by David Brooks
Random House, 2011, 448 pp., $27
Did you know that people who live at the western edge of time zones, where the sun rises later, have higher rates of depression than those living farther east? Did you know that, in the brains of older people, the amygdala remains active when viewing pleasant images but not when viewing negative ones, which helps explain why happiness rises with later age? Did you know that human infants are the only mammals who nurse in bursts, possibly because they know that when they pause their mothers will jiggle them for a few seconds, which conveys affection? And did you know that people named Dennis or Denise are disproportionately likely to become dentists?
Need more grist for cocktail-party banter? If you have a quick, positive reaction to a particular work of art, you will be more likely to enjoy it for the long term than if you carefully think through what you appreciate in it. In one study, adopted orphans developed fifty more IQ points than orphans who were not adopted. French newborns cry differently than German babies, imitating the inflections of their mothers’ native languages, which they heard and absorbed in utero.
The list could go on. In this case the list is culled from The Social Animal, David Brooks’s new book on how the human unconscious, and its social connectedness, define human behavior and social life. Brooks has moved on from Bobos in paradise to the human mind, among other idiosyncratic subjects. A widely known New York Times columnist and public radio commentator, Brooks has read deeply, extensively and intelligently on this subject, and he seeks in this book to bring the fruits of many aspects of modern psychology to a wider public. He believes, correctly, that discoveries in neuroscience, child development study and related fields in recent decades have greatly expanded what we know about human maturation and functioning, though he also includes some earlier findings (the Bowlby research on attachment, for example) and some related wisdom from earlier philosophy (with a marked preference for the Scottish Enlightenment) and from literature.
Thanks to Brooks’s accessible style, the general reader will learn a great deal from this book. Many will encounter data that shed some light on themselves—such as the impact on later achievement of parental death between ages six and 16, or what happens in the brain during a “Eureka” moment in learning. To be sure, there are a few other books by journalists seeking to convey similar research findings to a wider readership, such as James Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds (2004) and Jonah Lehrer’s How We Decide (2009). But the range of information Brooks conveys, clearly and usually persuasively, sets it apart from the pack. The result is a truly enlightening read, at least from the informational standpoint.
Given the intended audience, Brooks (or perhaps his publisher) is leery of an unduly academic tone, though the book is at its best when it is summing up an experiment or survey. So to sweeten the social and neurological science he wishes to convey, Brooks strings his account around the lives of two characters, Harold and Erica, who come from different backgrounds but ultimately meet and marry, enjoying on the whole a happy, if not idyllic, relationship.
Harold is a middle-class white male. We learn a lot about his parents’ backgrounds and his own cognitive and emotional development through high school. He’s a poster child for Brooks’s deep interest in the importance of a person’s intuitive grasp of situations and skills at relationships. In one early chapter, a talented high school teacher introduces Harold to the world of learning. Later on, Harold meets Erica through a work situation, and goes on to have bouts with alcoholism. Brooks seems to lose interest in him for extended stretches, but Harold resurfaces when he takes a job at a Washington think tank as a social policy analyst. Toward the end of the book his aging and death also serve as a vehicle for Brooks to report on recent research on the psychology of aging.
Erica, however, takes center stage. She is more interesting on the whole, probably to the author and certainly to most readers. She’s more a doer, and she remains so even as Harold grows more contemplative with age. She succeeds despite a lower-class immigrant background (her parents are Chinese and Mexican-American). Brooks explores her childhood in several respects, devoting particular attention to social class, discussing how her cohort tends to be less driven and more “relaxed.” An unusual high school experience in an elite academy gives Erica much of what family did for Harold in terms of models and attachments. Erica’s college education and consulting career offer Brooks ample opportunity for commentary, as do her subsequent aging process and growing interest in art and wood-working. Throughout, Brooks notes the vital role of subconscious impulses in Erica and Howard’s relationship.
Brooks’s narrative device is intriguing, but has its drawbacks. The portrayals hardly constitute the stuff of actual literature, for Brooks weaves the couple’s story mainly as his database or policy interests dictate. There’s not a lot of raw humanity here; one cannot imagine a screenplay emerging from this, for example. At one point, for example, with the marriage having become stale, Erica accepts a one-night stand with a more dynamic man. She immediately regrets this and rediscovers her love for Harold (through mechanisms not clearly described, despite some comments on guilt).
Then there’s a problem of representativeness. Erica’s success in college and beyond, given her background, makes her part of only 8 percent of her socioeconomic stratum. We see how Erica demands entry to the secondary academy that plays such a role in transforming her life, but we don’t know enough about her, either biographically or through relevant psychological studies, to know why she became so atypically assertive. We never really learn what sets her apart, though Brooks enumerates valid and interesting facts about her social class and ethnicity—including her parents’ accurate suspicion that her ambition would pull her out of their traditional cultural milieu. Later on, Brooks also sidesteps the question of procreation; Harold and Erica don’t have children, because Erica resists somewhat volcanically, but we have little sense of why. This omission detracts from the book’s discussion of the psychology of aging, for it neglects the whole psychosocial project of grandparenting, about which there is some fascinating and highly suggestive research. The couple’s parents, too, disappear from the scene without any apparent impact on their lives. And fortuitously, neither Erica nor Harold experience health concerns until old age. But this book is not, obviously, a full life course analysis, despite its serious attention to certain phases. It would be churlish, then, to belabor the Harold-Erica heuristic too deeply, for it is only a narrative device and readers are never promised any more than that. At points, however, the gaps in exploration become a bit distracting.
The central point of the book—beyond the author’s eagerness to convey a variety of scientific advances in knowledge of the human condition—involves the effort to recalibrate our understanding of the balance and interrelation between conscious and unconscious mental activity. This is not, furthermore, the old Freudian unconscious, filled mainly with dark and lustful impulses. The wider unconscious does have some errant strands, which call for a certain level of guidance and discipline from the conscious mind. But on the whole the unconscious independently receives and processes vastly more information than the conscious mind ever handles. It orients people toward relationships that form the core of a successful life. It efficiently guides decisions about love, art and danger. It explains why children learn so much and function so well in relationships long before they engage in much conscious activity.
Brooks embellishes this basic point in a number of ways. He argues, quite plausibly, that for at least two centuries intellectuals have overemphasized the rational, and that if only for the sake of accuracy we need to right the balance. We can’t even properly predict school success with our addiction to measurements like IQ scores, when we know that the nature of family relationships, plus qualities such as the capacity for self-control, actually play a greater role.
Brooks ventures an historical scheme in defense of his claims. In this rendering, 19th-century thinkers focused on harnessing the power of reason to tame the passions and defeat superstition, as the best route to individual advancement and overall human progress. Twentieth-century social scientists shifted to a fuller focus on rationality—trying, for example, to persuade people to behave well by laying out the consequences of bad behavior like drug-taking or teenage sex. What’s needed for the 21st century, in light of the new awareness of the importance of the unconscious, is a new focus on helping people shape their perceptions. Brooks is suggesting, correctly, that an appropriate combination of the unconscious and conscious can frame data in such a way as to engender better self-knowledge and more reliable self-control.
Brooks’s project is about more than psychological accuracy, however. He periodically excoriates a somewhat vaguely defined American upper class that is so attached to rationality, quantitative measurements and material incentives, that they lack real quality in their lives and have a distorted sense of what constitutes good leadership. Brooks has Erica at one point work for an irresponsible investment outfit that is bent on acquisition at all costs, where, in his judgment, bloodless rationality propels socially damaging and ultimately abortive policies. Later, on the lifestyle front, Harold and Erica get a second home in Colorado, where they witness the shallow disporting of their wealthy neighbors, who seem oblivious to what makes life meaningful. There’s a lot of passion in these brief excursions, but not always careful demonstration that science has identified the real problem. In other words, Brooks’s plaint goes some distance beyond where the science can actually take him, but he goes there anyway.
Most important, Brooks deeply believes that a single-minded commitment to rationality spoils contemporary social policy, from both the overly individualistic conservative side and even more from the overly technocratic liberal side. He says this repeatedly and illustrates the point through Harold’s think-tank work. A sample of Harold’s suggestions: Instead of urging Africans to develop a better rational calculus to avoid health risks in sexual relationships, build richer community bonds to help guide behavior. Don’t rely too much on additional scholarship funding to bolster college enrollments and degrees from the lower social strata in the United States, but instead support charter schools and family programs that provide an alternative relationship context (along with more talented and loving teachers). Learn the lessons of Iraq—that elaborate nation-building efforts, not just military success and foreign aid, are essential to any lasting result. Just as the key to individual success rests with the range and quality of human contacts, so societal success requires a focus on networks, without which cognitive power is simply wasted. Each of Harold’s policy areas is explored briefly, without elaborate argument, which leaves the assessment suggestive but under-supported. One is left agreeing with the premise but unsure how easy it is to re-engineer relationships, or how to effectively realize these partially novel goals. New psychological insight does not effortlessly translate to policy.
The Social Animal thus offers an abundance of fascinating data, conveyed through a pleasant but limited biographical conceit, and a sweeping claim about the importance of intuition and social cohesion that warrants attention but also requires fuller exposition. Early in the book, Brooks suggests that a fuller understanding of the unconscious is vital to happiness, but he does not systematically pursue this notion. It’s ultimately unclear, too, whether Harold and Erica are distinctively happy illustrations, or if they are meant to be despite endearing themselves to the reader. Early in the book Brooks also suggests that parents may be creating needless anxiety by lavishing attention on cognitive preparation for schooling—children need fewer flash cards and far more work on forming stable attachments. But the book’s focus on solid relationships might merely transfer parental anxiety to another front, so this topic, too, calls for more extensive analysis.
Finally, there is an underlying tension in the book’s efforts to render accessible important scientific findings that might not otherwise reach the wider public. Brooks apparently assumes that a clear, engaging synthesis of recent work on the brain and related subjects would not achieve that goal (though he obviously would be more than capable of this approach). So, as indicated, he presents the major findings in relatively short bursts. With rare exceptions, no single topic commands more than a page or so, leavened further by the recurrent recourse to the doings of Harold and Erica. Taken together, the science and the storytelling argue for new approaches to learning and to society alike.
This approach creates three related problems. First, with rare exceptions, no particular doubt is expressed about any finding. We’re treated to scientific gospel, with no sense that there might be some uncertainty or grey area. Even the contentious claim that Kenyans like Hudson River School landscapes more than paintings of their own environment (because the Hudson scenes look more like what Kenya looked like in the Pleistocene era) is presented almost as unassailable fact. Historical judgments about the French revolution (it was a rationalistic horror show) or medieval understandings of emotion reflect none of the debate that any interested historian would offer. And when it comes to psychology or neuroscience, Brooks ratchets up the certainty level still further.
Second, Brooks’s approach obscures what’s being omitted, such that one can’t tell whether the gaps reflect lack of research or authorial disinterest. Surprisingly little emerges, for example, about fear, which seems odd even in a rather sanguine representation of the unconscious. To be sure, the book describes Harold’s childhood fears, and briefly returns to fear in old age, as death approaches. But between these two poles, and as part of the biographical sketches, fear takes a break. Anger is even less involved. No single book can cover everything. But because the exposition is informal, sometimes sporadic, the reader can’t glean the author’s principles of inclusion or exclusion, or how additional topics might reshape the overall findings being presented.
Third, the book similarly neglects the role of culture (with one momentary exception). As with much psychology, most of the findings presented are quintessentially human, presumably applicable at all times and all places. At points, indeed, Brooks hovers around a biosocial approach in which most aspects of human functioning are programmed early in the evolutionary process, and preclude significant change or variation. Feminist scholars will, for example, take issue with some of the resultant generalizations about gender characteristics in sexuality.
Brooks is far too smart and well-read not to know, however, that in many situations culture counts for a lot in human behavior. Erica’s college major in cultural anthropology allows him to introduce several data points about variations in mores and attitudes. But the interest ends there, and the tension between culture and innate psychology suffers as a result. Thus in a later section we encounter surveys in which Nigerians and Japanese report similar levels of happiness. But there is no attendant acknowledgment that “happiness” can have a different meaning in East Asian culture, which challenges the utility of cross-cultural material on this subject. More glaringly still, a fascinating section on overconfidence in human behavior, from student claims about exam performance to businessmens’ anticipations of success, fails to mention that these data may be quite accurate for the contemporary United States but are far less so for many other cultures. Here, at least recurrently, the lack of more rounded discussion of culture becomes both misleading and frustrating.
Are problems of this sort inherent in a popularized approach? Would a few more bows to academic conventions have spoiled the show? Precisely because the goal of presenting new findings to a wider audience is so commendable, the questions are worth asking. I emerged from this particular rendition not sure of the best response.
Brooks has certainly written a book that repays the reader’s engagement. The wealth of information accompanies a larger argument that deserves serious consideration. It is, when all is said and done, a serious book. The weaknesses a reader may identify in the process reflect the ambition of the enterprise. What kind of presentation of such wide-ranging materials is palatable beyond the scholarly disciplines involved? How can we incorporate the new understanding of the human brain in education or public policy? Alongside these serious questions, there is some pure and simple enjoyment. It’s fun to gain more information about the human condition, and here The Social Animal excels.
For instance, did you know that, presented with pictures of Mexican political candidates, voters in India and the United States reached conclusions about competence that were identical to each other? And should we bemoan or celebrate the way people reach durable impressions of politicians? Did you know that the average mother loses 700 hours of sleep during her baby’s first year? No? Well, it’s true.