David Brooks: The social animal

David Brooks: The social animal

When I got my current job, I was given a good piece of advice, which was to interview three politicians every day. And from that much contact with politicians, I can tell you they’re all emotional freaks of one sort or another. They have what I called “logorrhea dementia,” which is they talk so much they drive themselves insane. (Laughter) But what they do have is incredible social skills. When you meet them, they lock into you, they look you in the eye, they invade your personal space, they massage the back of your head. I had dinner with a Republican senator several months ago who kept his hand on my inner thigh throughout the whole meal — squeezing it. I once — this was years ago — I saw Ted Kennedy and Dan Quayle meet in the well of the Senate. And they were friends, and they hugged each other and they were laughing, and their faces were like this far apart. And they were moving and grinding and moving their arms up and down each other. And I was like, “Get a room. I don’t want to see this.” But they have those social skills. Another case: Last election cycle, I was following Mitt Romney around New Hampshire, and he was campaigning with his five perfect sons: Bip, Chip, Rip, Zip, Lip and Dip. (Laughter) And he’s going into a diner. And he goes into the diner, introduces himself to a family and says, “What village are you from in New Hampshire?” And then he describes the home he owned in their village. And so he goes around the room, and then as he’s leaving the diner, he first-names almost everybody he’s just met. I was like, “Okay, that’s social skill.” But the paradox is, when a lot of these people slip into the policy-making mode, that social awareness vanishes and they start talking like accountants. So in the course of my career, I have covered a series of failures. We sent economists in the Soviet Union with privatization plans when it broke up, and what they really lacked was social trust. We invaded Iraq with a military oblivious to the cultural and psychological realities. We had a financial regulatory regime based on the assumptions that traders were rational creatures who wouldn’t do anything stupid. For 30 years, I’ve been covering school reform and we’ve basically reorganized the bureaucratic boxes — charters, private schools, vouchers — but we’ve had disappointing results year after year. And the fact is, people learn from people they love. And if you’re not talking about the individual relationship between a teacher and a student, you’re not talking about that reality. But that reality is expunged from our policy-making process. And so that’s led to a question for me: Why are the most socially-attuned people on earth completely dehumanized when they think about policy? And I came to the conclusion, this is a symptom of a larger problem. That, for centuries, we’ve inherited a view of human nature based on the notion that we’re divided selves, that reason is separated from the emotions and that society progresses to the extent that reason can suppress the passions. And it’s led to a view of human nature that we’re rational individuals who respond in straightforward ways to incentives, and it’s led to ways of seeing the world where people try to use the assumptions of physics to measure how human behavior is. And it’s produced a great amputation, a shallow view of human nature. We’re really good at talking about material things, but we’re really bad at talking about emotions. We’re really good at talking about skills and safety and health; we’re really bad at talking about character. Alasdair MacIntyre, the famous philosopher, said that, “We have the concepts of the ancient morality of virtue, honor, goodness, but we no longer have a system by which to connect them.” And so this has led to a shallow path in politics, but also in a whole range of human endeavors. You can see it in the way we raise our young kids. You go to an elementary school at three in the afternoon and you watch the kids come out, and they’re wearing these 80-pound backpacks. If the wind blows them over, they’re like beetles stuck there on the ground. You see these cars that drive up — usually it’s Saabs and Audis and Volvos, because in certain neighborhoods it’s socially acceptable to have a luxury car, so long as it comes from a country hostile to U.S. foreign policy — that’s fine. They get picked up by these creatures I’ve called uber-moms, who are highly successful career women who have taken time off to make sure all their kids get into Harvard. And you can usually tell the uber-moms because they actually weigh less than their own children. (Laughter) So at the moment of conception, they’re doing little butt exercises. Babies flop out, they’re flashing Mandarin flashcards at the things. Driving them home, and they want them to be enlightened, so they take them to Ben & Jerry’s ice cream company with its own foreign policy. In one of my books, I joke that Ben & Jerry’s should make a pacifist toothpaste — doesn’t kill germs, just asks them to leave. It would be a big seller. (Laughter) And they go to Whole Foods to get their baby formula, and Whole Foods is one of those progressive grocery stores where all the cashiers look like they’re on loan from Amnesty International. (Laughter) They buy these seaweed-based snacks there called Veggie Booty with Kale, which is for kids who come home and say, “Mom, mom, I want a snack that’ll help prevent colon-rectal cancer.” (Laughter) And so the kids are raised in a certain way, jumping through achievement hoops of the things we can measure — SAT prep, oboe, soccer practice. They get into competitive colleges, they get good jobs, and sometimes they make a success of themselves in a superficial manner, and they make a ton of money. And sometimes you can see them at vacation places like Jackson Hole or Aspen. And they’ve become elegant and slender — they don’t really have thighs; they just have one elegant calve on top of another. (Laughter) They have kids of their own, and they’ve achieved a genetic miracle by marrying beautiful people, so their grandmoms look like Gertrude Stein, their daughters looks like Halle Berry — I don’t know how they’ve done that. They get there and they realize it’s fashionable now to have dogs a third as tall as your ceiling heights. So they’ve got these furry 160-pound dogs — all look like velociraptors, all named after Jane Austen characters. And then when they get old, they haven’t really developed a philosophy of life, but they’ve decided, “I’ve been successful at everything; I’m just not going to die.” And so they hire personal trainers; they’re popping Cialis like breath mints. You see them on the mountains up there. They’re cross-country skiing up the mountain with these grim expressions that make Dick Cheney look like Jerry Lewis. (Laughter) And as they whiz by you, it’s like being passed by a little iron Raisinet going up the hill. (Laughter) And so this is part of what life is, but it’s not all of what life is. And over the past few years, I think we’ve been given a deeper view of human nature and a deeper view of who we are. And it’s not based on theology or philosophy, it’s in the study of the mind, across all these spheres of research, from neuroscience to the cognitive scientists, behavioral economists, psychologists, sociology, we’re developing a revolution in consciousness. And when you synthesize it all, it’s giving us a new view of human nature. And far from being a coldly materialistic view of nature, it’s a new humanism, it’s a new enchantment. And I think when you synthesize this research, you start with three key insights. The first insight is that while the conscious mind writes the autobiography of our species, the unconscious mind does most of the work. And so one way to formulate that is the human mind can take in millions of pieces of information a minute, of which it can be consciously aware of about 40. And this leads to oddities. One of my favorite is that people named Dennis are disproportionately likely to become dentists, people named Lawrence become lawyers, because unconsciously we gravitate toward things that sound familiar, which is why I named my daughter President of the United States Brooks. (Laughter) Another finding is that the unconscious, far from being dumb and sexualized, is actually quite smart. So one of the most cognitively demanding things we do is buy furniture. It’s really hard to imagine a sofa, how it’s going to look in your house. And the way you should do that is study the furniture, let it marinate in your mind, distract yourself, and then a few days later, go with your gut, because unconsciously you’ve figured it out. The second insight is that emotions are at the center of our thinking. People with strokes and lesions in the emotion-processing parts of the brain are not super smart, they’re actually sometimes quite helpless. And the “giant” in the field is in the room tonight and is speaking tomorrow morning — Antonio Damasio. And one of the things he’s really shown us is that emotions are not separate from reason, but they are the foundation of reason because they tell us what to value. And so reading and educating your emotions is one of the central activities of wisdom. Now I’m a middle-aged guy. I’m not exactly comfortable with emotions. One of my favorite brain stories described these middle-aged guys. They put them into a brain scan machine — this is apocryphal by the way, but I don’t care — and they had them watch a horror movie, and then they had them describe their feelings toward their wives. And the brain scans were identical in both activities. It was just sheer terror. So me talking about emotion is like Gandhi talking about gluttony, but it is the central organizing process of the way we think. It tells us what to imprint. The brain is the record of the feelings of a life. And the third insight is that we’re not primarily self-contained individuals. We’re social animals, not rational animals. We emerge out of relationships, and we are deeply interpenetrated, one with another. And so when we see another person, we reenact in our own minds what we see in their minds. When we watch a car chase in a movie, it’s almost as if we are subtly having a car chase. When we watch pornography, it’s a little like having sex, though probably not as good. And we see this when lovers walk down the street, when a crowd in Egypt or Tunisia gets caught up in an emotional contagion, the deep interpenetration. And this revolution in who we are gives us a different way of seeing, I think, politics, a different way, most importantly, of seeing human capital. We are now children of the French Enlightenment. We believe that reason is the highest of the faculties. But I think this research shows that the British Enlightenment, or the Scottish Enlightenment, with David Hume, Adam Smith, actually had a better handle on who we are — that reason is often weak, our sentiments are strong, and our sentiments are often trustworthy. And this work corrects that bias in our culture, that dehumanizing bias. It gives us a deeper sense of what it actually takes for us to thrive in this life. When we think about human capital we think about the things we can measure easily — things like grades, SAT’s, degrees, the number of years in schooling. What it really takes to do well, to lead a meaningful life, are things that are deeper, things we don’t really even have words for. And so let me list just a couple of the things I think this research points us toward trying to understand. The first gift, or talent, is mindsight — the ability to enter into other people’s minds and learn what they have to offer. Babies come with this ability. Meltzoff, who’s at the University of Washington, leaned over a baby who was 43 minutes old. He wagged his tongue at the baby. The baby wagged her tongue back. Babies are born to interpenetrate into Mom’s mind and to download what they find — their models of how to understand reality. In the United States, 55 percent of babies have a deep two-way conversation with Mom and they learn models to how to relate to other people. And those people who have models of how to relate have a huge head start in life. Scientists at the University of Minnesota did a study in which they could predict with 77 percent accuracy, at age 18 months, who was going to graduate from high school, based on who had good attachment with mom. Twenty percent of kids do not have those relationships. They are what we call avoidantly attached. They have trouble relating to other people. They go through life like sailboats tacking into the wind — wanting to get close to people, but not really having the models of how to do that. And so this is one skill of how to hoover up knowledge, one from another. A second skill is equipoise, the ability to have the serenity to read the biases and failures in your own mind. So for example, we are overconfidence machines. Ninety-five percent of our professors report that they are above-average teachers. Ninety-six percent of college students say they have above-average social skills. Time magazine asked Americans, “Are you in the top one percent of earners?” Nineteen percent of Americans are in the top one percent of earners. (Laughter) This is a gender-linked trait, by the way. Men drown at twice the rate of women, because men think they can swim across that lake. But some people have the ability and awareness of their own biases, their own overconfidence. They have epistemological modesty. They are open-minded in the face of ambiguity. They are able to adjust strength of the conclusions to the strength of their evidence. They are curious. And these traits are often unrelated and uncorrelated with IQ. The third trait is metis, what we might call street smarts — it’s a Greek word. It’s a sensitivity to the physical environment, the ability to pick out patterns in an environment — derive a gist. One of my colleagues at the Times did a great story about soldiers in Iraq who could look down a street and detect somehow whether there was an IED, a landmine, in the street. They couldn’t tell you how they did it, but they could feel cold, they felt a coldness, and they were more often right than wrong. The third is what you might call sympathy, the ability to work within groups. And that comes in tremendously handy, because groups are smarter than individuals. And face-to-face groups are much smarter than groups that communicate electronically, because 90 percent of our communication is non-verbal. And the effectiveness of a group is not determined by the IQ of the group; it’s determined by how well they communicate, how often they take turns in conversation. Then you could talk about a trait like blending. Any child can say, “I’m a tiger,” pretend to be a tiger. It seems so elementary. But in fact, it’s phenomenally complicated to take a concept “I” and a concept “tiger” and blend them together. But this is the source of innovation. What Picasso did, for example, was take the concept “Western art” and the concept “African masks” and blend them together — not only the geometry, but the moral systems entailed in them. And these are skills, again, we can’t count and measure. And then the final thing I’ll mention is something you might call limerence. And this is not an ability; it’s a drive and a motivation. The conscious mind hungers for success and prestige. The unconscious mind hungers for those moments of transcendence, when the skull line disappears and we are lost in a challenge or a task — when a craftsman feels lost in his craft, when a naturalist feels at one with nature, when a believer feels at one with God’s love. That is what the unconscious mind hungers for. And many of us feel it in love when lovers feel fused. And one of the most beautiful descriptions I’ve come across in this research of how minds interpenetrate was written by a great theorist and scientist named Douglas Hofstadter at the University of Indiana. He was married to a woman named Carol, and they had a wonderful relationship. When their kids were five and two, Carol had a stroke and a brain tumor and died suddenly. And Hofstadter wrote a book called “I Am a Strange Loop.” In the course of that book, he describes a moment — just months after Carol has died — he comes across her picture on the mantel, or on a bureau in his bedroom. And here’s what he wrote: “I looked at her face, and I looked so deeply that I felt I was behind her eyes. And all at once I found myself saying as tears flowed, ‘That’s me. That’s me.’ And those simple words brought back many thoughts that I had had before, about the fusion of our souls into one higher-level entity, about the fact that at the core of both our souls lay our identical hopes and dreams for our children, about the notion that those hopes were not separate or distinct hopes, but were just one hope, one clear thing that defined us both, that welded us into a unit — the kind of unit I had but dimly imagined before being married and having children. I realized that, though Carol had died, that core piece of her had not died at all, but had lived on very determinedly in my brain.” The Greeks say we suffer our way to wisdom. Through his suffering, Hofstadter understood how deeply interpenetrated we are. Through the policy failures of the last 30 years, we have come to acknowledge, I think, how shallow our view of human nature has been. And now as we confront that shallowness and the failures that derive from our inability to get the depths of who we are, comes this revolution in consciousness — these people in so many fields exploring the depth of our nature and coming away with this enchanted, this new humanism. And when Freud discovered his sense of the unconscious, it had a vast effect on the climate of the times. Now we are discovering a more accurate vision of the unconscious, of who we are deep inside, and it’s going to have a wonderful and profound and humanizing effect on our culture. Thank you. (Applause)

100 thoughts on “David Brooks: The social animal

  1. @bogdanbelcea Those weren't arguments either. Leave that poor pot alone kettle-guy.

    I'm just kidding with you. His talk IS argument & data deficient. He is banking on emotional persuasiveness to get people to question their assumptions. He hopes to undermine the mythos surrounding politicians. There is value in this. However, I would agree that it could be done better.

  2. interestingly, my mum and I had a conversation similar to this talk about how we measure success a few days ago

  3. Eh, it was ok. He could've picked and choosed one or two topics and talked more about them in depth instead of skimming over a few, and some of his jokes were ok.

    But seriously, any rational human being knows that human beings are not rational 😀

  4. mindblowing insight. only we now need see our subconsciousness as the universe expressing itself through us. In chinese medine water reads of (holds) the emotions. emotions speak of feelings, and feelings are the language of the soul. and the soul is the cosmic expression and manifestion of consciousness . . .through which the universe expresses itself in matter

  5. interesting ideas but very general, i guess he didnt have time to get too specific , i'm gonna check out the book . i think we should come up with a better name than new humanism

  6. @bogdanbelcea Because you can't help it, and had better learn to work with yourself rather than against. Everybody feels emotional attachment to the ideas they espouse; if you admit that, you can look more closely at ideas, and compensate for your attachment to some extent. Or were you wondering about the evolutionary advantage of such a seemingly flawed system? That would be an interesting question to ask.

  7. @bogdanbelcea Albert Einstein rejected Quantum physics on essentially emotional grounds, believing that "god would not play dice with the universe." He was wrong, but the story shows a hugely influential modern genius, unabashedly relying on intuition and non-rational thought. So many great ideas, modern and ancient, came not from logical progression, but in a flash of intuition, later confirmed by careful research. Both intuition and research have their place.

  8. Can anyone actually identify ANY insights in this talk?

    I mean he says a lot of stuff, but it's all intuitively obvious pop-psychology ga-ga. As i'm watching the talk i'm realising that this is the kindof vapid talk i would have given if i was told that i had to get infront of an audience and SAY NOTHING OF CONSEQUENCE FOR 20 MINUTES.

    Sure, there was nothing incorrect in there. But there was just nothing in there, period. I feel like i just ate a pack of ramen noodles, no nutritional value.

  9. @roidroid in conclusion… he's identical to that politician he described early in the talk.

    high in social skills.
    low in substance.

    Columnists are paid for their ability to get and hold the attention of a large audience, are they all like this guy?
    *sigh*, i ain't even mad. Just disappointed really, i was expecting more.

  10. For more on how we are children of the French Enlightenment, read "Voltaire's Bastards" by the greatest Canadian philosopher of our age, John Ralston Saul.

  11. @FreestyleBrain
    Go with your gut, but don't be afraid to sit back and reflect on activities/experiences you've had in the past that you enjoyed. I was initially going to go engineering, but then I went Kinesiology. I wound up leaving that after doing 1.5 years, taking a couple years off of school, teaching myself programming, and going back in computer science. I've now finished creating a small game and am working on a very cool project with people I know.

    I'm happy with my choices.

  12. @roidroid "To know and not do is to not really know" I don't know you but sometimes when we become educated we have a distorted and unbridled desire for novelty. However, because something is "intuitively obvious" as you say does not make it any less important. Because although it is "intuitively obvious" hardly any of us actually practice this axiom of humanity, hence, all our societal problems.

  13. @FreestyleBrain Go with your heart. If you go down a path in conflict with your "calling" you'll lose your life. On a practical note, out of the gate you may get a bigger paycheck in mechanical engineering but over the next 10 years that will fade as you lose out to those in engineering who have the passion. But if you follow your heart you'll end up finding a place where those skills are valued more and you'll be the one with passion which should make you some decent money in almost any field.

  14. didn't like it, too vague. Sounded more like a TEDwoman talk, but done by a man. The conspiracy theorist part of my brain tells me that this is exactly what it was

  15. Alright presentation, but does anyone else feel the guy is jumping into new-age woo-woo territory a bit?

  16. @DonAnonimus It's the part where he talks about the soldiers detecting "coldness" where there were landmines… but I'm willing to bet that "coldness" just means "empty."

    I wouldn't hang around a land mine I just planted, would you?

  17. He explained why Mitt Romney will win the republican nomination, which means that we will have a question between bad and worse again.

  18. Seemed really great til his comment about Iraq….just like when someone from the right starts talking about jesus…..he's an idiot….

  19. bull shit over bull shit. there is more factual statements in a chuck klosterman book. he just babbles like he's smart but is saying NOTHING

  20. @mikaelfodor If you didn't learn anything it is because you failed to be open enough to learn; because it was against your own prejudices to allow yourself to learn. It is impossible not to learn, for familiarity isn't absolute truth, for there is nothing in this world that you completely know, including yourself .I can learn something by looking at something I've seen a thousand times before, I can learn by staring at the back of my hand. Really, learn to learn, set yourself free.

  21. @sixtiksix An idiot is an individual who is pre-cognizant, they literally have no ability to think or formulate thoughts. Though I could translate your comment as such, once he started challenging my own beliefs the cognitive dissonance made me uncomfortable, and instead of being able or willing to see things in a different way, I put up my walls and dismissed him with a word that is hardly descriptive. It's okay to be scared, we are all scared.

  22. u r a social animal. Now, either accept it, or don't accept it. This guy: "accept it!". He wants to "thrive" 11:00. If your reason is "weak", why not enhance it? If you're governed by your animaltions, why not learn to overcome them?

    But actually he conflates another thing into the mess, and that's Values. True, deepest values are emotional, but not every emotion is result of animalcy. What we need is ETHICAL AXIOMS: Do No Harm. Free Mind. No Coercion!

    So is really free mind "dehumanizing"??

  23. IOW, that we are social animals, I see as impediment, not something to cultivate. One concrete example: it is natural for humans to form hierarchies, pyramids with few on top treading over those below. Is this something you would consciously choose as an ideal, a master/slave civilization? Obviously the Free World chose otherwise, it chose parliaments and free discourse. So it's not something to embrace unconditionally, most of it is something to fight against.

  24. Foreign Policy is driven by economic means, often pressured by interest group. The choices that are available in foreign policy are greatly influenced by profit and security. Foreign policy evaluates corporate interest with government capabilities in relation to public concerns. Politicians are not philosophers; they often do not look at the overall consequence of their action. peoplebreeze com

  25. When they finally do, that decision can be vetoed, challenge by congress or slowed down through bureaucracy. Moral values are often discouraged in foreign policy due to potential conflict that can elevate through the effort of securing interest, especially when promises have been broken. Therefore, the human experience of a good life is forever shrinking as conflict across the globe continues. Sorry there’s no happy ending
peoplebreeze com

  26. Politicians are faking their social skills to gain power over people who allow their emotions to rule their actions too much. Do not be oppressed, this guy seems totally wrong to me.

  27. The social mind is a wonderful thing. Mittt Romney in 2012 is viewed differently by the generalized other than he he was viewed by the same audience in 2008, yes? Every traditional society's members knows emotions are inextricably interwoven into reason . The English language has many words but few words for expressing emotions. I get excited about learning! Engagement might be the best word for learning. higher the social class the les emotional we become in most Industrialized societies.

  28. "dictatorship" talk to anyone with a boss on top of them about that. "applying order" what are your views on virtues of bullying? see much value in applying that? "parliaments" a representative reprsents will of electors, not dictates his will onto them. u obviously have no idea what freedom is and r happy to live under control, like so many consumerized humanimals preferring their "feelings" over Reason+Values. "hierarchical discourse" (whatever the heck that is) is certainly not free.

  29. David Brook calls Edward Snowden a delusional individual, but the NSA paid Snowden $200,000 a year.

    David Brook is aiding Big Brother.

  30. I'm not sure you'll ever find an 'expert' who integrates all the data into one big picture. DB seems well informed and he speaks from his own experience.

  31. a great book that brook wrote, but his speech is with the same tune as if he disconnects with his emotion when saying emotion is important. His voice trembles perhaps he was nervous, but a very humble man indeed

  32. Sounds like this guy is talking about theory of mind and emergent systems theory. Maybe if we standardized the language we could fix society faster.

  33. Explicitly anti-reason and anti-individual, in the same lecture. He is trying to start a de-revolution in human thought. To a limited extent he is right, that a person who is highly rational but has a poor emotional intelligence is indeed missing something of major importance, but he overlooks that a person who is barely rational and highly emotional is probably more dangerous.

  34. Wow good stand-up routine.

    So… the ACTUAL most socially-attuned people aren't the sort of smarmy dickheads that make it in politics?

  35. El candor de la garra del Condor con AGua de Mr. Riberas Pirennees to strech to wide Bulbs Meer Baltics strech sinistra Copenhagen HUmour is the 1st intution to survey JOY INTELIGENT FREEZY BREAZY wild lightness accuracy respect HUmour RAtios END>]

  36. from 2011. this talk so relevant with the tribalism preoccupying america today. especially, as run by the megalomaniac scam artists who acts as politicians led by a very stable genius criminal mastermind.

  37. I like David Brooks. He is thoughtful and he seems considerate and kind.

    However, as a Scot, I am not sure that the relation between sentiment and reason attributed to David Hume is entirely correct. It may be, I am no scholar on the matter, however, from the little that I know, I understand Hume's view to be that that the "passions" should govern that, over which, one should apply one's "reason", rather than the notion that one's passion and reason are somehow opposed.

    Anyway, since I am obviously not a philosopher, and as I have also, in all probability, made several logical fallacies, please go easy on me!

    By all means tell me more about Hume and why my scant knowledge of him is inaccurate!

    SlĂ inte


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