Book Review: The Social Animal

“This is the happiest story you’ve ever read. It’s about two people who led wonderfully fulfilling lives. They had engrossing careers, earned the respect of their friends, and made important contributions to their neighborhood, their country, and their world.” These are the words David Brooks uses to open his book, The Social Animal, and they immediately set a wildly optimistic tone for the rest of the book, although, I found these words to be a bit misleading. This didactic novel (Brooks borrows the literary device used by Rousseau in Emile) wasn’t the happiest story I’ve ever read, although, I largely agreed with many of the key points Brooks makes in the book. And, at times, Brooks’ acutely accurate social observations brought a wry smile to my face (particularly his depiction of the culture in Aspen, CO and at the University of Denver, which I currently attend).

The Social Animal is in essence a melodramatic novel that is uniquely blended with the latest scientific research and a heavy dose of Brooks’ brand of Panglossian politics.  Brooks essentially argues that success and happiness largely depend on what economists call non-cognitive skills, which is a catchall term for things like emotions, intuitions, biases, and longings. He tends to refer to these things as part of the unconscious, which I find a bit confusing. It would seem to me that we are indeed conscious of these non-cognitive skills, but I think his point, at large, was that we don’t necessarily have conscious control over our non-cognitive skills. Accordingly, the central argument of the book thus seems to be focus on how these non-cognitive skills play a pivotal role in human nature, society at large, and how our politics should reflect these realities.

The two people aforementioned in the opening sentence of the book, named Harold and Erica, are a figment of Brooks imagination. Both Harold and Erica, we can assume, are fairly representative of contemporary Americans. Harold is “a popular, athletic high-school boy who also showed flashes of idealism”. White, middle-class, and not terribly ambitious, Harold had what seems to be a very comfortable and loving upbringing, typical of what you’d be likely to find in any affluent suburb in America. As we learn about his life throughout the book, we discover he goes on to pursue a career as a management consultant, then a historian, then a think-tank intellectual. Harold’s wife, Erica, has a vastly different upbringing than him. For starters, she is half Chinese-American and half Mexican-American. She is raised in poverty, and as a result, she is relentlessly ambitious and driven to make something of herself. She sets up her own company, has a spectacular business career, and moves on to become a big player in the Democratic party.

At one point in the story, Erica commits adultery which allows for Brooks to interject some moral psychology into the book. Throughout the book, Brooks find ways to reveal the latest findings in other fields like evolutionary psychology, social psychology, and behavioral economics too.

The crux of Brooks argument relies on attacking the French Enlightenment and the tradition of rationalism (and its focus on reductionism) that ensued. Brooks asserts, that the British Enlightenment, led by the likes of David Hume, Adam Smith and Edmund Burke questioned the dominance of reason in intellectual life. Essentially, these 18th century figures were the original behavioral economists. They offered explanations of human nature that blended in our sentiments, emotions, and passions along with reason. I saw this book, largely, as a plea to focus on Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments over The Wealth Nations (I have yet to read either of these books in their entirety, but plan to do so).

Brooks’ broad thesis is that we overvalue cognition and analytical reasoning while undervaluing emotion, intuition and social influence. Largely, I agree with Brooks; however, while building his case I think Brooks gets some things flat out wrong. For instance, he asserts that “ninety percent of emotional communication is nonverbal.” The fact is, there is no possible way to measure the truth of this claim.  Brooks uses claims like this and several others that seem to undermine one of his central points, i.e, that we shouldn’t try to make everything scientific and reductionist. Seemingly he’s only willing to accept numeric claims when they support his beliefs; as such, a jocular case of confirmation bias seems to have affected Brooks while writing The Social Animal. Ultimately, Brooks’ polemical case against an overly rational view of human nature is sound; however, there is, as they say, more than one way to skin a cat.

[click the following for and copies of the book]


5 Comments on “Book Review: The Social Animal”

  1. Jules Evans says:

    Enjoyed that Greg, thanks.

  2. Quora says:

    Is the view of the good life in David Brooks’ “The Social Animal” coherent? Is it wise?…

    Overall, I would say “yes” and “yes”; however, I think parts of his interpretation in the book are a bit jaded.  The crux of Brooks’ argument relies on attacking the French Enlightenment and the tradition of rationalism (and its focus on reduction…

  3. Nathanketsdever says:

    His comment about 90% of communication is nonverbal may be hard or impossible to verify, but it does point to a core truth–especially in light of the whole thesis of the book which answers that question.  (ie the whole thesis seems to be an attack on rigid adherence to data as the only basis for the virtuous and good life)

    • Greg Linster says:

      @0b56a8ab69b9e6b633c1e43e0867eceb:disqus I think I understand what you are getting at and I agree.  However, I’m criticizing the book for using a shaky scientific claim to attack another shaky scientific claim.  I think he should have just asserted that communication is complex and involves non-verbal cues.  I think trying to make a questionable scientific claim undermines one of his key points.

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment!

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