Book Review: The Social Animal

Today’s Machining World Archives June 2011 Volume 07 Issue 05

By Jerry Levine

David Brooks has spent 30 years studying the brain and how it functions both physically and emotionally. His current best seller, The Social Animal, presents a huge volume of brain related scientific study in the form of an allegory, featuring two imaginary characters, Harold and Erica.

As these two individuals move through life, Brooks analyzes their brains and their behavior from birth to death, and analyzes our own intellectual, social and moral behavior. Along the way he looks for the meaning of life and what constitutes happiness. (Good luck with that!)

The book focuses on the power of the unconscious. While we live in the conscious world, Brooks contends that most of the action of our minds is happening at an unconscious level. This unconscious is what truly shapes how we see the world, which then shapes our destiny. Brooks defines the unconscious as emotion, intuition, bias, genetic predisposition, character traits and social norms. Reason is not severed from emotion; rather emotion is the foundation of reason. Emotion is required to place value on things and is absolutely necessary for effective decision-making.

Towards the end of the book, Brooks discusses spirituality and marvels at the brain—the three pounds of meat that creates emotion. Brooks is in awe of the process and refers to it as a sort of divine creation. The mind is endlessly complicated—100 billion neurons constantly connecting and reconnecting. We can see a bit of the action with high tech imagery, but it is still hard to translate the images into human behavior. The Social Animal is subtitled, “The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement.” Brooks claims that falling in love is guided by both conscious and unconscious evaluations. Initially, we establish a conscious relationship. Later, unconscious forces take over. For example, women put a value on male height. A 5 foot 6 inch male may get many online dates, but interest wanes when “shorty” appears in person. Research shows that it takes about $172,000 in additional annual income for a male to make up for being 6 inches shorter than the ideal height for a man. However, as the relationship develops, a merging of the two minds occurs at an unconscious level. Lovers become totally connected and dissolve into one another, just as a naturalist becomes dissolved in nature or a believer becomes one with God’s love.

Brooks also looks at how the unconscious controls achievement. He notes that children from structured, organized homes had better discipline that led to success later in life.

A famous experiment conducted around 1970 demonstrated that the ability of 4-year-olds to postpone gratification by leaving a marshmallow uneaten in front of them for a set amount of time, was a good predictor of success in life. The kids who could wait a full 15 minutes, 13 years later had SAT scores 210 points higher than kids who could only wait 30 seconds. Twenty years later they had higher college completion rates, and 30 years later had significantly higher incomes. Kids who couldn’t wait at all had higher rates of incarceration and problems with drug and alcohol addiction.

What mattered more was that lifetime achievers had a better ability to detect patterns and attune to others. They were more open minded and better able to weigh the strength of beliefs against the strength of evidence.

Achievement comes from unconscious emotions, often a sense of vulnerability – a hunger to establish oneself. The most successful people have the most passion to accomplish their goals. The idea brings to mind Malcolm Gladwell’s theory in his book, Outliers: The Story of Success, that it takes“10,000 hours of practice” to become the highest achievers.

Brooks contends that we have free will and have the ability to change who we are. We can do that by changing our environment (choosing a different school for example). Or, we can change a specific behavior, which will rewire the way we think and act (like joining Alcoholics Anonymous). Additionally, we can change the people who surround us (by associating with less negative, more uplifting people).

Though it seems difficult, Brooks says we need to educate our emotions, mainly through social interaction. We are social animals. We build our character out of relationships and bond with one another. Deep connections are the main source of happiness.

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