starred revew)
“Provocative and fascinating . . . seeks to do nothing less than revolutionize our notions about how we function and conduct our lives.”—The Philadelphia Inquirer
“Multifaceted, compulsively readable . . . Brooks’s considerable achievement comes in his ability to elevate the unseen aspects of private experience into a vigorous and challenging conversation about what we all share.”—San Francisco Chronicle
About the Author
David Brooks writes an op-ed column for The New York Times. Previously, he has been a senior editor at The Weekly Standard, a contributing editor at Newsweek and The Atlantic Monthly, and an op-ed editor at The Wall Street Journal. He is currently a commentator on PBS NewsHour and contributes regularly to Meet the Press and NPR’s All Things Considered. He is the author of Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There and On Paradise Drive: How We Live Now (And Always Have) in the Future Tense. His articles have appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Forbes, The Washington Post, The Times Literary Supplement, Commentary, The Public Interest, and many other magazines. David Brooks lives in Maryland.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
After the boom and bust, after the go-go frenzy and the Wall Street meltdown, the Composure Class rose once again to the fore. The people in this group hadn't made their money through hedge-fund wizardry or by some big financial score. They'd earned it by climbing the meritocratic ladder of success. They'd made good grades in school, established solid social connections, joined quality companies, medical practices, and firms. Wealth had just settled down upon them gradually like a gentle snow.
You'd see a paragon of the Composure Class lunching al fresco at some shaded bistro in Aspen or Jackson Hole. He's just back from China and stopping by for a corporate board meeting on his way to a five- hundred-mile bike-a-thon to support the fight against lactose intolerance. He is asexually handsome, with a little less body fat than Leonardo's David, and hair so lush and luxuriously wavy that, if you saw him in L.A., you'd ask, "Who's that handsome guy with George Clooney?" As he crosses his legs you observe that they are immeasurably long and slender. He doesn't really have thighs. Each leg is just one elegant calf on top of another.
His voice is like someone walking in socks on a Persian carpet-so calm and composed, he makes Barack Obama sound like Lenny Bruce. He met his wife at the Clinton Global Initiative. They happened to be wearing the same Doctors Without Borders support bracelets and quickly discovered they had the same yoga instructor and their Fulbright Scholarships came only two years apart. They are a wonderfully matched pair, with the only real tension between them involving their workout routines. For some reason, today's high- prestige men do a lot of running and biking and only work on the muscles in the lower half of their bodies. High-status women, on the other hand, pay ferocious attention to their torsos, biceps, and forearms so they can wear sleeveless dresses all summer and crush rocks into pebbles with their bare hands.
So Mr. Casual Elegance married Ms. Sculpted Beauty in a ceremony officiated by Bill and Melinda Gates, and they produced three wonderful children: Effortless Brilliance, Global Compassion, and Artistically Gifted. Like most upper- and upper-middle-class children, these kids are really good at obscure sports. Centuries ago, members of the educated class discovered that they could no longer compete in football, baseball, and basketball, so they stole lacrosse from the American Indians to give them something to dominate.
The kids all excelled at homogenous and proudly progressive private high schools, carefully spending their summers interning at German science labs. Junior year, their parents sat them down and solemnly informed them that they were now old enough to start reading The Economist. They went off to selective colleges with good sports teams, like Duke and Stanford, and then they launched careers that would reflect well on their parents-for example by becoming chief economist at the World Bank after a satisfying few years with the Joffrey Ballet.
Members of the Composure Class spend much of their adult lives going into rooms and making everybody else feel inferior. This effect is only magnified by the fact that they are sincere, modest, and nice. Nothing gives them greater pleasure than inviting you out to their weekend place. This involves meeting them Friday afternoon at some private airport. They arrive with their belongings in a tote bag because when you have your own plane you don't need luggage that actually closes.
It's best to tuck away a few granola bars if you go on one of these jaunts because the sumptuary code of this new gentry means that they will semi-starve you all weekend. This code involves lavish spending on durables and spartan spending on consumables. They'll give you a ride on a multimillion-dollar Gulfstream 5, and serve a naked turkey slice sandwich on stale bread from the Safeway. They will have a nine- bedroom weekend mansion, but they brag that the furniture is from Ikea, and on Saturday they'll offer you one of those Hunger Strike Lunches-four lettuce shards and three grams of tuna salad-because they think everybody eats as healthily as they do.
It has become fashionable in these circles to have dogs a third as tall as the ceiling heights, so members of the Composure Class have these gigantic bearlike hounds named after Jane Austen characters. The dogs are crossbreeds between Saint Bernards and velociraptors, and they will gently lay their giant muzzles on tabletops or Range Rover roofs, whichever is higher. The weekend itself will consist of long bouts of strenuous activity interrupted by short surveys of the global economic situation and bright stories about their closest friends-Rupert, Warren, Colin, Sergey, Bono, and the Dalai Lama. In the evenings they will traipse down to a resort community for ice cream and a stroll. Spontaneous applause may erupt on the sidewalks as they parade their immaculate selves down the avenues, licking their interesting gelatos. People will actually choose to vacation in these places just to bathe in the aura of human perfection.
It was in one of those precincts that, one summer's day, a man and a woman met for the first time. These young people, in their late twenties, would go on to be the parents of Harold, one of the heroes of this story. And the first thing you should know about these soon- to-be parents is that they were both good-hearted, but sort of shallow-even though their son would go on to be intellectually ambitious and sort of profound. They had been drawn to this resort community by the gravitational pull of Composure Class success, which they someday hoped to join. They were staying in group homes with other aspiring young professionals, and a blind lunch date had been arranged by a mutual friend.
Their names were Rob and Julia, and they got their first glimpse of each other in front of a Barnes & Noble. Rob and Julia smiled broadly at each other as they approached, and a deep, primeval process kicked in. Each saw different things. Rob, being a certain sort of man, took in most of what he wanted to know through his eyes. His male Pleistocene ancestors were confronted with the puzzling fact that human females do not exhibit any physical signals when they're ovulating, unlike many other animals. So the early hunters made do with the closest markers of fertility available.
And so Rob looked for the traits almost all heterosexual men look for in a woman. David Buss surveyed over ten thousand people in thirty- seven different societies and found that standards of female beauty are pretty much the same around the globe. Men everywhere value clear skin, full lips, long lustrous hair, symmetrical features, shorter distances between the mouth and chin and between the nose and chin, and a waist-to-hip ratio of about 0.7. A study of painting going back thousands of years found that most of the women depicted had this ratio. Playboy bunnies tend to have this ratio, though their overall fleshiness can change with the fashions. Even the famously thin supermodel Twiggy had exactly a 0.73 percent waist-to-hip ratio.
Rob liked what he saw. He was struck by a vague and alluring sense that Julia carried herself well, for there is nothing that so enhances beauty as self-confidence. He enjoyed the smile that spread across her face, and unconsciously noted that the end of her eyebrows dipped down. The orbicularis oculi muscle, which controls this part of the eyebrow, cannot be consciously controlled, so when the tip of the eyebrow dips, that means the smile is genuine not fake.
Rob registered her overall level of attractiveness, subliminally aware that attractive people generally earn significantly higher incomes.
Rob also liked the curve he instantly discerned under her blouse, and followed its line with an appreciation that went to the core of his being. Somewhere in the back of his brain, he knew that a breast is merely an organ, a mass of skin and fat. And yet, he was incapable of thinking in that way. He went through his days constantly noting their presence around him. The line of a breast on a piece of paper was enough to arrest his attention. The use of the word "boob" was a source of subliminal annoyance to him, because that undignified word did not deserve to be used in connection with so holy a form, and he sensed it was used, mostly by women, to mock his deep fixation.
And of course breasts exist in the form they do precisely to arouse this reaction. There is no other reason human breasts should be so much larger than the breasts of other primates. Apes are flat- chested. Larger human breasts do not produce more milk than smaller ones. They serve no nutritional purpose, but they do serve as signaling devices and set off primitive light shows in the male brain. Men consistently rate women with attractive bodies and unattractive faces more highly than women with attractive faces and unattractive bodies. Nature does not go in for art for art's sake, but it does produce art.
Julia had a much more muted reaction upon seeing her eventual life mate. This is not because she was unimpressed by the indisputable hotness of the man in front of her. Women are sexually attracted to men with larger pupils. Women everywhere prefer men who have symmetrical features and are slightly older, taller, and stronger than they are. By these and other measures, Harold's future father passed the test.
It's just that she was, by nature and upbringing, guarded and slow to trust. She, like 89 percent of all people, did not believe in love at first sight. Moreover, she was compelled to care less about looks than her future husband was. Women, in general, are less visually aroused than men, a trait that has nearly cut the market for pornography in half.
That's because while Pleistocene men could pick their mates on the basis of fertility cues they could discern at a glance, Pleistocene women faced a more vexing problem. Human babies require years to become self-sufficient, and a single woma...