‘The Social Animal’ by David Brooks, examines emotion vs. reason

Author David Brooks in Bethesda, Md. (David BURNETT/Contact/Random House)
March 25, 2011

This is not a modest book. David Brooks is one of the most prominent public intellectuals of our time, known for, among other things, his playful dissections of the lifestyles of the American elite. Here he is chasing bigger game. “The Social Animal” is about the modern life of our species. It explores attachment, parenting, schooling, love, family, culture, achievement, marriage, politics, morality, aging, death and much more.

And it’s in the form of a story! Adopting a stylistic technique from Rousseau, Brooks gives us Harold and Erica, first separately and then as a couple, using their fictional lives to illustrate what he sees as a scientifically accurate and spiritually rich understanding of the human condition.

This is a useful device — I wish it were done more often — and Brooks’s affection for his characters has an appealing sweetness. But you don’t want to read this as a novel — it’s far too didactic. Harold is born, and we learn a lot about infant development and the mother-child bond. Erica goes from a terrible school to a great one, and Brooks explores education. Harold writes a book on the British Enlightenment, and he tells Erica (and us) all about it. Erica has an affair and regrets it, and this frames the chapter on moral emotions. Harold becomes an alcoholic. Erica goes to the World Economic Forum. And so on, until they get old and one of them dies.

Brooks is a sharp, clear and often very funny writer. Describing someone’s preternaturally calm voice: “He makes Barack Obama sound like Lenny Bruce”; talking about baby Harold’s fascination with shapes: “He would stare at edges the way Charles Manson stared at cops.” And Brooks has a good eye for the cool finding. Do you know that a baby’s brain creates 1.8 million new neural connections per second? Or that a disproportionately high percentage of successful people have had a parent die or abandon them early in life? Or that the more people you are dining with at a restaurant, the more food you are likely to eat? Women underestimate their IQs; men overestimate theirs. Past the age of 50, women initiate most divorces. Americans are half as likely as Japanese to admit that they are often afraid of saying the wrong thing. After looking at the faces of two unfamiliar candidates for a fraction of a second, people can predict with 70 percent accuracy who will win the election.

He has a million of them, which makes for a pleasantly skimmable book. But there are costs to this abundance. Brooks moves so fast that there is no opportunity to distinguish the established findings from the unlikely ones, and no chance to follow up on some of the more interesting claims. He tells us in a sentence that taller men get paid more, for instance, but says nothing about the fascinating question of why this is so. And some of the factoids are less satisfying. There is an occasional drift into neurobabble: phrases about brain parts and neurotransmitters that sound scientific and substantive but don’t add anything to the argument. In the end, why do we care how many neural connections a baby makes in a second?

All these facts serve a broader agenda, though. Many of us, Brooks believes, are in the grip of an outdated theory of human nature. We give priority to cold-blooded reason, to deliberative, conscious, logical and linear thought. This is said to distinguish us from other animals — it’s what “tiger mothers” hope to nourish in their children. But now we know better. Brooks cites my colleague John Bargh as claiming that there has been another Galilean revolution, except that instead of the Earth being pushed from the center of the universe, it is the conscious mind that has been dethroned. What really matters is what lies beneath: “emotions, intuitions, biases, longings, genetic predispositions, character traits, and social norms.” Brain research, Brooks tells us, “reminds us of the relative importance of emotion over pure reason, social connections over individual choice, character over IQ.”

Brooks is right that many psychologists, philosophers and neuroscientists believe this to be true. “The Social Animal” is a savvy, accessible and enthusiastic defense of their position — they are lucky to have him on their side.

But his book also illustrates the limits of this approach to human nature. Brooks has a fondness for stories in which emotion clashes with reason and character is at war with IQ. But in the real world, these elements are tightly related. Contrary to the nerdy-genius stereotype, someone who is book-smart is usually people-smart and emotion-smart, too. Brooks’s characters would be nowhere near as successful and happy if they weren’t highly intelligent — in a boring, IQ-based, logical, conscious and deliberative way.

This is true as well for our species. Brooks has chosen to have his story take place “perpetually in the current moment, the early twenty-first century,” and this allows him to show how Harold and Erica deal with the world we live in now, with its customs, literature, technology, politics and morality. But humans are not rats dropped into an elaborate maze — we’ve created this world. We instinctively adapt to social institutions, but we can also reject them and invent better ones, and we do so in large part through thoughtful deliberation and conscious agency. Without these capacities, Erica and Harold would be two unexceptional apes, running naked through the jungle.

Brooks has his own concerns about policy and politics. He worries about our failures to address problems such as economic inequality and failing schools, and he argues persuasively that we will continue to fail unless we come up with a better theory of human nature. He is right as well that such a theory will include an important role for emotions and instincts. But in the course of addressing these problems and struggling for solutions, Brooks is himself engaging in the rational activity that he is so skeptical about. We’re not going to solve social problems by listening to our hearts and going with our guts. We have to be smart. Fortunately, we can be.

Paul Bloom is a professor of psychology at Yale University and the author of “How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like.”


The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement

By David Brooks

Random House. 424 pp. $27

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