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Review: ‘The Social Animal’ by David Brooks

by Kim on March 21, 2012 · 7 comments

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Title: The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement
Author: David Brooks
Genre: Nonfiction
Year: 2011
Acquired: Bought
Rating: ★★★★½

Summary: This is the story of how success happens, told through the lives of one composite American couple, Harold and Erica. Drawing on a wealth of current research from numerous disciplines, Brooks takes Harold and Erica from infancy to old age, illustrating a fundamental new understanding of human nature along the way: The unconscious mind, it turns out, is not a dark, vestigial place, but a creative one, where most of the brain’s work gets done. This is the realm where character is formed and where our most important life decisions are made—the natural habitat of The Social Animal. Brooks reveals the deeply social aspect of our minds and exposes the bias in modern culture that overemphasizes rationalism, individualism, and IQ. (Source)

Review: The Social Animal is a book that tries to figure out how and why success happens. David Brooks, a columnist for The New York Times, uses a wealth of current psychological research to build the lives of two composite characters, Harold and Erica, and explore why Americans do the things they do and think the way they think. (The structure of the book is inspired by Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s 1960 study of education, Emile, in which Rousseau invented a young boy named Emile and gave him a tutor in order to write about how human beings are educated).

Although Brooks writes that his first goal in writing the book was political — trying to understand why years of public policy have resulted in negligible improvements — he ends up writing a book that feels much broader than that, without feeling overwhelming or like it took on too much.

In many cases, Brooks cites studies that are relatively common fodder in books about the way we think. I think of the marshmallow experiment about delayed gratification or the study that showed expertise isn’t about IQ, but rather about forming better internal networks of information by testing the memory of chess grandmasters and chess novices. I’ve read references to those studies numerous times, but the way Brooks uses them in telling the story of Harold and Erica is novel and memorable. The studies meant more to me when I could see them in context of a lived experience (even an experience that was entirely fabricated).

Additionally, Brooks knows how to turn a phrase. Although some of the dialogue he invents for his composite characters is a little stilted, his writing on the whole is just lovely. Like this section, for example:

The truth is, starting even before we are born, we inherit a great river of knowledge, a great flow of patterns coming from many ages and many sources. The information that comes from deep in the evolutionary past, we call genetics. The information revealed thousands of years ago, we call religion. The information passed along from hundreds of years ago, we call culture. The information passed along from decades ago, we call family, and the information offered years, months, days, or hours ago, we call education and advice.

But it is all information, and it all flows from the dead through us and to the unborn. The brain is adapted to the river of knowledge and its many currents and tributaries, and it exists as a creature of that river the way a trout exists in a stream. Our thoughts are profoundly molded by this long historic flow, and none of us exists, self-made, in isolation from it.

But perhaps my favorite part of the book was that it was full to the brim with fascinating and shareable facts and quotes. I can’t tell you the number of times I looked up from the book to Boyfriend and said, “Hey! Did you know…” before reading a big chunk from the book. For example, did you know…

  • “A person who is interrupted while performing a task takes 50 percent more time to complete it and makes 50 percent more errors. The brain doesn’t multitask well. It needs to get into a coherent flow, with one network of firings leading coherently to the next.”
  • “Both reason and will are obviously important in making moral decision and exercising self-control. But neither of these character models along has proven very effective. … Most diets fail because the conscious forces of reason and will are simply not powerful enough to consistently subdue unconscious urges.”
  • “The United States is a collective society that thinks it is an individualist one. If you ask American to describe their values, they will give you the most individualistic answers of any nation on the planet. Yet if you actually watch how Americans behave, you see they trust one another instinctively and form groups with alacrity.”
  • “… You can only discover your vocation by doing it, and seeing if it feels right. There’s no substitute for the process of trying on different lives, and waiting to find one that fits.”

Honestly, you can probably tell a lot about where I’m at in my life based on the fact that those are some of the conclusions that I found most interesting… but whatever. I was absorbed by this book from beginning to end. Although the structure of the book is inspired by the past, it feels entirely novel. I can’t recommend this book highly enough.

Other Reviews:

If you have reviewed this book, please leave a link to the review in the comments and I will add your review to the main post. All I ask is for you to do the same to mine — thanks!

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Maphead March 21, 2012 at 3:03 pm

Glad you enjoyed Social Animal! Not only did it make my “best of” list for 2011, it ended up tying for my favorite book of 2011.
My review in case you wanna read it:
http://maphead.wordpress.com/2011/08/28/exploring-the-human-condition-with-david-brooks/

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Kim March 25, 2012 at 1:58 pm

I remember your review! It made me so excited to read this book. I just loved it to pieces.

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Kailana March 21, 2012 at 7:59 pm

This sounds really interesting. I am going to add it to my wish list!

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Aths March 21, 2012 at 8:05 pm

So glad that you enjoyed this. I’ve been eager to read this one ever since it was released.

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Christy (A Good Stopping Point) March 25, 2012 at 6:10 pm

This sounds like it’s packed with cool factoids. For some reason, the quote about Americans instinctively trusting one another sticks in my head and just makes me go “huh. do we do that? I guess we do? interesting.”

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Kim April 3, 2012 at 8:15 pm

That’s how I felt too. We always talk about being independent, but Americans form groups and committees and work together all the time!

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