Complex selves revealed

10th June 2011 at 01:00

The Social Animal: A Story of How Success Happens

By David Brooks

Paperback pound;14.99

In the unlikely event that I start getting invited to high-powered cocktail parties, this book will furnish me with plenty of small-talk. In reading it, I've learnt that a disproportionately high number of men called Dennis become dentists and men called Lawrence become lawyers. Something in their unconscious minds, it seems, chimes between their own names and the job titles. A neurological connection transforms itself into a career path.

Humans tend to be over-confident: 94 per cent of college professors rate themselves as good teachers (experience tells us they aren't), and because men are even more over-confident than women, more than double the number of men die from drowning than women.

People choose partners who exhibit similar levels of intelligence to their own. So how do we know from a first date whether we're intellectually compatible? We make judgments about the other's vocabulary. Size matters: with most adults having a vocabulary of some 60,000 words, we listen for the lexical choices of the person we're eyeing up, and the complexity of their words will tell us if this is the love of our life.

None of this does the book justice. Its thesis is that recent research from fields such as psychology, neuroscience and behavioural economics has taught us much about what it is to be human. We aren't just the combative beasts of Darwinian theory, fighting our way to the top of the food chain. We are deeply programmed as social animals and then, if the conditions of our upbringing and education are right, we become trained as supremely successful social operators.

This book is audacious, compelling and thought-provoking, but sometimes very irritating, because Brooks hits on a mode of writing which, for my taste, is only partly successful. He tells the story of the social animal by inventing characters whose American lives we chart from birth to death, watching them develop, intertwine, grow older and die. He uses a central couple - Erica and Harold - to show the influence of our unconscious thoughts and the way emotions shape our decisions. This gives it a narrative drive which at its best hooks our interest but at its worst feels contrived. Brooks is a good writer, but a Man Booker-winning narrative this is not.

For educators, the book is perhaps most interesting in painting a picture of the influence we have as teachers, parents and policy-makers. Harold and Erica demonstrate the startling fact that childhood is pretty much everything. Brooks quotes the example of scientists being able to predict with 77 per cent accuracy the 18-month-old child who will ultimately graduate from college. They can spot it in the child's nature of the attachment to its mother. The values that will sustain us in later life, the emotions that will shape our daily decisions, are being forged in our brains from our earliest moments.

Everyone, I imagine, will find insights here which will illuminate, confirm or shake up their prejudices. Some may find the storytelling more rewarding and less saccharine than I did. And what I suspect every reader will enjoy is the sheer level of intellectual ballast the writer so effortlessly employs, taking us on a fascinating journey into how we become who we are.


David Brooks is an American writer and thinker best known for his New York Times columns which explore the social currents underpinning American life, as does his book Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There.

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