“Minds are intensely permeable…Invisible Networks Filling the Space Between Them”
David Brooks writes a book titled The Social Animal. In the United States, the book has also been subtitled in different editions, The Hidden Sources of Love, Character and Achievement and A Story of How Success Happens. Personally, I like the first title better for its added depth of explanation about the text and engagement of breadth of the human condition.
Anyhow, the book has done excellently despite needing to weather some rather scathing critiques. It made it to the New York Times bestseller list, placed Brooks on a Ted Talk, captured the heart of the British Prime Minister who had his cabinet read it and put together a discussion with the author and the cabinet, etc. The interest makes sense. Brooks takes a lot of dense psychological theory and distills it in an engaging manner through the narrative lens of a fictional couple named Harold and Erica.
Oddly enough, the book was also excoriated by a number of reviewers as having broad and good intent, but failing to deliver on the hopes/promises it offered in any depth and in a manner that proved captivating. The reviewers who disliked the text found themselves both bored with the author’s two main characters – who were fictional – and found them unconvincing. As well, these negatively oriented reviewers thought the author was not inclusive enough in his choice of theory to write about but instead felt he cherry-picked theories that supported his claims and the trajectory that he was heading with the text.
Basically, Brooks’ text is about the non-measurable aspects of human cognition and affection. Brooks purports that this is where our primary drives and fears reside. This is why we often see people who “shouldn’t have made it” writing or speaking about their success stories. They “beat the odds” because the odds actually leave a considerably substantive portion of our human nature out of the equation. Thus, the supposed empiricism/objectivism of the whole schema is skewed from the outset.
“…failures have been marked by a single feature: Reliance on an overly simplistic view of human nature. Many of these policies were based on the shallow social-science model of human behavior. Many of the policies were proposed by wonks who are comfortable only with traits and correlations that can be measured and quantified. They were passed through legislative committees that are as capable of speaking about the deep wellsprings of human action as they are of speaking in ancient Aramaic. They were executed by officials that have only the most superficial grasp of what is immovable and bent about human beings. So of course they failed. And they will continue to fail unless new knowledge about our true makeup is integrated more fully into the world of public policy, unless the enchanted story is told along with the prosaic one.”
Now this doesn’t mean that the whole system is on the verge of collapse; the system does offer significant predictive validity in certain narrow confines. However, it does mean that things are not as iron-clad determined as they are often purported to be. Of course, the loosening of iron-clad definitions tends to make people currently in power nervous because it is those definitions that undergird and aid in perpetuating their success. They have found a way to summit according to the current system and in many ways (not necessarily the most holistic, compassionate, or just ones) it is in their benefit not to change such structure. On the other hand, recognizing this ongoing systemic flexibility consistently opens up room for new players to find further validity in the process where they previously had much less. This is good news for such people and good news for society as a whole. It moves us toward greater appreciation of more people more of the time which lends itself toward more thoughtfully constructed systems that take into account the dignity of more people. I’m all for this.
Overall, I found Brooks’ amalgamation and distillation helpful. In a way, it both is and isn’t meant to be groundbreaking. It’s not meant to be groundbreaking in the sense of “discovering” new theories about human nature, about our being human. However, it is meant to be groundbreaking in aiding people in grasping new theories that have been “discovered” and encouraging people to implement these findings into their lives. As far as I am concerned, this is a worthwhile endeavor. I particularly resonated with an optimistic statement/claim/insight by Brooks that I found to be a strong driving impetus for the entirety of the text, “we are living in the middle of a revolution of consciousness.” Of course, other decades and eras were also living in the midst of such revolutions, but I find that the era we are in is both producing never before considered insights exponentially swiftly and making connections and re-connections with older material and reappropriating it in eminently helpful ways that weren’t previously considered or considered and too cursorily dismissed.
There is much to be considered in Brooks’ text and as I have mentioned, I found the book to be thoughtful and helpful. Of course, if you ask more from it than it offers you’ll be disappointed, but otherwise it offers some wonderful learning that just might make you both laugh and cry a bit.
An important factor to me that Brooks brings out in the book is the importance of presence, preference, proximity and imitation (I unfortunately couldn’t muster a fourth “p” for alliterative purposes) – I’m really thinking of the entirety of the book with these aspects, but as I am considering it I’m particularly also thinking of chapters 1-5. I greatly appreciated his discussion of what is essentially a mother and child’s ‘dance of knowing.’ You can likely quickly imagine how the four above aspects might play out in this scenario of knowing between a mother (also, a father) and a child. As well, these aspects can be extrapolated into adult relationality. Of course the ‘dance steps’ appear different in different relationships, but the same aspects of human connection are present. What I doubly appreciated about this discussion that Brooks offered were some ideas that arose in my mind beyond the text from engaging with it.
Begin to imagine to yourself what happens with relationality when one, two, three or all four characteristics of presence, preference, proximity and imitation are absent – absent due to either lack of ability to enact them or lack of desire to do so. In imagining this you’ll begin to be able to mentally conjure all kinds of skewed scenarios of unhealthy relationality. Brooks never specifically delineated the above four aspects as I have here and I’m not suggesting what I have offered is exhaustive. I do feel that it is a reasonable extrapolation from his work and I think bears forth into helping understand a healthy sense of human interactivity or lack thereof.
For instance, Brooks’ noted in his text — from the research of Tanya Chartrand and John Bargh at Duke University — that the more two people mimic each other’s movements, the more they like and will like each other. As well, the reciprocal is true. The more people like each other, the more they imitate. Of course, this could be construed as somewhat of a tautology at this point, but what is important is that Brooks talks about this process in terms of empathy. If you can imitate and like, it offers space for compassion, for caring, for morality. If you can’t do the first part of the above sentence, the aspects of the second part will likely be lacking. Liking (i.e., ‘preference’) and imitation are facilitated by presence and proximity. Therefore, the less of the last two means likely the less of the first two. So, for example, in a socio-politico-economic sense the more there is a shrinking middle-class and the gap widens between the rich and the poor, the greater the probability that there will be less liking and imitation because there is less presence and proximity. The vital question becomes how does one stop such a trend at the societal level? Among other things, that answer could lead into a discussion of anthropological change agentry.
Suffice it to say, this text won’t offer you everything, but there’s material here worth reading and considering.
 David Brooks, The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character and Achievement (New York: Random House, 2012), 41.
 Ibid., xiii.
 Ibid., vii.
 Ibid., 40-41.