Review of ‘The Social Animal’

Reading The Social Animal by David Brooks was an interesting experience for me. The first half of the book made such a strong impression on me that I felt I had found THE book that encapsulated and clarified the viewpoint that has fascinated me for the past few years. Every sentence brought me to new heights of dizzy glee. Every chapter resonated with how I felt the world worked and thrilled me with interesting and illuminating social psychology experiments and neurological insight. I confess that I temporarily worshiped David Brooks. Luckily for my ability to take a more critical look at the book, the second half was less impressive and I went online to see if others were feeling the same stunned excitement that I had at first. I found interesting critiques and saw some of the flaws that I had glazed over before. I think that as I heard exactly what I wanted to hear, my brain rewarded me with good feelings. Everyone loves hearing their views confirmed; we tend to search out like-minded friends, websites that support our viewpoints, and we even have a better memory for details that we agree with. Our brains are structured to reward consistency, agreement, and convincing narratives.

So why should I expect any of you reading this review to take the book seriously and trust my opinions of it? The best answer that I can come up with is that it was the very ideas in the book that helped me understand my reaction to it. The power of The Social Animal is that it steps back to analyze how we think, how we perceive, how we judge, and how we interact so insightfully that the reader feels privy to a new dimension of reality. If it were just espousing a political opinion that I agreed with I wouldn’t feel comfortable promoting it, but it goes far beyond politics and deals with the very foundations of our knowledge and experience.

First, a general description. The book follows four main fictional characters that Brooks has created in order to give a structure and concrete examples for an amazingly broad review of neuroscience, cognitive psychology, and sociology. First he writes about how Rob and Julia fall in love, get married, and have Harold. Then he follows Harold and the woman he eventually falls in love with and marries, Erica. During their lifetimes he takes up themes as widely ranging as falling in love, choosing our friends, brain development, education, parenting, poverty, disease, aging, morality, politics, and economics. He uses several powerful lenses that have emerged in the last decade or two to explain how our unconscious, emotional mind makes more decisions that we are consciously aware of and how the social environment that surrounds us makes up much more of our lives that we commonly assume.

Before I get into some of the implications of his arguments and evidence, let me mention the two major shortcomings of the book. The first is narrative, the second about content.

At first I was charmed and hooked by the characters that he creates. It’s hard not to like people when they are falling in love, raising kids, and being teenagers. Soon, however, things take a more depressing turn when the two main characters graduate from college and eventually meet and fall in love. They struggle to find meaning in their work, they fall out of love, but don’t ever really talk about their marital troubles. In the final chapters Brooks falls into quasi-poetic waxing about art and life and death. It’s not that I wanted only happy, lighthearted moments, but when the narrative takes this turn Brooks seems to try to shift the book from a science-based literature review to a character-based story. This does not work. He introduces the characters as tools for his analysis, but then decides to make them into complex characters, leaving the narrative feeling forced and shallow.

Another disappointment was how Brooks kept widening and widening his reach without consolidating, organizing, or clarifying the mountain of information in relation to his central ideas. After about the 40th study or scientist’s conclusion that he mentions, the reader starts to lose the thread and is no longer convinced that it’s relevant just because it sounds cool. There were several points where I felt like I had been tossed colorful candies and enjoyed each one quickly, only to be left strangely empty afterward. Brooks would have done well to use less, but more relevant material and keep things more tightly structured.

All this said, the book is remarkable in its insight, fascinating in its implications, and revelatory in its explanations of how we live and perceive. While I think the book gets tiresome near the end, the rest of it is so good that I still highly recommend it. Here are some of the ideas that struck me as the most interesting and powerful:

Intuition, emotion, and the power of the unconscious play a crucial but under-appreciated role in our lives. We tend to think of ourselves as independent, willful actors when the reality is that our conscious choices are like a rudder that steers us within a rushing current carrying us powerfully downstream. We assume that the conscious part of our brain is the biggest part because it’s what we’re aware of, but research has shown that ‘the human mind can take in 11 million pieces of information at any given moment. The most generous estimate is that people can be consciously aware of forty of these.’ It is the emotional connections that we develop throughout our lives, but especially during childhood, that do most of the perception, categorization, and judgment in our lives. We assume rationality is anti-emotionalism, but research indicates that without emotions, we would not be able to make judgments or choices. Our conscious mind handles a few organizational and abstract reasoning tasks, but much of what we think we decide is really just a ex post facto justification for something we’ve already unconsciously chosen.

This claim at first may seem to downplay free will, but arguing that unconscious forces do more work than conscious ones doesn’t mean that conscious decisions don’t matter. It’s just that conscious decisions have a different purpose than we thought. If you think about it, it would be impossible to consciously process the thousands of bits of information and tiny decisions that we make each day. Perhaps the most important role our conscious awareness plays in our lives is the ability to choose environments and build new patterns that can alter the sophisticated autopilot mechanisms already in place. For example, say you realize that you are a pessimistic person. This is a tendency that has most likely developed unconsciously, so consciously trying to turn back all of the causal links that have been established for years in your mind between plans and negative outcomes won’t work. What’s much easier to control is the environment you insert yourself into. If you choose to create habits that reinforce positive expectations (repeating positive phrases or visualizing success) or find social environments that counteract your personal biases (making optimistic friends), then you are piggybacking on larger unconscious forces to counteract your current mindset. Conscious choice may be less powerful than we thought, but it’s still crucial and the better we understand it the better we can use it.

Related research about how our brains develop and change helps us understand how this process works. By practicing and repeating thought patterns we change the very structure of our brains. This plasticity of the brain, the pruning and building of neural connections, is one of the most remarkable areas of neuroscience research. While these connections are being made and unmade throughout our lives, it is during our early years that most of the initial connections are made. It is this foundation of perception that sets the stage for all future learning and experience. This is the mechanics of ‘nurture’ as opposed to ‘nature.’ Brooks explains that a baby is constantly observing the way the world works and the activation of certain neural pathways creates connections between causes and effects. Is life fair or unjust? Is altruistic behavior reciprocated or taken advantage of? Are rules consistently reinforced or is there a seemingly random pattern to consequences? Once these basic assumptions are made they inform everything that we observe afterward and can create momentum toward certain life outcomes.

Throughout the book, Brooks shows us that we need to re-assess the stories that we tell ourselves about how the world works. One story is that we are the masters of every choice we make. Another is that we are autonomous individuals, separate from our social environment. Everyone has their own ideas about finding meaning in life, the difference between truth and fiction or good and evil. The challenge is to come together to find common ground and to be humble rather than self-righteous about our beliefs. Brooks’ book exposes the harmful narratives of rational individualism, reductionist approaches to our social environment, and the assumption that our narratives are true rather than constructed. For me, despite the evidence against conscious choice and objective moral principles, the message is still hopeful. The better we understand the limited nature of our consciousness and perception, the more accurately we can use it to assess and improve our world.

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