You go with your gut, and you don’t even know it

I finally got around to reading “The Social Animal” by David Brooks. I’ve appreciated (if not always agreed with) Brooks’ thoughtful, let’s-all-be-adults conservatism for a while, especially counter Mark Shields every Friday.

So perhaps it’s no surprise in the book, then, that his character muses about the term “socialism” – and how he thinks it should be defined, emphasizing social capital and networks close to home.

A book of dualities

The book is an exploration of dualities in both theme – the conscious and the sub-conscious – and process – fiction and nonfiction. Brooks cites a lot of research into how our sub-conscious minds dictate more of our lives than we think. Our conscious mental processes are not in the driver’s seat, as much as we value decisions based on logic, reason or evidence. In reality, this research suggests, sub-conscious mental models and biases make decisions for us, and our reasoning adapts to justify them. But this isn’t a dry academic tome. Brooks cleverly weaves in fictional characters, whose life stories turn this research into a story. You can relate to Harold and Erica, in yourself or people you know.

For example, Erica’s studies of culture and behavioral economics lead her to see people not as isolated individuals but as part of social networks (his “socialism”). Erica consults for a firm who, to cut costs, “first cut every single practice that might have fostered personal bonds,” like company gatherings and friendly office space. This segment has not-very-subtle allusions to Ayn Rand; Erica eventually gathers an underground group of likeable, competent technical experts who force the CEO (a shallow, jargon-loving man named Taggert) to step down.

Cognitive Revolution

Harold also turns the research into a story, by discovering and promoting the “cognitive revolution” as a column writer in DC. (Along with “a New York Times columnist whose views were remarkably similar to his own.”) This will be called something like the fluffy revolution – it’s about forging a society through emotional awareness, relationships and social character. Hence socialism. The “rationalist era” was “economo-centric.” The cognitive era, Harold (and David) believe, will “put the health of social networks at the center of thought.”

In a sense, though, this cognitive revolution acts as a bridge between American liberal and conservative positions, muddling that duality. Brooks draws on former Sen. Moynihan, who said conservatives believe culture shapes social success while liberals believe government is the main factor. Harold’s thesis is that culture and government shape each other, more at the local level than the national. At any level, this is done by forging social bonds and networks, and can’t be solved by any technical expert or ideologue. Fluffy revolutionaries, unite!

Culture isn’t fixed

Brooks does let a deterministic attitude shine through in one section. Background and upbringing do, of course, shape our sub-conscious mental models and biases. But Brooks implies that culture is static and intrinsic to a group, not evolving characteristics shaped by history and environment. “Cultural difference can produce stunning inequalities. Asian Americans have a life expectancy of 87 years compared with 79 years for whites and 73 for African Americans.” He’s uncharacteristically careless with his implications of causation here. Asian-Americans are not inherently smarter than white Americans, who are not inherently smarter than black Americans. Rather, as much of the research he cites elsewhere shows, success is a product more of the conditions around us rather than our inherent potential. We should pay attention to culture – but understanding people means considering their history and environment, not just a few data points.

The good thing about being bad at something?

One of the most interesting points comes from the very last sentences in the acknowledgements. He writes, “As [my wife] can attest, I may write about emotion and feelings, but that’s not because I’m naturally good at expressing them. It’s because I’m naturally bad at it.”

Does being bad at something open an opportunity for a more conscious type of learning about it? Experts don’t like to have their expertise questioned. People and organizations often learn from success too well, clinging to best practices without noticing that the world may be changing around them.

Brooks sums up the point of the research with a pithy phrase: “Our experience of ourselves is misleading.” So we tend to be overconfident, but without questioning ourselves how can we learn about how we’re wrong? Like the firm that clings to best practices until it goes under (Brooks cites other hubris-failures from fund managers and physicians, drawing on studies by Philip Tetlock) perhaps only a crisis can bring on a little reflection. But if we’re aware that we’re bad at something – like Brooks expressing emotions – perhaps our conscious brain may be able to peer into the sub-conscious brain and try to adjust that mental model. Awareness, of course, is the key to this deeper learning, both in an individual and an organization.

Drastic changes are unlikely, but my gut says that modest, incremental changes are possible – if we can achieve that awareness. I’ll go with my gut.


About developingnathan
I am a reflective person. I am an introvert, a friend, a brother and a son. I appreciate a well-crafted glass of beer, piece of music and turn of phrase. I am a professional of international development, a good pianist and a Green Bay Packers fan.

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