About the book
The social animal is a book about the recent scientific discoveries about the operation of the human mind. It is written as a story about a couple Harold and Erica. It’s not my favorite style to read about science but it works fine as illustrations of the ideas.
How we learn, think, act and bond is documented with a wealth of references. One nice thing about the social Animal is that it put on display how marvelous creatures we are.
Just to give you a taste for the book I’ll give a few examples of interesting sections:
Emotions are used to measure the value of something. Without emotions we are unable to make choices. This was documented by research on people with specific brain damages. “He was incapable of assigning value to different options. “His decision-making landscape was hopelessly flat”
The feeling of pleasure is caused by the removal of some tension like when we grasp some situation or master a task. The surge of happiness is not caused by living in harmony but by erasing the tension. One very important implication of this is that you have to be the creator of your own happiness.
Another point made is that self control (or character) triumphs IQ as determinant of success in life. “People with self control and self-discipline develop habits and strategies that trigger the unconscious processes that enable them to perceive the world in productive and farseeing ways.”
Another good point is the need for heroes as role models.
“Highly ambitious people often have met someone like themselves who achieved great success”
The economic implications are discussed and concepts as emergent systems are explained. This is a well know concept in Austrian economics. Independent actions by individuals result in structures which is more complicated and intricate than the individuals are aware of. An example is individual settlers over time creating an advanced city.
Another example is knowledge. People may over generations learn how to build boats which are far more advanced than the builders are aware of. Other examples are language and trade patterns.
“Out of the actions and relationships of millions of individuals, certain regularities do emerge”
Another economic point made is that humans are to complex creatures to be measured, quantified and fit into mathematical models. “Erica was taught by economists and political scientists who assumed that human beings are pretty much the same. This assumption makes social science a science” But mental character varies to a large degree: “The tendency to collect information before making up one’s mind, the tendency to seek various points of view before coming to a conclusion, the disposition to think extensively about a problem before responding, the tendency to calibrate the degree of strength of one’s opinions to the degree of evidence available, the tendency to think about future consequences before taking action, the tendency to explicitly weight pluses and minuses of a situation before making a decision and the tendency to seek nuance and avoid absolutism”
David Brooks is not an economist, but I must comment that these points are in line with the Austrian view on economics:
The concept of “perfect competition” entails among others perfect information. But we certainly has widely different information.
Austrian economist Murray Rothbart states “it is never any possibility of measuring increases or decreases in happiness or satisfaction. This makes any scientific handling of «externalities» impossible.
Similarly elasticity curves are useful to understand the usual direction of economic processes. If the price rice people will typically buy more and the demand for some products are more sensitive to price changes than others. But each curve is really unique to the situation (persons, time, place, product etc.)
Morality and Politics
I’ll conclude this review with what I did not like about the book and that was the author’s moral and political conclusions of the presented material.
Here is a statement showing his view on morality: “Many scientist believe that the ability to unconsciously share another’s pain is a building block of empathy and through that emotion morality”
Brooks presents a camera metaphor for morality. A camera has automatic and manual settings. The automatic settings are fast and efficient but not very flexible. So sometimes you override the automatic settings by switching to manual. In the same way the mind has automatic moral concerns. But in crucial moments, they can be overridden by the slower process of conscious reflection.
What is presumed here is that the well being of this other person has moral value whereas my well being has not. But upon reflection; If life has moral value why has all human beings moral value except me? The only logical conclusion is that my actions promoting my life has moral value too.
In a way he is a victim of the consequences of the structure of his own mind and the culture he grew up in. As ha states:
“We’re born into cultures, nations and languages that we didn’t choose. We’re born with certain brain chemicals and genetic predispositions that we can’t control. We’re sometimes thrust into social conditions that we detest. But among all the things we don’t control, we do have some control over our stories. We do have a conscious say in selecting the narratives we will use to organize perceptions.
At another place he states:
Learning consists of taking things that are strange and unnatural and absorbing them so steadily they become automatic. Automaticity is achieved through repetition. The idea that your life has no moral value has sneaked into the authors mind through repetition in his culture.
He makes another error concerning politics. Here is another statement:
If you ask Americans 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.
WOW!! Much of the books is about how individuals bonds and relates. In the face of all this how can the author be surprised that securing each man’s right to life, property and the pursuit of happiness should prevent people to form groups? I seems like some perverted vision of individualism has somehow sneaked into Brooks mind. Something like a false alternative between the government organizing the bonding or everybody will just stay alone.
Another place he states “One of the most enduring lessons of social psychology is that behavior change often precedes changes in attitude and feelings. “ If your body impersonates an attitude long enough then the mind begins to adopt it” Well then in an individualistic society where the life and property of each man is consistently protected and all infringements are checked then maybe people finally ends up respecting and trusting each other?
How can Brooks get so lost when it comes to morality and politics? Again the answer is found in the book: “We spend much of the first halves of our lives trying to build internal models that fit the world and much of the last halves trying to adjust the world so it fits the inner models.”
I recommend reading this books for all the interesting facts. But be careful with adopting the authors conclusions. Better use you conscious mind to evaluate the facts and integrate them with your own mental structures.
Posted on Facebook oct 10th