CoverYou may know David Brooks, the New York Times columnist, from the PBS NewsHour TV program. He’s always seemed insightful (although more conservative than I) but who knew he was witty, with a wicked sense of humor and deep empathy for people who lived different lives than he.

This book is his attempt to share recent brain science but he weaves into a story about a fictional couple, which he follows from before their conception to the end of one of their lives. The guy comes from an upper/upper-middle-class family and she comes from a rougher side of the tracks, representing two separate cultures. This provides him a literary mechanism to explore different life experiences that lead to different capacities. Sometimes the relationship between the story and the points about human nature are easier to discern than others, but it’s a fascinating read.

Central to the book is the contention that the unconscious mind doesn’t get enough attention or respect in our culture. Human decision making is made up of three steps: 1) perceive the situation 2) use our power of reason to analyze what actions are in our self-interest long term and 3) use our willpower to execute. In the Victorian era, much emphasis was placed on step 3, self-control (repress those evil passions!). In the 20th Century, most models focused on step 2, reason (if we just explain that smoking/unsafe-sex/obesity is bad for you, you’ll stop). In both time periods, perception is viewed as straightforward, like clicking a camera, where your senses take in the scene objectively. But research has shown that perceiving and evaluating are essentially simultaneous. The unconscious mind is able to assess a vast array of experiences and declare a verdict through emotions. I like it or I don’t. Then all these other unconscious processes come into play to affect my perception: filtering, priming, past experiences, my culture, etc.

So Brooks feels that to solve our problems—be they poverty, drop-out rates, climate change—we need to get better at understanding and managing the first step: the unconscious acts associated with perception. Our public policies are built on a flawed understanding of human nature and so we have not solved the persistent problems of our age. Classical economics is based on a rational Homo economicus, but, Brooks explains:

“Rationality is bounded by emotion. People have a great deal of trouble exercising self-control. They perceive the world in biased ways. They are profoundly influenced by context. They are prone to groupthink. Most of all, people discount the future; we allow present satisfaction to blot out future prosperity. “He blasts both political parties and the electorate.
 
Paraphrasing Rodney Dangerfield, intuition gets no respect and Brooks is trying to change that. The subconscious and intuition are not like an unruly child needing to be contained (at least not always). Instead, they are a powerful and often useful influence on our thinking. Not in the way of Blink, of making snap decisions, but by honing our capacity to access and use them. “Those who have habits and strategies to control their attention can control their lives.”
 
“The cognitive revolution demonstrated that human beings emerge out of relationships. The health of a society is determined by the health of those relationships, not by the extent to which it maximizes individual choice. Therefore, freedom should not be the ultimate end of politics. The ultimate focus of political activity is the character of the society. Political, religious and social institutions influence the unconscious choice architecture undergirding behavior. They can either create settings that nurture virtuous choices or they can create settings that undermine them. While the rationalist era put the utility-maximizing individual at the center of political thought, the next era…would put the health of social networks at the center of thought. One era was economy-centric. The next would be socio-centric. ”

 

Brooks, D. (2012). The social animal: the hidden sources of love, character, and achievement. New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks. ISBN-13: 978-0812979374