The Social Animal - The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement

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#1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLERWith unequaled insight and brio, New York Times columnist David Brooks has long explored and explained the way we live. Now Brooks turns to the building blocks of human flourishing in a multilayered,...
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With unequaled insight and brio, New York Times columnist David Brooks has long explored and explained the way we live. Now Brooks turns to the building blocks of human flourishing in a multilayered, profoundly illuminating work grounded in everyday life. This is the story of how success happens, told through the lives of one composite American couple, Harold and Erica. Drawing on a wealth of current research from numerous disciplines, Brooks takes Harold and Erica from infancy to old age, illustrating a fundamental new understanding of human nature along the way: The unconscious mind, it turns out, is not a dark, vestigial place, but a creative one, where most of the brain’s work gets done. This is the realm where character is formed and where our most important life decisions are made—the natural habitat of The Social Animal. Brooks reveals the deeply social aspect of our minds and exposes the bias in modern culture that overemphasizes rationalism, individualism, and IQ. He demolishes conventional definitions of success and looks toward a culture based on trust and humility. The Social Animal is a moving intellectual adventure, a story of achievement and a defense of progress. It is an essential book for our time—one that will have broad social impact and will change the way we see ourselves and the world.


Product Details

Paperback: 448 pages


    Editorial Reviews Review

    Guest Reviewer: Walter Isaacson on The Social Animal 

    Walter Isaacson, the CEO of the Aspen Institute, has been chairman of CNN and the managing editor of Time magazine. He is the author of Benjamin Franklin: An American Life and of Kissinger: A Biography, and the coauthor of The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made. He lives in Washington, D.C., with his wife and daughter.

    David Brooks has written an absolutely fascinating book about how we form our emotions and character. Standing at the intersection of brain science and sociology, and writing with the wry wit of a James Thurber, he explores the unconscious mind and how it shapes the way we eat, love, live, vacation, and relate to other people. In The Social Animal, he makes the recent revolution in neuroscience understandable, and he applies it to those things we have the most trouble knowing how to teach: What is the best way to build true relationships? How do we instill imaginative thinking? How do we develop our moral intuitions and wisdom and character? Brooks has always been a keen observer of the way we live. Now he takes us one layer down, to why we live that way.

    --Walter Isaacson 

    An Amazon Interview with David Brooks 

    We talked with David Brooks about, among other things, Jonathan Franzen, Freud, and Brooks's own unfamiliar emotions, just before the publication of The Social Animal. You can read the full interview on Omnivoracious, the Amazon books blog, including this exchange: Speaking of Tolstoy, I bet a lot of people are going to quoting the first line of Anna Karenina to you: "Happy families are all alike. Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Is there a consistency between what makes a family happy, the way that this family turns out to be?

    Brooks: You know, I never bought Tolstoy's line. I didn't either.

    Brooks: I didn't know many happy families that were alike. One of the things you learn is that we're all so much more complex. We all contain multitudes, so someone who might be a bully in one circumstance is incredibly compassionate in other circumstances. We have multiple selves, and the idea that we can have a very simple view of who we are, what our character is, that's actually not right.

    One of the things all this research shows you is how humble you have to be in the face of the complexity of human nature. We've got a 100 billion neurons in the brain, and it's just phenomenally complicated. You take a little child who says, "I'm a tiger," and pretends to be a tiger. Well that act of imagination--conflating this thing "I" with this thing "tiger"--is phenomenally complicated. No computer could ever do that, but it's happening below the level of awareness. It seems so easy to us. And so one of the things these people learn is they contain these hidden strengths, but at the same time they have to be consciously aware of how modest they can be in understanding themselves and proceed on that basis.

    A Letter from Author David Brooks 


    © Josh Haner, The New York Times
    Several years ago I did some reporting on why so many kids drop out of high school, despite all rational incentives. That took me quickly to studies of early childhood and research on brain formation. Once I started poking around that realm, I found that people who study the mind are giving us an entirely new perspective on who we are and what it takes to flourish.


    We’re used to a certain story of success, one that emphasizes getting good grades, getting the right job skills and making the right decisions. But these scientists were peering into the innermost mind and shedding light on the process one level down, in the realm of emotions, intuitions, perceptions, genetic dispositions and unconscious longings.

    I’ve spent several years with their work now, and it’s changed my perspective on everything. In this book, I try to take their various findings and weave them together into one story.

    This is not a science book. I don’t answer how the brain does things. I try to answer what it all means. I try to explain how these findings about the deepest recesses of our minds should change the way we see ourselves, raise our kids, conduct business, teach, manage our relationships and practice politics. This story is based on scientific research, but it is really about emotion, character, virtue and love. We’re not rational animals, or laboring animals; we’re social animals. We emerge out of relationships and live to bond with each other and connect to larger ideas.


    --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

    From Publishers Weekly

    New York Times columnist Brooks (Bobos in Paradise) raids Malcolm Gladwell's pop psychology turf in a wobbly treatise on brain science, human nature, and public policy. Essentially a satirical novel interleaved with disquisitions on mirror neurons and behavioral economics, the narrative chronicles the life cycle of a fictional couple—Harold, a historian working at a think tank, and Erica, a Chinese-Chicana cable-TV executive—as a case study of the nonrational roots of social behaviors, from mating and shopping to voting. Their story lets Brooks mock the affluent and trendy while advancing soft neoconservative themes: that genetically ingrained emotions and biases trump reason; that social problems require cultural remedies (charter schools, not welfare payments); that the class divide is about intelligence, deportment, and taste, not money or power. Brooks is an engaging guide to the "cognitive revolution" in psychology, but what he shows us amounts mainly to restating platitudes. (Women like men with money, we learn, while men like women with breasts.) His attempt to inflate recent research on neural mechanisms into a grand worldview yields little except buzz concepts—"society is a layering of networks"—no more persuasive than the rationalist dogmas he derides. (Mar.) 
    (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

    Most Helpful Customer Reviews

    340 of 374 people found the following review helpfulBy G. Anderson on March 11, 2011
    Format: Hardcover
    In this book, New York Times columnist David Brooks takes on the audacious endeavor of weaving together a unified picture of the human mind through various discoveries from the sciences. Oh ya, and it's all presented in the context of a story about two fictional characters, Harold and Erica.

    You can get a good feel for the topics he covers from the chapter titles:

    1 - Decision Making
    2 - The Map Meld
    3 - Mindsight
    4 - Mapmaking
    5 - Attachment
    6 - Learning
    7 - Norms
    8 - Self-Control
    9 - Culture
    10 - Intelligence
    11 - Choice Architecture
    12 - Freedom and Commitment
    13 - Limerence
    14 - The Grand Narrative
    15 - Metis
    16 - The Insurgency
    17 - Getting Older
    18 - Morality
    19 - The Leader
    20 - The Soft Side
    21 - The Other Education
    22 - Meaning

    If you think that's a lot of chapters, you're right on target. It's a pretty thick book at 450 pages, but it's easy to move through (not quite novel easy, but much more so than typical nonfiction).

    Book's strengths:

    - If you are familiar with Brook's social commentary (and like it) you won't be disappointed, but this isn't the real strength of this book.

    - In a style that's reminiscent of Malcolm Gladwell, Brooks offers a pop view of experimental psychology that is downright fascinating. The studies he explores are the real meat and merit of this book, and they expose many fallacies in the way we think that we think. Here are a few of the topics:
    * The hidden role emotions play in making decisions.
    * How mirror neurons in the brain are wired to mimic the person we're talking to.
    * The massive role non-cognitive skills (aka, other than IQ) play in success, fulfillment, and achievement.

    Book's weaknesses:

    - My biggest criticism of this book is that the author created characters to personify the characteristics he wants us to understand. Allow me to explain. This is fine in theory but in practice (for him anyway) it falls flat compared to the entertaining and poignant explanations he writes when he isn't trying to explain through a character.

    - As for the story itself, the narrative isn't as flat as your typical non-fiction fiction book (aka management fables and parables of other stripes), but a juicy, page-turning novel it is not. You'll get into the story enough at times that you'll want it to be a page turner, but it's too flat for that.

    - I wish the book would show you how to use non-cognitive skills to your advantage. Emotional Intelligence 2.0 is a great book for this.
    7 Comments  Was this review helpful to you?  YesNo
    824 of 924 people found the following review helpfulBy Joanna on February 18, 2011
    Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product What's this? )
    I don't share his politics but I like David Brooks on THE NEWS HOUR for his thoughtfulness and decency, and in his columns for his well-articulated ideas and remarkable way with words. I read a preview of this book in THE NEW YORKER and felt my interest piqued. Parts were quite amusing, and the thesis that we are far more ruled by the unconscious than the rational mind sounded like something I'd like to read. Disappointingly, the book has not lived up to my expectations, though it has some wonderful writing and fascinating ideas here and there.

    The major problems for me were that the hypothetical, stereotyped characters grew tiresome and even offensive over time and that not enough that was new or weighty materialized. The book combines the fictional stories of protagonists Harold and Erica with lots of recycled information from various neuro-scientific, psychological, and other studies that scores of popular writers have already mined. The reasoning here seems circular in that Brooks invents this implausible pair to illustrate his idea that noncognitive skills like "character" and "street smarts" lead to happiness and fulfillment, then cherry-picks studies to support his made-up characters and preconceived view.

    Tracking Harold and Erica's imaginary life stories ("the happiest story you've ever read"), the book purports to explain what makes for the most successful infancy, schooling, young adulthood, love, career, culture, self control, morality, freedom, commitment, and more. The reach is so broad and the evidence that directly supports it so scant that I never entirely trusted Brooks' conclusions. Further, the use of allegorical characters for hundreds of pages to illustrate his contructs failed to move or engage me in the way an actual novel or real life story might. The tone was often satirical and over the top so it was difficult to take many points seriously. Also, since Brooks starts with a vision he wants to support, he only cites studies that reinforce his view and ignores any conflicting material. Over and over I found him making assertions I had reason to doubt, such as the claim that intelligence has "near zero correlation" with conscientiousness or curiosity, which flies in the face of everything I've read in the professional literature or observed in the classroom over the past thirty years. His constructions also appear at times to be at odds with themselves as when he presents the highly intelligent as both socially awkward nerds and as prime collegiate social movers.

    While the book can be quite amusing for relatively short bursts and offers some wonderful language and food for thought, this is not the place to look for deep, reasoned discussion or final understanding of the very important topics addressed. Parts read as delightfully witty vignettes, but Brooks' approach wears thin and his thesis remains diffuse and unconvincing.


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