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THE NATURE OF THE SOCIAL ANIMAL

Written by: on January 12, 2017

David Brooks – The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement

 

Introduction

David Brooks is a renowned writer and commentator specializing in policies and politics. The thesis of this book is, “We are living in the middle of a revolution in consciousness.” [1] Scientific insights gained from geneticists, neuroscientists, psychologists, sociologists, economists, anthropologists, and scientists of various other disciplines over the past thirty years, have produced substantial data regarding the building blocks that enable human beings to flourish. It was discovered that we are not primarily the products of our conscious thinking. We are primarily the products of the unconscious parts of the mind where thinking occurs below the level of awareness. Most of the researchers he references in the book subscribe to the belief that “mental processes that are inaccessible to consciousness organize our thinking, shape our judgment, form our characters, and provide us with the skills we need in order to thrive.” [2]

According to the author, one of the aims of this book is to expose the wider culture to these scientific insights in order to impact the way we think “about policy, sociology, economics, and life in general.” [3] His stated intention is to synthesize the findings of researchers in a wide variety of fields on the unconscious into one narrative.

Summary

In contrast to the myriad of books that focus on an outer definition of success associated with “IQ, wealth, prestige, and worldly accomplishments,” [4] Brooks declares this book is about success relative to the inner mind, that is, “the unconscious realm of emotions, intuitions, biases, longings, genetic predispositions, character traits, and social norms; the realm where character is formed and street smarts grow.” [5] The unconscious parts of the mind are the majority of the mind where deep thinking and important decision making take place.  He describes it as “The  seedbed of accomplishment.” [6]

There are sharp contrasts between the way the conscious mind and the unconscious mind operate. The conscious mind is associated with reason and analysis, and the unconscious mind with passions and perceptions. The conscious mind is concerned with individual power and the unconscious mind with power in relationships and bonds between individuals, the essence of human flourishing. The conscious mind craves status and material wealth, and the unconscious mind seeks harmony and connections with God and fellow human beings.

According to Brooks, the new research findings give us a more comprehensive picture of who we are socially, politically, and morally. Modern society has created many avenues for learning technical skills, but has failed to develop moral values and character. For Brooks, the research described in this book attests to the dominance of unconscious mind processes because “The unconscious is a place where spiritual states arise and where the wisdom of the ages is collected.   It contains the soul of the species.” [7] Brooks regards it as “one of the big intellectual stories of our times.” [8] But, he acknowledges that we know that we need the conscious and the unconscious, the rational and the emotional systems to thrive.

Analysis/Reflection

Having recently written an essay on Youth-Headed Households (YHH) in Rwanda headed mainly by 13 to 24 year-old females who are at risk for HIV/AIDS due to supporting their families primarily by prostitution, I was drawn to Brooks’ conclusions in Chapter 8 on Self-Control and Character in light of my research findings.  Brooks indicates that basic decision making for humans involves three steps: perceiving a situation; reasoning or calculating whether an action is in one’s long-term interest; and using the power of will to execute the decision.  Brooks explains, “the conscious forces of both reason and will have not proven to be effective or powerful enough to consistently subdue unconscious urges.” [9]. It did not matter what the issues or consequences were from poor diet, excess consumerism, addictions, unprotected sex, dropping out of school, or adultery.  The research is clear, information programs, classroom teaching, and seminar-consciousness raising alone are not very effective in changing behavior or countering  unconscious impulses.

The research of Rwandan YHH’s revealed that there were multiple intervention modalities in place that were instrumental in effecting behavioral change: mentorships, economic strengthening, resiliency strengthening, healthcare services, educational pursuits, information programs, HIV/AIDS assessments, prevention and education programs, life skills training, peer to peer discussions, and documentary films.

Brooks also observes that in some instances, under the right circumstances, reason and will can resist temptation and control the impulses, but not by themselves. In the first step it is important to perceive, see, and evaluate simultaneously. The research of the past thirty years suggests that some people have taught themselves to do this quite skillfully. When individuals see from the right perspective the deception is over and a whole network of unconscious responses are triggered in the mind, at which point reason and will are able to guide proper behavior.

Brooks asserts there is not one defining moment that shapes character.  Character emerges gradually out of millions of good influences. Community shapes character.  Proper, repetitive actions rewire the fundamental mechanisms of the brain and reinforce positive ways of seeing the world.  Good behavior strengthens certain networks.  Brooks informs that according to the scientific community, “One of the most enduring lessons of social psychology is that behavior change often precedes changes in attitude and feelings.” [10]

 

Notes

  1. David Brooks, The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement (New York: Random House, 2012), viii.
  2. Ibid., ix.
  3. Ibid., 383.
  4. Ibid., viii.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid., xv.
  8. Ibid., 180.
  9. Ibid., 126.
  10. Ibid., 129.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

About the Author

Claire Appiah

12 responses to “THE NATURE OF THE SOCIAL ANIMAL”

  1. Happy New Year Claire!
    I enjoyed reading your post. Your explanation of Brooks’ thoughts on character, community, and repetition remind me of how important church and spiritual disciplines are for Christians.
    As Christians we want to be transformed and, as you point out, Brooks proves that it can happen when we change our behavior and then attitudes. We also are a huge product of our surrounding community. How does this make you feel with what you want to do in Rwanda?

    • Claire Appiah says:

      Happy New Year Aaron,
      Thanks for demonstrating the relevancy of Brooks’ exposition to the Christian context. Christians as a community of believers are interested in being instrumental in the spiritual transformation of those in the larger community. Brooks has unwittingly presented insights for the church to enhance spiritual formation and spiritual disciplines to effect that transformation.
      I am hopeful and encouraged that I will be instrumental in making an impact on some level with those I interact with in Rwanda. If behavior modification and transformation are being manifested through secular methodologies, how much more can be accomplished spiritually through the work of the Holy Spirit.

  2. Jason Kennedy says:

    Claire,
    Great blog. I was struck by Brooks’ discussion on culture as well. He stated how people can change radically when they are pulled out of their culture, but can slide back in quickly when they face the slightest road block or they are reintroduced to their old cultural norms.
    This makes discipleship even more complex. It makes it more of a “long game.”
    In Rwanda (or really any missional context), how do you combat this? How do you this consistently enough to bring change?
    Thanks Claire….always insightful.

    • Claire Appiah says:

      Jason,
      Thanks for replying to my blog and your kind words.
      You are so right, the flexibility and freedom individuals have in lifestyle choices make discipleship more complex and long-term in some contexts. Contemporary Rwanda is a prime example. Rwandan culture continues to be plagued with multi-tiered and interrelated socio-economic and political problems due to the legacy of the 1994 genocide. There is so much work to be done to rehabilitate and transform broken families and communities in a way that promotes peace, harmony and trust, the problems have to be tackled on various levels by diverse entities. I am discovering that collaborations and partnerships are the best way to obtain viable and sustainable solutions for individuals, families, and communities.

  3. mm Marc Andresen says:

    Claire,

    As usual you give us an excellent book overview.

    Brooks does quote many scholars. Do you think he has read enough to be able to address the issues covered in this book with authority? Why or why not? In the back of my mind I was thinking off the writing of Kets de Vries, with his level of education and expertise, and wondering how Brooks would compare, in terms of writing accurately.

    • Claire Appiah says:

      Marc,
      That same notion about Brooks’ credentials to write a book interpreting the findings of recent scientific research also crossed my mind, since his expertise is in policy writing, politics, and culture. But, he is up front in acknowledging his limitations and intentions. He states, “I am not a science writer. I have not tried to describe how the brain works. I have merely set out to describe the broad implications of this work” (p. 184). Brooks interviewed many of the scientists he references in the book to gain a foundational understanding of the research data. He states, “I’ve tried to describe these findings while playing it safe scientifically” (p. 383). “I’m going to try to synthesize their findings into one narrative” (p. xi).

      I can’t imagine Brooks conceiving himself as writing Social Animal on the same level as anything Manfred Kets De Vries has produced, who is a scientist of great erudition. I suspect that is one of the reasons Brooks uses the story format because of the poetic license it affords.

  4. mm Phil Goldsberry says:

    Claire:

    Another stellar post! Would love to hear more about your essay on Rwanda teenage girls. With that in mind, you said:
    Character emerges gradually out of millions of good influences. Community shapes character.

    How does this impact the local church? We say and live with the truth that Christ is the supreme answer. Yet His Body has short term memory issues and forgets “character” and “community” at times.

    Thank you for your insight.

    Phil

    • Claire Appiah says:

      Phil,
      Thanks for your kind words.
      It is troubling that even though Christians avow Christ to be supreme in their lives they easily forget character and community. Brooks links character building to the “Learning to See Model.” He claims, decision making entails a process of perceiving, thinking, seeing and evaluating. The person with good character has learned to see situations correctly which triggers a network of unconscious responses in the mind enabling the person to behave appropriately. (p. 127).

      According to Brooks, “character emerges gradually out of the mysterious interplay of a million little good influences. This model emphasizes the power of community to shape character” (p. 128). If this is true, the believing community of saints should be the most powerful entity on the planet shaping character. They not only have the network of unconscious responses to their advantage, more importantly they have the presence of God and the power of His Spirit. Why this is not the case is indeed a conundrum.

  5. Kevin Norwood says:

    Claire,

    Thanks for your writing. Did you observe that some of the things that this author wrote would not translate cross culturally? Did you find that some of the ideas would be a reach in the other places such as Rwanda?

    What do you see after your long interaction with people about the culture of change. Do you see that people can change if they want or are they stuck within where they are born? Can your character change even within your culture that may not be stellar?

    Thanks again for your writing.

    Kevin

  6. Pablo Morales says:

    Claire, the connection between your research and Brooks seems very relevant. I look forward to reading more about your research in Rwanda.

    Even though I do find Brooks insightful in his research about character, I can’t avoid noticing a spiritual void. In addition to the physical realm, we rely on the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit to bring transformation and emotional healing, especially with people that have grown up with a heavy dose of unhealthy emotional processes. I agree with Brooks that most of this level of transformation does not seem to be the outcome of receiving information through a series of sermons. One of the joys of shepherding people one-on-one is to see the fruit of the Spirit unfold in people’s lives as they grow in understanding and align their lives with God’s truth. Much of this experience happens in private sessions behind close doors rather than in impersonal groups because it allows for a two-way interaction.

    There is a combination of materials that I have grown to appreciate for their usefulness in helping people find emotional healing. The book “The Road Back To You” helps by providing self-awareness. Dr. Anderson’s book “Victory over the Darkness” and “7 steps to freedom in Christ” (this is a workbook) help by providing understanding and concrete steps to work with the individual. I would highly recommend all three in case you are not familiar with them.
    Pablo

    • Claire Appiah says:

      Pablo,

      Thanks for these resources. I was not aware of them. I need all the help I can get. I like the idea of freedom in Christ and the workbook format. These will all be very helpful.

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