BOOKS MARCH 2, 2011
The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement
By David Brooks
(Random House, 424 pp., $27)
Why would David Brooks, the frequently interesting and reasonable-even-when-you-disagree-with-him columnist for The New York Times, write a book offering the latest insights from brain research? And why would he do it by adopting the method pioneered by Rousseau in Émile—that is, by inventing fictional characters whose adventures in life are meant to illuminate larger questions of individual development and social obligation? Brooks tells us that he has been interested in the workings of the human mind for decades, and he is well-read enough to benefit from the ideas of many writers, Rousseau included. On its surface The Social Animal is a book about human psychology written by a political conservative. But it is better read, I believe, as a book by a conservative in which science is being used to buttress a prior point of view.
Research into human behavior generally studies large groups of people so that the unique quirks of any one of them will not distort the findings. In most cases, all we know is the “n”—the number of those whose opinions, heart rates, or neuronal firings are being counted and subjected to statistical analysis. This research is published by multiple authors in journals accessible to other scholars, and the tentative results are invariably accompanied by calls for yet more studies to discover whether the findings will be replicated. Every once in a while, researchers will assemble all the studies of a particular phenomenon into a “meta” analysis designed to establish just how robust a correlation may be. On rarer occasions still, a scientist will decide to write a book based on years of research in order to characterize the state of his discipline or to suggest the relevance of its findings for society at large.
But our insights into human conduct are by no means monopolized by neuroscientists, psychologists, and behavioral economists. Novelists, poets, biographers, and historians, as well as therapists and theologians, ponder the mysteries of the soul and the heart, which scientists are more likely to call the cerebral cortex. In contrast to the often unreadable articles in scientific journals, the humanistic studies of human behavior focus on character formation, complexities of plot, and social commentary. When especially skilled, or when asked to appear on Oprah, they may find themselves attracting testimonials to the way the books they write shape the lives of the readers whom they attract. They do not tell us about minds in general; they present real or imagined individuals in particular.
Brooks seeks to combine the advantages of each approach to how human beings understand themselves. He is, of course, not a scientist himself, but he has a knack for combing the academic literature to find experiments that, in his view, are chock full of revelations about the ways we live now. Check up on him by examining the journal articles that produce the often counterintuitive results that intrigue him, and you will invariably find his summaries faithful to the original. Like Malcolm Gladwell, he is a skillful popularizer of academic research in a wide variety of fields.
At the same time, Brooks believes that he can best illustrate the significance of what he views as a revolution in human understanding by presenting its results fictionally. He has invented two people, two allegorical figures, named Harold and Erica. We learn an enormous amount about them, including the lives of their parents, the circumstances of their birth, their early education, their discovery of each other, their sex lives, their careers, their successes and failures, their retirement years, and ultimately, in the case of Harold, what he experiences as he lays dying. Every chapter of The Social Animal is divided between discrete events in the lives of either character and the scientific work that highlights more general findings about how we live.
One day, for example, Harold and Erica decide to go on a bike ride. As they look out on the vista from the hill they have just climbed, Erica holds his hand and, before long, Harold realizes that he is in love. Fictionally speaking, they are now in a position to join their lives together. At the same time, writes Brooks, “if you had looked inside Harold’s brain while he was in this enchanted state, you would not have found some separate and magical part aflame.” Science explains why. “Helen Fisher’s research into the brain activity of people who are deeply and madly in love reveals that it’s some of the prosaic, furnacelike parts of the brain that are actually most active at moments of intense romantic feeling—parts like the caudate nucleus and the ventral tegmental area (VTA).” Pastors may not wish to believe that they are uniting two VTAs in holy matrimony, but then pastors do not talk much about limerence, the psychologist’s term for our quest for oneness. Harold thinks that he has chosen Erica because of all the women in the world, she is the right one for him. In reality, his mind has chosen her for him. “People are instinctively drawn to the familiar,” Brooks remarks, citing research showing that people named Louis disproportionately find themselves moving to St. Louis.
And so it goes throughout the lives of Brooks’s two protagonists. Erica is half Chinese and half Mexican, allowing Brooks to summarize a wide-ranging literature from anthropology showing that “all cultures share certain commonalities, stored in our genetic inheritance.” Her decision to attend a university conspicuously outside the Ivy League offers Brooks the chance to highlight research showing the limited effects of IQ. Erica’s successful business career, based on her intuitive understanding that the innovation-craving, rule-spinning, and metric-setting methods popular among master-of-the-universe CEOs are all bluster, leads her to appreciate the importance of local knowledge and epistemological modesty, qualities that enable human networks, neural and social, to expand. Erica’s recruitment into politics—she eventually becomes a member of the president’s cabinet—becomes an opportunity for Brooks to summarize research demonstrating just how emotional political behavior often is. Even Erica’s last years, devoted to exploring her artistic side, lead to a discussion of how the human mind absorbs the creations of Wagner and Picasso.
For most conservatives, even the mere suggestion that the mind has its own agency, that it can take over and dominate the conscious decisions of the individual in which it lives, smacks of gross foolishness. When we make a bad choice, they believe, such as wasting our money on drugs or failing to search hard enough for a job, we should be punished. When we make a good one, by turning to God or starting a much-needed business, we should be rewarded. As it happens, Harold once made a very bad choice. Depressed, childless, married to the striver Erica proved to be, he took to drink, eventually downing a third of a bottle of scotch each day. Despite his fallen state, Brooks argues, science tells us how wrong we would be to view him as responsible for his own actions. “Alcoholics and other addicts understand what they are doing to themselves,” he writes, “but don’t seem to be able to internalize the knowledge into a permanent life lesson. Some researchers believe they suffer from this disability because they have damaged the neural plasticity in their prefrontal cortex.” This is not the kind of analysis that will appeal to the three-strikes-and-you’re-out crowd.
Harold’s problems with the bottle suggest that Brooks has left his conservatism behind in favor of an eccentric combination of New Age spirituality, therapeutic forgiveness, and hard-nosed academic science. But he has not. Brooks remains politically what he has been since he first appeared on the scene: a political conservative, a skeptic with respect to liberal overreach, and an implicit (and at times on-the-record) critic of those extremists on the right who verge either into pure libertarianism or sheer rage. The Social Animal is best read not as a repudiation of Brooks’s beliefs but as the discovery of a new path to reach them. People, after all, are instinctively drawn to the familiar.
The political implications follow from a larger story that The Social Animal tries to tell, and it involves the Enlightenment and its legacy. Every action of Harold and Erica, Brooks informs us, can be investigated at two different levels. Highly successful, strongly motivated, self-reflective, both of them operate at what Brooks calls Level 2. “This tradition, rationalism, tells the story of human history as the story of the progress of the logical, conscious mind. It sees human history as a contest between reason, the highest human faculty, and passion and instinct, our animal natures. In the upbeat version of this story, reason gradually triumphs over emotion. Science gradually replaces myth. Logic wins out over passion.” So long as it places the individual at the center of the social universe, Level 2 thinking can be associated with a wide variety of philosophical traditions. Here, for example, people follow the rules of neoclassical economics and calculate what is in their own self-interest—or they survey a variety of moral options and choose the one that best conforms to the categorical imperative. Liberalism and libertarianism both make sense if we view ourselves at this level. The world is intelligible to us and we shape it through our choices.
But everything we are now learning about the actual workings of the human mind, Brooks continues, suggests that this picture of human progress is incomplete. For one thing, brain science teaches us that the individual is not an autonomous self. “Each of us,” Brooks writes, “has unique neural networks, which are formed, reinforced, and constantly updated by the eclectic circumstances of our lives.... The neural networks embody our experiences and in turn guide future action. They contain the unique way each of us carries himself in the world.... You are the spiritual entity that emerges out of the material networks in your head.” From such a perspective, the cognitive revolution resolves the age-old question of human nature once and for all. We are neither born with Locke’s blank slate nor stained with indelible sin. Along Lockean lines, our nature at birth is an open question, there to be determined later in life; and along more strictly Calvinistic ones, it is just not determined by us.
An additional lesson that follows from the work done in the labs of the neuroscientists involves the power of the passions. In contrast to the emphasis on logical thinking associated with that other tradition, Level 1 cognition is “cloudlike, nonlinear, hard to see, and impossible to formalize.” The unconscious parts of our brain are in sync with the sensations registered by our bodies, and the two act together in ways our conscious minds cannot register. At Level 1 we do not so much act as react. It is here that we form instant judgments, employ stereotypes, rely on our intuition in strange situations, and become so adept at internalizing tasks that we become expert at repeating them. Athletes get a glimpse of Level 1 when they experience peak performance. It is all about flow. The firings in our brains push us away from bloodless calculation to such different emotions as empathy or jealousy. We may be best off acting in our own self-interest, as Adam Smith maintained in The Wealth of Nations, but we are also moved by emotions such as sympathy, as he maintained in The Theory of Moral Sentiments.
As Brooks understands these matters, the contest between these levels is no contest at all. “Level 1 has vast, implicit memory systems it can draw upon, whereas Level 2 relies heavily upon the working memory system, the bits of information that are consciously in mind at any given moment. The unconscious consists of many different modules, each with its own function, whereas the conscious mind is just one module. Level 1 has much higher processing capacity. Measured at its highest potential, the conscious mind still has a processing capacity 200,000 times weaker than the unconscious.” Against what is opaque to us, what is visible is bound to lose. Mr. Hyde will always be there to taunt Dr. Jekyll.
An appreciation of the enormous power of Level 1 suggests to Brooks nothing less than the limits of the Enlightenment, whose rationalism he deems far too dependent on Level 2. Yet he does not conclude that the Enlightenment must be rejected root and branch. Strongly influenced by Gertrude Himmelfarb, Brooks enthusiastically accepts her conclusion that there were actually two Enlightenments, one in France, which valued reason above all else, and another in England and Scotland, which was more concerned with the softer side of life. We should therefore be more British and less French. The harsh disdain for religion found in Diderot and Voltaire needs to be modified with the Methodist sensibility of John Wesley. We need to appreciate Burke’s skepticism about planned-out schemes instead of allowing ourselves to be seduced by Condorcet’s fondness for them. (Himmelfarb includes Burke as a man of the Enlightenment.) “In effect,” Brooks points out, “members of the British Enlightenment based their view of human nature on the idea that behavior is largely shaped by the unconscious, Level 1, cognition.” They knew what modern psychologists would discover before they discovered it.
Possessed with this insight, Brooks finally puts all his cards on the table and engages in explicit political theorizing. Through the eyes of Harold, who becomes an avid reader and think tank guru after his brief career in business crashes, he tells us that the cognitive revolution must lead to a reconsideration of all those political philosophies emphasizing pure individualism. “Freedom,” Brooks (or Harold) says, “should not be the ultimate end of politics. The ultimate focus of political activity is the character of the society.” Level 1 politics are inherently communitarian. “While the rationalist era put the utility-maximizing individual at the center of political thought, the next era, Harold believed, would put the health of social networks at the center of thought. One era was economo-centric. The other would be socio-centric.” In this emerging perspective on the world, morality must be given pride of place even if individuals cannot be viewed as autonomous moral agents, and building and sustaining the good society is crucially important even though we lack the capacity to create things in any direct and conscious way.
Brooks writes with flair, and his naughty sense of humor is on frequent display. But he is emphatically not a novelist, and when he presents Harold’s manifesto the writing becomes flat and didactic. Brooks leaves no doubt about the policy implications that ought to follow from any appreciation of the cognitive revolution—and he is determined to spell out to his readers what they are. They surely do not conform, in his view, to the traditional categories of left and right: large-scale reform projects such as urban renewal or welfare, like the right-wing preference for deregulation and subsidies for business, assume that social problems can be solved with more money. Too much reliance on the material side of life, however, undermines the fragile and indirect connections between people that enable trust and cooperation—the softer side of life—to flourish. Just as the brain reveals huge complex circuitry, society is a social organism held together by billions of invisible and informal webs. Public policy therefore ought to be devoted to activating those webs and letting them take over and complete the task. This means discovering the right “choice architecture,” a favorite term among behavioral economists, that will allow individuals to find the indirect and not always visible routes to the common good.
Education, and the role that it can play in fostering greater equality, is one of Brooks’s own passions, and he uses it—again through Harold’s rather transparent musings—to illustrate how public policy ought to be pursued once we appreciate the discoveries of the cognitive revolution. In a knowledge-oriented society such as our own, success in life is associated with the prestige of the schooling one obtains. The well-off have no problem with this system: their kids get the intensive training to do well on their SATs and they quickly learn the right ways to dress and talk for success. Determined to open up similar chances to the less well-off, we try to help them finish high school or get into college. But if we continue to ignore “the habits, knowledge, and mental traits they needed to succeed there,” we will do neither them nor us any good. We should spend less on providing new buildings or on curricular development, and instead change how poorer people relate to the world. “With his soft-side approach,” Brooks writes, “Harold put his faith in programs that reshaped the internal models in people’s minds.” To be sure, he goes on, this means that public policy has to be “somewhat paternalistic.” (Reshaping minds sounds far worse than that to me.) But let’s get real. “If parents were not instilling these achievement values, then churches and charity groups should try. If those institutions were overwhelmed, the government should try to step in to help people achieve the three things they need to enter the middle class: marriage, a high-school degree, and a job.”
Harold does not expect to find many followers for the political philosophy that he has started to articulate. Traces of it can be found in the American tradition represented by Hamilton, Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt, emphasizing how, with a touch of help from society, individuals can rise to the level of their talents. In Britain, the conservative philosopher Michael Oakeshott rejected big plans while appreciating the civic side of life. Fortunately for Harold, “there was a New York Times columnist whose views were remarkably similar to his own.” None of this amounts to a full-scale paradigm shift such as the one associated with the rise of rationalism in the first place. But equipped with insights from brain research about the power of the unconscious, Harold, along with that unnamed columnist, has come to understand a great truth: any public policy that is based on false or unrealistic ideas about how the human mind works is bound to fail. Order will eventually emerge out of chaos, so long as we refrain from trying to impose it from the top down and allow ourselves to be pushed along in the right direction by incentives invisible to us.
Philosophically speaking, it is difficult to find a grounding for conservatism in a society as shaped by Lockean liberalism as the United States. The American Founding, after all, was one of the great achievements of the Enlightenment, and while both the American Revolution and the writing of the Constitution were clearly influenced by the British thinkers whom Himmelfarb and Brooks admire, the importance of the French preference for reason—which so clearly moved the two Toms, Jefferson and Paine—suggests how limited such a historical and intellectual dichotomy is. If ever there were individuals who took fate into their own hands, they were the American Founders. “We the People” is very L2. The United States was organized along cognitive principles that Brooks claims are increasingly obsolete: deliberative, designed, audacious, empirical. If the age of reason is near its end, then so are we.
Brooks has a favorite among the Founders, and it is Hamilton. Along with Lincoln and Roosevelt, Hamilton plays a crucial role in the “national greatness” conservatism that Brooks, along with William Kristol, began to advocate in the years when John McCain seemed sane. But just as McCain has lost it, so, too, if we take the message of The Social Animal seriously, has the effort to pump life into the tradition that he presumably represented. Greatness stands at the very opposite end of the spectrum from the appreciation of modesty and the recognition of the unconscious that Brooks now calls for. When he invokes the trio he admires so deeply, it is as advocates of upward mobility rather than as state-builders with ambitious plans to fulfill. This is a highly selective reading of his heroes: T.R. was not exactly a man who admired the soft side of life. Brooks has a choice to make between his fascination with neuroscience and his taste for large-scale American ambitions. He has not made it here.
In any other country, Hamilton, Lincoln, and Roosevelt might well have laid the foundations for the kind of Disraeli-like conservatism that Brooks often wants to evoke. But in this country all three of them became so swept up in the dynamism of American life that the changes they sponsored were grand and forward-looking rather than incremental and traditional—huge acts of mind and will. Their lives and their works raise the question of where American conservatives can look to counter the restlessness all around them. The land, God, the Southern way of life, reverence for the Constitution, natural law—all have been tried and all have failed. No wonder what passes for conservatism in this country these days is either a kind of radical libertarianism that borders on anarchy or a Tea Party-inspired mass movement ignorant of the history it wishes to venerate.
Into this vacuum steps Brooks with a brand new wrinkle: the cognitive revolution can provide the grounding for a conservative outlook on the world that has for so long been missing. If Brooks is right, conservatism may dispense with natural law because it already has nature. In this modern form of an old political philosophy, we are subject to the laws within rather than to the commands without. We can dispense with God because science does His work for him. Nothing artificial, like an aristocracy or a code of honor, is needed to control our individual appetites; our unconscious will see to that. The answer to the eternal conservative question of how we can avoid the negative consequences of unrestricted freedom has always been there: it just took the brilliance of brain researchers and their scientific allies to uncover it.
Although praising the benefits of epistemological modesty, Brooks’s efforts are exceedingly ambitious. It is true, he writes, that “the study of the mind is still in its early stages, and many findings are under dispute.” But this word of caution comes at the end, and in his acknowledgments. Throughout the bulk of the book, Brooks is so infatuated with the ideas of the cognitive revolution that his characters do little more than sing its revolutionary potential. We are offered treatments of laboratory experiments, not out of some clever Gladwellian appreciation of their ingenuity, but with the promise that they can change our fundamental stance toward the world. In relying on this literature, Brooks sacrifices the conservative fondness for the notion that individuals ought to be held responsible for their own mistakes, but look what he gets in return: a society that need not worry much about the negative consequences of individualism because it does not contain autonomous individuals to begin with.
None of this, I have to say, is very persuasive, as science or as politics. Summarizing a fairly large body of research, Brooks tells us that people constantly overestimate their own abilities. In one study, advertising managers answered questions about their industry and were 90 percent confident that their responses were correct, when in fact they were wrong 61 percent of the time. This is an interesting fact worthy of dinner party conversation, but what, precisely, does it mean? For Brooks, it is evidence of how irrational we are. But who is to say whether the rate of 39 percent correct answers is high or low? And even if we are the “overconfidence machines” that Brooks says we are, is this good or bad for liberal democracy? It seems reasonable to me, although not to Brooks, that freedom works better when people have faith in their own ability than when they are in despair about their talents. But that is just speculation on my part; the jump from an interesting if rather limited psychological experiment to the real world is too huge to undergird any political conclusions.
Had Brooks spent more time in the academic world, I think he might have discovered another limitation of the studies he cites. Academic success hinges on one’s ability to discover something that will create buzz. I have been in the academic business for some forty years, and I can recall a new revolution in my discipline being announced at least once a decade. Consider me, therefore, far more skeptical toward the cognitive one than Brooks is. If it is really true that the thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment uncovered the power of emotions long before the labs at Stanford and MIT, perhaps knowledge about human behavior is subject to cycles rather than linear progression.
For all his intellectual curiosity, Brooks is also on weak ground when it comes to intellectual history. As Richard Holmes has magnificently shown in The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science, the age of scientific discovery was intimately linked to the Romantic movement in poetry and art. It is easy to caricature some of the extreme rationalists in France—Burke’s caricatures cannot be bettered—but from the start the Enlightenment everywhere (including Germany, which both Himmelfarb and Brooks ignore) was as interested in exploring the mysteries of the human heart as in exploring the mysteries of the solar system. When today’s cognitive scientists discover how quirky and illogical we sometimes are, they are not repudiating the Enlightenment—they are extending it. It is through the application of reason that they learn how unreasonable we are. Brooks praises scientists using all the tools of observation and measurement to reveal our messy side without seeming to realize that he is demonstrating the power of Level 2 even as he praises the importance of Level 1. In any case, the distinction is as artificial as the one between the French and Scottish Enlightenments. We have always known ourselves to be an uneasy mixture of reason and unreason. Fortunately for us, we have enough experience of the benefits of the former to have invented mechanisms for helping to control the latter.
The most impressive of the mechanisms that human beings have created to control the instability of the passions is called liberal democracy. I am not quite so prepared as Brooks to limit the freedom it offers. These days the conviction that human beings are irrational, and that public policy needs to take into account just how often we do not know what is best for us, is truly trans-ideological; but the science behind it is not nearly as conclusive as these writers maintain, and manipulating our “choice architecture” so that we are induced into acting one way rather than another somehow manages to combine Burke’s indifference to much-needed reform with Mill’s contempt for ordinary people. It is true, as Brooks maintains, that the cognitive revolution takes us beyond left and right—but it does so by highlighting the worst of both of them. Give me individual autonomy, with all its quirks and potential for error, but also its scope for greatness and achievement, any day.
My point is not that we should be philistines about science. What science is discovering about us is important, and even worthy of an extra-scientific speculation or two. But I think I see why Brooks is so drawn to scientism. There is a conspicuous absence within American conservatism of something that holds out the possibility of order, and Brooks would like to think that neuroscience will do the trick. Good for him for trying, even if by doing so he inadvertently illustrates the extent to which conservatism in this country is obligated always to be on the lookout for something new. All too many political writers in this country spend their careers mining the same material. Better to explore new areas of research than to preach to the already converted.
But when he adopted Émile as his model, Brooks would have done well to pause more over what it says. “To be something, to be himself, and always at one with himself,” Rousseau wrote, “a man must act as he speaks, must know what course he ought to take, and must follow that course with vigor and persistence.” Finding such an individual, he acknowledged, would require a “miracle.” But Rousseau, a creature of the French Enlightenment whose sentimentality put Smith and Hume to shame, shared the eighteenth-century enthusiasm for authentic and autonomous human selves. No amount of science should ever diminish that enthusiasm, and no amount of science ever will. The unanticipated consequence of Brooks’s effort is that the scientific work he cites, far from demonstrating how irrational human beings can be, testifies to our indomitable determination to understand and to analyze, with all the power our minds can muster, the world we have been given.
Alan Wolfe is a contributing editor for The New Republic. This article originally ran in the March 24, 2011, issue of the magazine.