Book Review: The Social Animal

Posted: August 6th, 2011 under book review, education, philosophy, psychology.
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The Social AnimalNew York Times columnist David Brooks uses his book, The Social Animal, to assemble his evidence for the causes of success and failure in life, and to draw implications for social policy.

Brooks shares some insight in the way we learn and communicate, which I found interesting:

Automaticity is achieved through repetition, or “reach and reciprocity.” You start with the core knowledge in a field, for example, then venture out and learn something new. Then come back again and reintegrate the new morsel with what you already know. Then venture out again. Then return. Too much reciprocity and you end up in an insular rut. Too much reach and your efforts are scattershot and fruitless. Learning is not merely about accumulating facts. It is internalizing the relationships between pieces of information. (p. 87, 89)

Brooks suggests that we may think that what we believe and do is largely under our conscious control, and we may believe that we should try to increase this control by the conscious exercise of reasoning and will power; however he maintains that this is all wrong. Nondeliberate emotion, perception and intuition are much more important in shaping our lives than reason and will. Knowledge of what makes us tick, Brooks argues, does not come primarily from introspection but must rely on systematic external observation, experiment and statistics.

People overestimate what they know, and what they can know. They overestimate their ability to understand why they are making certain decisions. They make up stories to explain their own actions, even when they have no clue about what is happening inside. After they’ve made a decision, they lie to themselves about why they made the decision and about whether it was the right one in the circumstances. Daniel Gilbert of Harvard argues that we have a psychological immune system that exaggerates information that confirms our good qualities and ignores information that casts doubt upon them. A great body of research finds that incompetent people exaggerate their own abilities more grossly than their better-performing peers. (p. 219-220)

Brooks presents his book in the context of the story about two fictional characters, Harold and Erica, who are used to illustrate his theory in detail. For me this was unnecessary, distracting, and tiresome. These characters don’t seem to add any depth or help with illustrating his points. He continuously refers back to them, which makes his research seem a bit tenuous and makes it difficult for me to take his data and insight very seriously.

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