David Brooks’ “The Social Animal” (REVIEW, UPDATED)

The Boston Globe reviews Brooks’ Social Animal: How the new sciences of human nature can help make sense of a life: “The outward mind, according to Brooks, focuses on the power of the individual; the inner mind highlights the bonds among people. Those bonds have become frayed in recent decades, he argues, and need rebuilding if we are to thrive as individuals and as a society.

“ ‘The unconscious is impulsive, emotional, sensitive, and unpredictable. It has its shortcomings. It needs supervision. But it can be brilliant. It’s capable of processing blizzards of data and making daring creative leaps. Most of all, it is also wonderfully gregarious. Your unconscious, that inner extrovert, wants you to reach outward and connect. It wants you to achieve communion with work, friend, family, nation and cause. Your unconscious wants to entangle you in the thick web of relations that are the essence of human flourishing.’ ”  (Boston Globe)  Brooks suggests that the unconscious is more important to determining our actions than the conscious.

“Some groups are far better than others at inculcating functional norms and social skills. Children from disorganized, unstable communities have a much harder time acquiring the discipline to succeed in life. And a famous experiment conducted around 1970 demonstrated that the ability of 4-year-olds to postpone gratification by leaving a marshmallow uneaten for a time as a condition of receiving a second marshmallow was a very good predictor of success in life: ‘The kids who could wait a full 15 minutes had, 13 years later, SAT scores that were 210 points higher than the kids who could wait only 30 seconds. . . . Twenty years later, they had much higher college-completion rates, and 30 years later, they had much higher incomes. The kids who could not wait at all had much higher incarceration rates. They were much more likely to suffer from drug- and alcohol-addiction problems.’ ” (NY Times)

The WSJ suggests that it is directionally correct (and that non-cognitive skills may be 75% of the action), but in fictionalizing research into its novels two characters (Erica and Harold), it strays from some of the strict limits of the underlying research.

In the process of celebrating intuitive over rational thinking, Mr. Brooks lets his own unconscious biases get him into trouble. He describes in some detail, for example, clever experiments by Dutch psychologists who found that consumers make better purchasing decisions if they mull the relevant information unconsciously while their minds are occupied with other tasks—as opposed to making a quick decision or consciously analyzing the options and then deciding. But he doesn’t tell the reader about the one big problem with studies like this: Other researchers have been unable to reproduce their results.  This is a chronic problem…[t]he first study on a topic is rarely the last word.

…The narrative [in The Social Animal] begins with Erica taking a job with a consulting firm of wonks who show off their big brains by citing their favorite equations and debating esoteric trivia at staff meetings. They hire mainly on the basis of intelligence but never develop lasting, profitable relationships with clients. Once Erica figures this out, she leaves to start her own company.

If this story is meant to illustrate a broader point, it must be that …[t]he brilliant are more likely than the average to be socially awkward. But…] in reality, tests of emotional intelligence correlate positively with IQ tests.

But Mr. Brooks makes an even bigger claim: “Once you get past some pretty obvious correlations (smart people make better mathematicians), there is a very loose relationship between IQ and life outcomes.” [Chabris notes that Brooks in relying on an argument made by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers that IQ attendance at Harvard or MIT can't predict who will win Nobels, encounters problems that this research is based on] “tiny sample sizes, the shaky assumption that prize juries (and elite universities) make decisions based only on merit, and the focus on the tails of a distribution (here, the highest extremes of intelligence and academic achievement), which is the method guaranteed to tell you the least about the characteristics that matter across the whole range of human ability. To dismiss IQ testing as invalid because it can’t pick out the minuscule minority that will attain world-wide fame is to confuse a positive correlation with a perfect one. Only oracles have perfect records of prophecy, and surely no one desires a world in which IQ tests are that good.

…The research that Mr. Brooks minimizes or ignores does not, of course, prove that intelligence is the only relevant trait for success. A host of “noncognitive” skills, many of which Mr. Brooks explains well, are undoubtedly important. But there is no need to tear down intelligence in order to build up the rest.  Even if differences in intelligence explain 25% of the differences among people in how well they perform at work (a much better estimate than the low-ball 4% cited by Mr. Brooks), there is still three times as much territory left to be mapped out. Surely that’s plenty of space for researchers to investigate the role of social acumen, mindset, culture, self-control and much else. A thousand flowers can bloom.

See also David Brooks’ humorous TED talk on this topic, relating his talk to everything from politicians, to school reform, to financial reform, to the war in Iraq. He discusses why the rational world has trumped the social and emotional world at great cost.  He talks about how we are deeply social animals, and formed out of relationships with each other (mentioning the importance of “social capital.”)  To succeed in life, Brooks believes we need mindsight (empathy into what others are thinking), equipoise (serenity in reading our overconfidence and biases), metus (sensitivity to the physical environment), sympathy (ability to work within face-to-face groups through non-verbal communication), blending (a new fusion of two different ideas), and limerince (the ability to find moments of transcendence).

See Guardian article “What’s the big idea?: David Brooks’s theories on society were fashionable 200 years ago, he tells Stuart Jeffries. So why are British politicians such fans of his new book?

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One response to “David Brooks’ “The Social Animal” (REVIEW, UPDATED)

  1. David Brooks makes a claim that is surprisingly contradictory and shockingly overlooked. As he promotes these “unconscious” abilities such as emotions, intuitions, etc., he makes the claim that these abilities play a greater role in shaping our lives than reason. He uses present findings in the field of psychology and cognitive psychology to support his claim.

    To expose the contradiction quite simply and clearly I will phrase it this way: Brooks claims that emotions, et al, based on scientific findings (which are only understandable through reason), are more important than reason. He uses the refined attributes of reason–science–to claim that reason plays a lesser role in shaping our life. This is a blatant contradiciton. He cannot claim that reason, based on reason, is of lesser importance than emotions, et al. I hope this is as evident as I see it.

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