Review Books - Rough guide to being human

1st July 2011 at 01:00

The Social Animal

By David Brooks

Random House


In the unlikely event that I start getting invited to lots of high-powered cocktail parties, this book will furnish me with more than enough 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.

I've learnt that humans tend to be overconfident. Ninety-four per cent of college professors rate themselves as good teachers (experience tells us that 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: our swimming skills aren't always what our rational mind would have us believe.

More tantalisingly, I was evidently a slow learner when it came to deducing the unwritten laws of human mating. People apparently 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 person's vocabulary. Size, it seems, matters. With most adults having a vocabulary of around 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 full justice. Brooks makes the case that 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, each fighting our way to the top of the food chain in a daily struggle for superiority. 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.

So when I describe The Social Animal as essential reading for someone about to receive a volley of cocktail party invitations, I'm not suggesting it's a trivial or superficial read. Quite the reverse, in fact: it's audacious, compelling and endlessly thought-provoking.

But it's also sometimes very irritating. Because in telling us the story of our social adeptness and the unfathomable influences of our unconscious mind, Brooks hits on a mode of writing which, for my taste at least, 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 demonstrate the influence of our unconscious thoughts and the way emotions shape the decisions we make.

This gives the book a narrative drive that at its best hooks our interest but at its worst feels clunkily contrived. Brooks is a good writer, but a Booker-winning narrative this is not and there are times when a course of action taken by the increasingly winsome Harold and Erica leads to a ham- fisted shoe-horning in of theory from one of the many experts who are wheeled out for supporting evidence. I would have been happy just to read the ideas without the cod narrative.

The book is of particular interest to us as educators because 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 nature of the child's attachment to its mother. The values that will sustain us in later life, the emotions that will shape the daily decisions we make, are forged in our brains from our earliest moments.

That's why it's no major surprise that the book is on the reading list at the Department for Education, because Erica - brought up in a dysfunctional urban family - fights to gain a place at an oversubscribed charter school, a place which ticks the many boxes of current governmental favour: a curriculum strong on facts and knowledge, tough discipline, a no-excuses culture, silently regimented corridors and, of course, uniform.

Erica, naturally, thrives, and will go on - in a trajectory that may push our sense of credibility too far - to serve as a member of the policy team at the White House.

Like the unconscious mind itself, there is much here I haven't mentioned. Everyone, I imagine, will find different insights 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 that the writer so effortlessly employs, taking us on a fascinating journey into how we become who we are.

About the author - David Brooks

David Brooks is an American writer and thinker best known for his articles in The New York Times. His columns explore the social currents that underpin American life. His book Bobos in Paradise: The new upper class and how they got there illuminated the social mores of the 1990s rich and famous - the Madonna and Steve Jobs generation.

The verdict: 810.

See also a full list of booksreviewed by the TES review panel:


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