Category Archives: boston globe

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?


Does activism make you happy?

Flickr photo by Matthew Bradley

Flickr photo by Matthew Bradley

I’m quoted in the Boston Globe’s Ideas Section in “The Upside of ‘down with’” (Drake Bennett, 10/11/09).

The article reports on a forthcoming study “Some Benefits of Being an Activist” by Tim Kasser and Malte Klar that activism is associated with happiness (2009, Political Psychology 30(5) ).

The Globe article neglected to quote me that there are lots of reason to support activism — it may increase people’s confidence in making a difference, it may improve governmental quality and leaders’ accountability, it may spark extra-governmental change or reveal the immorality of laws (as seen in the Civil Rights Era).

That said, I am skeptical, as the Globe article noted that it is activism per se that is causing happiness, based on our forthcoming religious research.  Religious Americans are more happy, but it has nothing to do with their theology, or what they hear from the pulpit, or a sense of calling.  It is explained by being in a morally-infused social network.  Praying alone or attending a church where you hear the sermons (but don’t make friends) makes you no happier.  Similarly if one looks at research by Alan Krueger and others, it is social activities that bring happiness.

So while I’m not sure that bowlers are doing as much for government accountability as protesters, my guess would be that they are equally happy.

What leads to happiness?

(Flickr photo by adwriter)

(Flickr photo by adwriter)

The Atlantic Magazine has a very interesting story called “What Makes us Happy?” (June 2009)

The author was granted rare access to a longitudinal surveyof 268 men who entered Harvard College in the late 1930s; Harvard scholars tracked them over the last 8 decades through adolescence, “war, career, marriage and divorce, parenthood and grandparenthood, and old age.”  [The author suggests that the Harvard scholar who has guided this study (The W.T.  Grant Study) over the last roughly half century, George Vaillant, may have used the study to try to make up for deficiencies in his own childhood, suffered when his father committed suicide.]

“Yet, even as he takes pleasure in poking holes in an innocent idealism, Vaillant says his hopeful temperament is best summed up by the story of a father who on Christmas Eve puts into one son’s stocking a fine gold watch, and into another son’s, a pile of horse manure. The next morning, the first boy comes to his father and says glumly, ‘Dad, I just don’t know what I’ll do with this watch. It’s so fragile. It could break.’  The other boy runs to him and says, ‘Daddy! Daddy! Santa left me a pony, if only I can just find it!’

“The story gets to the heart of Vaillant’s angle on the Grant Study. His central question is not how much or how little trouble these men met, but rather precisely how—and to what effect—they responded to that trouble. His main interpretive lens has been the psychoanalytic metaphor of  ‘adaptations,’ or unconscious responses to pain, conflict, or uncertainty. Formalized by Anna Freud on the basis of her father’s work, adaptations (also called ‘defense mechanisms’) are unconscious thoughts and behaviors that you could say either shape or distort—depending on whether you approve or disapprove—a person’s reality.

“Vaillant explains defenses as the mental equivalent of a basic biological process. When we cut ourselves, for example, our blood clots—a swift and involuntary response that maintains homeostasis. Similarly, when we encounter a challenge large or small—a mother’s death or a broken shoelace—our defenses float us through the emotional swamp. And just as clotting can save us from bleeding to death—or plug a coronary artery and lead to a heart attack—defenses can spell our redemption or ruin. Vaillant’s taxonomy ranks defenses from worst to best, in four categories.

“At the bottom of the pile are the unhealthiest, or psychotic, adaptations—like paranoia, hallucination, or megalomania—which, while they can serve to make reality tolerable for the person employing them, seem crazy to anyone else. One level up are the immature adaptations, which include acting out, passive aggression, hypochondria, projection, and fantasy. These aren’t as isolating as psychotic adaptations, but they impede intimacy. Neurotic defenses are common in ‘normal’ people. These include intellectualization (mutating the primal stuff of life into objects of formal thought); dissociation (intense, often brief, removal from one’s feelings); and repression, which, Vaillant says, can involve “seemingly inexplicable naïveté, memory lapse, or failure to acknowledge input from a selected sense organ.” The healthiest, or mature, adaptations include altruism, humor, anticipation (looking ahead and planning for future discomfort), suppression (a conscious decision to postpone attention to an impulse or conflict, to be addressed in good time), and sublimation (finding outlets for feelings, like putting aggression into sport, or lust into courtship).

Vaillant found in general that people improve at adapting. Toddlers often exhibit psychotic adaptations and older children commonly show immature adaptations, but these disappear as children age.  In the Grant Study, adolescents used immature defenses twice as frequently as mature defenses, but by mid-life the ratio had reversed: they were four times more likely to respond in mature ways.  Vaillant also noticed that altruism and humor grew more prevalent between the ages of 50 and 75.  [It is for these reasons that Vaillant examined the subjects over their life trajectory rather than at a fixed point in time, because the progression or lack of progression in defenses was especially important.]

What were Vaillant’s conclusions?

  • Relationships were the only thing that really matters: “It is social aptitude, not intellectual brilliance or parental social class, that leads to successful aging”, Vaillant said. Aside from an individual’s defenses, relationships at age 47 were the strongest predictor of late-life adjustment.  93 percent of those men who were happy at 65 had a close sibling when younger. Those who didn’t have close siblings found these connections in parents or uncles, or mentors or friends.
  • Vaillant dismisses social determinism. Social ease predicted good psychosocial adjustment in college and early adulthood, but became less significant with time. And shy or anxious kids by age 70 were just as likely to be “happy-well” as outgoing kids by age 70.
  • Besides relationships and mature defenses, the best predictors of thriving (physical and psychological) in senior years were “education, stable marriage, not smoking, not abusing alcohol, some exercise, and healthy weight”. If one had 5+ of these factors at age 50, half were  happy-well by 80 and only 7.5% “sad-sick.” Conversely, no one with with three or fewer of these health factors at age 50, ended up happy-well at age 80, regardless of physical shape at age 50.
  • Cholesterol levels at age 50 did not predict happy-wellness in old age.
  • Being fit in college explained late-life mental health better than late-life physical health.
  • Of the men diagnosed as depressed by age 50, over 70% were dead or chronically ill by 63. Pessimists aged far less well than optimists.

Read the Atlantic article here by Joshua Wolf Shenk “What Makes Us Happy?“.

The Boston Globe also had an interesting recent article also on happiness called “Perfectly Happy:  The New Science of Measuring Happiness Has Transformed Self-Help” (by Drake Bennett, 5/10/09)

See other recent posts on happiness “Happiness is Contagious“, “Do Fat Friends make you fat (and less happy)?”   and “Gallup takes daily pulse of American happiness/Krueger’s interesting happiness research.”

Our growing divisiveness

Roger Cohen, NYT columnist (“In The Seventh Year“, 9/1/08) describes how, far from 9-11 bringing the country closer together, it has sundered America in two: with some fighting for our country while others backdated options, packaged toxic mortgage-backed securities, and got themselves wealthy in the process.  America, far from other countries has become noticeably more uneven in wealth over the past few years.  [You can see how this growth in inequality is greater than than in the UK, Canada, France or Japan.]

In an interesting companion piece, Scott Leigh notes wistfully how the promised civility of the 2008 campaign has given way to rancorous squabbling (“Civility is Casualty as Campaigns Spar“, Boston Globe, 9/1/08).  While largely initiated by the McCain/Palin team, especially in her nasty (but humorously and folksily delivered) speech at the nomination; Obama has now countered calling McCain/Palin, laughingly commenting: ““You can put lipstick on a pig; it’s still a pig. You can wrap an old fish in a piece of paper called change; it’s still going to stink after eight years.” McCain has lambasted the use of the “lipstick on a pig” image, a phrase McCain claims is a dig on Palin, even though McCain used this phrase himself earlier in the campaign.  Woe to the higher plane on which these candidates said they would play: appearing at joint meetings to discuss their policies.  And McCain’s tactics make a mockery of his claim that he will usher in a new era in bipartisan politics in Washington — live by the sword, die by it.

I myself think that President Bush squandered a remarkable opportunity after 9-11.  We had the world’s admiration and sympathies after 9-11 and now we have their enmity for our cowboy foreign policy.  We had amazing class solidarity, with financiers helping waiters out of the Twin Towers and vice versa, and now we are back to every class looking out for itself.  We had a remarkable opportunity to give Americans a chance to sacrifice for the good of our country: e.g., conserving fuel use to make us less dependent on the Arab undemocratic states, but instead we were encouraged to shop by Bush and initially the Administration’s policies drive down gas prices and made us use all the more fuel.    And we had an opportunity to use our powerful assets to reshape the world for good:  to teach Muslim youth so they saw that there was opportunity to learn beyond going to radical madrassah schools, to invest mightily in our own educational system so we could ensure that our citizens prospered in the years ahead amidst a much more globally competitive world, and to usher in the next wave of green technologies so we were exporting these technologies to the world with lots of jobs, rather than the reverse.  But all this has been squandered along with trillions of dollars on the Iraq War, which has radicalized Arab youth rather than made the world safer.  Let’s hope that we can do a far better job in the next 8 years.