Sunday, 29 January 2017

Review: The Social Animal by David Brooks

This is, in many ways, a strange book to read. Firstly, it’s in an uncomfortable space between fiction and non-fiction; the author aims to teach us about the subconscious workings of the brain and their importance for everyday life, but he does it in a highly unscientific way and tells the stories of two fictional people throughout their lives, throwing in research findings every so often as if a freezeframe has been taken. Another aspect of the book that threw me off balance was its belief system; I found that I liked the trees (the individual research findings and titbits thrown in) but disliked the forest, which held sweeping generalizations and a religious ethos.

So I read the book enjoying learning all these little facts and quite liking the fictional characters (I identified quite strongly with Erica, a girl from an unstable background with a fiery ambition and determination who grows up to become CEO of a company and deputy chief of staff in the White House. (Harold, her partner, grew up in a very privileged background and became an academic, with little ambition – it was interesting to see that dynamic I’m very familiar with, that of people from less privileged backgrounds being highly driven, reflected in the book.)) But there was a great deal of cognitive dissonance because of how present the author’s religious and subconscious-favouring value system was. Now, I welcome reading books that give me a different viewpoint (even though it Is of course more fun to confirm your biases) but with this I felt that it took that viewpoint as gospel and argued from there, rather than taking the facts and then proving the thesis.

The weird style of this book makes it difficult to review. For a novel, I’d study it along the axes of character, plot, originality, etc, whereas with non-fiction I’d generally comment on interesting information and the quality of writing. This is a hybrid, so the review is going to have to be one too. 


To treat this like a novel -- I liked Erica and found many of the side-characters interesting, if a bit (a lot) one-dimensional. But it was very clear that they were there to prove a point. Rather than being informative, the book often came across as being preachy.


That said, it did have lots of information, which I enjoyed! 

In the first chapter, there were some interesting stats on mating competitiveness and on how one less desirable trait can be compensated for with a more desirable one, e.g. men who are 5 ft can compete equally with men who are 6 ft on dating sites when they make $175,000 a year more. (That is a shockingly large difference.)

Also interesting was the study of how reason and rationality are not the be-all and end-all. This was illustrated with the stories of men who had suffered frontal lobe damage and couldn't process emotion. One of them was asked to choose between two dates for a next meeting and spend half an hour listing pros and cons of each date, then was totally fine with the choice the doctor made when the doctor eventually decided for him. For people with poor EQ, making decisions is very difficult, because sometimes things are equivalent and we need emotion to push us to one decision or another. 

In 1981, a man stuck his tongue out at a 42-minute old infant and the infant stuck its tongue back out at him. This was incredible because of course the child couldn't have had time to consciously learn what it meant to stick your tongue out, but it recognised that this weird visual signal it was seeing was coming from the man moving his mouth, whatever the concept of mouth meant, and the baby could stick its own tongue out too. 

Infants expect a rolling ball to keep rolling and have a sense of mathematical proportion.

Something that alarmed me a bit is the effect early maternal treatment has on babies. There are securely attached and avoidantly attached children; securely attached children (66%) cry when their mother leaves them in a room and rush back to her when she comes back. 20% don't react. Securely attached children cope better with stress - when one gets an injection, it cries but its blood cortisol levels don't rise. Avoidantly attached children learn quickly that they can't rely on others and have to take care of themselves. They are independent but suffer from "chronic anxiety and are unsure in social situations". They can be great at logical discussion but uncomfortable with emotions. They are three times more likely to be alone aged seventy. In one study, 40% of people who had been abused as children went on to abuse their own children.

A study at the University of Kansas found that by the time they are four, children raised in poor families have heard 32 million fewer words than children raised in professional families. Students from the poorest quarter of the population have an 8.6% chance of survival, while those form the top quarter have a 75% chance.

Something interesting about traits of highly driven people. "Ultra-driven people are often plagued by a deep sense of existential danger. Historians have long noticed that an astonishing percentage of thee greatest writers, musicians, artists and leaders had a parent die or abandon them while they were between the ages of nine and fifteen. The list includes Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton, Lincoln, Hitler, Gandhi and Stalin, just to name a few."

I enjoyed the part of the story that dealt with political campaigning and Erica's role as deputy Chief of Staff, because I'm a politics junkie. The book had some interesting things to say about how people choose parties and candidates, and it certainly is not rational.

In short:

Long, wide-ranging book with interesting facts and decent characters but a dodgy message and lots of cognitive dissonance. Read it if you're looking for a hybrid.

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