The Social Animal

The Social Animal: By David Brooks

“The Social Animal,” is the newest book by New York Times columnist and semi-ubiquitous NPR, PBS, and Sunday news show commentator David Brooks. Brooks distills down more than three decades worth of behavioral economics, behavioral science, neuroscience, and several other polysyllabic fields in order to form a more complete view of human nature. According to Brooks, he has seen more than his share of policy failures from the left and right. Social welfare programs progressives, nation building neo-cons, and traditional efficient-market economists all utilize the same narrow view of human nature: a view where we are reasoning machines, driven by self-interest, responsive to rational (read: financial) incentives,  and out to, according to Brooks, “Maximize utility. Whatever that is.”

What Brooks has uncovered through his research is that this view of human nature is dangerously inaccurate. We are emotional creatures, driven by hidden impulses that most of us will never even be aware of. Relationships matter far more than incentives: being able to bond with a teacher has far more influence over future scholastic success than the logical incentive of a career paths. Our unconscious mind can make better decisions than logically weighing variables in our conscious mind: test subjects could predict elections with 70% accuracy by viewing short clips of politicians with no sound.

These and other revelations are made accessible to the non-scientists among us through Brooks’ skillful use of allegory. He creates several characters who we view navigating birth, childhood, school, careers, and, most importantly: relationships. Brooks tells us a story, then shifts gears, using science to explain why the story matters. Finally, Brooks muses about the grander implications of these findings, applying them hypothetically to business, politics, and our society in general.

“The Social Animal,” is a book about grand ideas. David Brooks shows himself as the brilliant political intellectual he is, and we are all wealthier for his efforts. Highly recommended.

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