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New York Times columnist David Brooks on his book, The Social Animal

Tuesday, July 26, 2011
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HH: Morning Glory and Evening Grace, America. It’s Hugh Hewitt. Thanks for listening today. On Monday I had an author on about a book that I was certain would entertain you and I thought would make you wiser–Daniels Silva talking about his new novel A Portrait of a Spy. Today I am talking about a book that I am certain will make you wiser and which I think will greatly entertain you. It’s by David Brooks, New York Times columnist. It is called The Social Animal. David Brooks welcome back. It’s good to have you on the program.

DB: It’s great to be back again.

HH: Now it’s a coincidence that you follow Dan Silva by two days who I discovered from an endnote in Portrait of a Spy that you are in a reading group or a study group with?

DB: I am. I’m in a bible study group with Dan and he saved my life because I was on a book tour feeling very lonely and all I did for about three weeks was read Dan Silva novels. I loved them all.

HH: Great three weeks! Did you run The Social Animal past this group?

DB: You know, I didn’t. They might ridicule me cause it’s kind of touchy feely.

HH: Oh, it is so not David Brooks. [laughing] And you write in the book that you are not a touchy feely person as your wife will attest to.

DB: Yeah, my wife jokes that me writing book about emotion is like Gandhi writing a book about gluttony. It’s not my natural thing but that where the science takes us.

HH: It is absolutely different from anything I have read and I have not been able to put it down. I want to go there but first I want to tell the audience I am not here to debate David Brooks about his column yesterday in which you assailed talk radio, David. That was good timing to come up with right before you come on. . .

DB: I apologize for that but there has been some progress on the budget talks so all will be healed.

HH: Yeah, we’ll worry about that some other time. Let’s stay focused on The Social Animal. First of all, early in the book you talk it’s kind of based on the approach of Emile by Rousseau. I heard Allen Bloom give a lecture in 1978 on Emile and I had no idea what he was talking about so that was somewhat off putting. I’ll let you explain to people what the Emile is and why this book is based on it.

DB: So what an Emile is that it takes Rousseau’s philosophy and instead of just doing it as a boring philosophy story, he creates a character named Emile and creates a tutor and he really writes a little story about these two characters, but just as a way to illustrate his philosophy. I decided to take really the last 30 years of neuroscience and summarize it but I just didn’t want to do it as a sort one experiment after another. I wanted to show how it played out in real life so I created two characters, Harold and Erica. I really just used them as a vehicle to describe how what we’re learning about ourselves-it happens in real life and I wanted to show some of the brain research suggests that it’s all in the brain and that it’s all synapses and we have no control over anything, but I wanted to show that we do have control. Are free will is limited a little, but we do have control to make the right decisions or the wrong ones.

HH: I want to point out that probably the opening summary statement is “The central evolutionary truth is that unconsciousness matters most. The central humanistic truth is that the conscious mind can interfere with the unconscious.” So that’s the triumph of the rational and the will over the subconscious.

DB: There are a couple of things we’ve learned-big things that we’ve learned over the past 30 years from all this research. The first is the unconscious is really tremendously powerful. It’s not everything, but it’s powerful so the human mind can take in 12 million pieces of information and it can be conscious about 40 and all the rest is sort of being processed below awareness. Some of that is sort of trivial. One of my favorite experiments is that people named Dennis are disproportionately likely to become dentists and people like Lawrence are disproportionately likely to become lawyers because unconsciously we sort of gravitate toward the familiar. My joke in the book is that’s why I’ve named my daughter President of the United States Brooks.

HH: [laughing]

DB: Some of it is silly, but some of it is kind of profound. If you choose to join the Marines, your mind will be changed by that Marine Corps training in ways that you are not even aware of. If you choose to join a church, you’ll be affected by that experience and by that community and that teaching in ways that you are not aware of. But you still have the ability to choose to join the Marines or to choose to go to church so we choose to put ourselves in that context and those contexts influence us in very profound ways.

HH: I curious about reaction to it. It’s very unlike anything that I have read in a long time, but it is also been a conversation starter over the last couple of weeks that I’ve been getting ready to talk to you about it. I have found myself brining up different data points from within it. For example, that high school is a great sorter of people, etc., and bringing these things up. Have you gotten a lot of reaction from folks saying that once they begin The Social Animal they find themselves debating some of your findings continually with friends and family?

DB: One of the nicer things that people have said is that it forced them to learn to use the highlight part of their Ipad and their Kindle.

HH: Amen.

DB: They want to underline things so that was nice. You know, I try and take as much interesting experiments, facts about ourselves and just cram it in there. Some of the stuff is sort of random but we tend to marry people with nose widths similar to our own. Some of the stuff I think changes the way that we see things. For example, our education system we tend to think that the most important thing that happens in high school is the stuff that happens in the classroom. But by far the most cognitively demanding part of the high school is the cafeteria. That’s when people are sorting themselves and this is one of the things that I think the tiger mom didn’t really appreciate. She’s trying to prepare her daughters for a successful life and she has them doing a lot of homework and a lot of piano practice, but she doesn’t get them ready to-but she doesn’t allow them to go on sleep overs. My argument would be if you want to know what is really cognitively demanding, send your 14-year old girl on a sleep over with six other 14-year old girls-I don’t know this from personal experience, but that’s extremely cognitively demanding because our brains are mostly set up to understand each other and that’s really tough.

HH: And so the chapter that Harold negotiates at a high school cafeteria as he moves from his social milieu among the other in which he is the Mayor of the cafeteria-tremendously informative about social science research and I bring it up because I want to go back to your devise which is you not only create Harold and Erica but you also create Robin, Julia and you have Erica’s mom and you got teachers and founders of schools. You’ve got all different things but the book occurs in the present throughout so would you explain. Unlike most books I normally pick them up and I read a little in the back before I decide whether to interview the author. I was totally confounded by what was going on. I had to go back at the beginning to figure out what was gong on so explain to people how you are always in the present.

DB: Right because this is not really a novel it’s an allegory. The characters of this are just there to illustrate the research. I wanted to illustrate the way we live now. I didn’t want to go back and try and illustrate how things happened in the 1930s or the 1950s so I keep it in the present tense just to illustrate how high school functions now, how families function now and so I how some of the things-the way you attach to mom. The things that happen early in your life with your mother are just tremendously important. Scientists can take a look at kids at age 18-months and they can predict with 77% accuracy who is going to graduate from high school just by looking at an 18-month old relates to mom. I didn’t want to have to confuse all that by saying that we’re in the 1950s and now we’re in the 1960s so it’s always in the present moment.

HH: It works quite well. It takes a little getting used to but then it works. Before we go into the meat of it David Brooks in The Social Animal at the beginning you indulge your inner eor and you talk about all these failings of the last 30 years and that sort of triggered my inner Herman Cahn because Norman Borlaug in wheat and you’ve got the rise of economic freedom in China. You’ve got what Ted Stevens would say the amazing miracle of the internets. Things have been pretty great over the last 30 years but you were not so impressed with the way the world is going.

DB: Well I don’t want to say that things are not better overall but in my day life I cover politics and I’ve covered a bunch of failures. In fact, I became a conservative covering politics in Chicago and I covered a bunch of-you know these horrible housing projects that were put up in the 60’s as part of the great society and they were just miserable places. Why did some of those anti-poverty efforts fail? They failed because we had a simplistic view of human nature. We felt we were all these rational self-interested creatures who would respond in straight forward ways to incentives, but we are actually much more complicated than that. A lot of the failures that I’ve experienced both education, both poverty and some foreign policy it’s because we have a wrong view of human nature. I think this research gives us a more accurate view.

HH: Now this goes to your very lofty ambition for the book. You say early on that the story of the inner mind is really not accessible to us, that no biography is complete indeed and we don’t even have enough self knowledge because we forget so much of what forms us. Given that acknowledgement by you why then attempt to survey what we do know? What you hope to achieve by going this?

DB: Some of it is just to remind us how little we know. I’m a big believer in Edmund Burke, and one of Burke’s great concepts is epistemological modesty that there’s-we have to be very modest about what we can know about the world. When you’re aware that we can’t even know ourselves half the time-when we choose to fall in love, how we choose to fall in love, some of these decisions which are just tremendously important are really beneath consciousness and we only become aware of them we feel swept up in love. We have to be modest about ourselves, but there are some things we know. You’ve got to be modest about declaring what we know but we do know that people who have more friendships, deeper friendships who spend more time with other people are happier than people who spend time alone. You can build up knowledge slowly and you can’t just sit back and say the world is just too complicated we can’t know anything.

HH: It’s the temptation, it’s progressive temptation to try and use this to social engineer. David Brooks is my guest, New York columnist and his fantastic new book is called The Social Animal. It’s linked at HughHewitt.com. I’m coming right back for the balance of the hour. Don’t go anywhere America. It’s the Hugh Hewitt Show.

***

HH: Thank you for listening. I am talking this hour with New York Times columnist David Brooks about his fascinating new book The Social Animal. I’ve linked it at HughHewitt.com and you’ll get into it and you’ll find yourself looking up as I did with the fetching Mrs. Hewitt and talking about and sort of doing what you do think about this proposition and it comes from the latest in social science research. David Brooks, before I dive in, how do you keep up with all this? This is not what you and I do for our day jobs. In fact, there’s very little in The Social Animal that I had seen before when it came to academic work because I primarily do politics and public policy not social science. How do you keep up with this?

DB: Yeah. Well I became addicted to it and so one of the things that I did was I read a lot of neuroscience books obviously that come out. I’m on a bunch of list serves which send out-I get emails from about 10-15 studies every morning so I look over those studies. Then I attended a bunch of conferences and did a lot of interviews with neuroscientists, cognitive scientists, sociologists, behavior economics all those folks. Once you get into it it’s really a study of ourselves and so it’s pretty interesting.

HH: You know there’s a brain institute out in my neck of the woods at the University of California Irvine and there’s an economist there Richard McKenzie, he’s been a guest of mine before, economics is becoming increasingly the domain of these neuroscientific inquiries. Is that not correct?

DB: Right. There’s a fellow at MIT for example named Andrew Lowe who measured the brains of currency and stock traders after three up-market days and there’s so much dopamine coursing through their brains their assessment of risk changes. They basically think they’ve created it all themselves. A lot of that kind of research-the behavioral research has affected economics and shows that we’re sometimes not completely rational. Another example, a guy named Dan Ariely, took people through a pool table store and on some days they were led to the cheapest pool table first and up progressively to the more expensive ones. On other days they went to the more expensive first and down to the less expensive ones. On the days where they saw the more expensive pool tables first, they spent something like 30 to 40% more because that became their frame of reference. We are affected by all sorts of things when we make decisions.

HH: Let’s begin at the beginning with Rob and Julia. These are two fictional characters who are the parents of the protagonists in the book, Harold. Rob and Julia meet for lunch and this is where you’re going to destroy courtship if this goes abroad too much. I have sent notes about your book to both people I know who are engaged and to people I know who are expecting saying you may want to review the literature to find out whether you’re actually sorting correctly. Could you run through that conversation between Rob and Julia and what’s really going on when people sit down for their first conversation with a potential life partner?

DB: Of course one of the things that they are doing is just having conversation where are you from, but the mind is making all sorts of decisions they are not even aware of. Men, all men like women with a 0.7 waist hip ratio because it’s a sign of fertility. Women like men who are slightly taller than themselves and slightly older although I did see a great on-line study from I think Match.com one of these on-line dating sites that shows the guy who is 5’6″ can get as many on-line date offers as a guy who is 6’0″ so long as he makes $172,000 a year more.

HH: Yeah! That’s in the book [laughing]. That’s a great encouragement to people who are vertically challenged.

DB: There are other things. We tend to marry people with eye width similar to our own. We tend to marry people with immune systems that are complimentary to our own and we tell that by aroma and by tasting saliva when we kiss. All these things go into determining the choice we make and a lot of it we’re not even aware of. One of the most important senses which we don’t think about too much is smell. For example, people who lose the sense of smell suffer a greater emotional deterioration than any other people. It’s just tremendously important in how we decide whether we like someone or don’t like someone. There was one study done in Germany where they took gauze pads and taped it under peoples arms and then they had other research subjects who were presumably well paid sniff the gauze pads and they had to guess whether the people wearing the gauze pads watched a horror movie or a comedy and they could tell at way above average a chance of who was watching what.

HH: One of the things you’ve said that stunned me a little bit is that people who lose their sense of smell experience much greater emotional disturbance than even those people who lose their sight.

DB: Right because smell is something that we’re using every second of every day to sort of gauge other people-the fear their experiencing, the anxiety they are experiencing and all of it is unconscious and so its become-it’s something that is pervasive but we just don’t think about it. We’re very aware of what we are looking at.

HH: Another unconscious sorting devise is the use of vocabulary and I went over this segment many, many times because it makes perfect sense to me that your hearing people display their education, their class, their religious orientation, their world view simply by the choice of words that they are unveiling in the course of an ordinary conversation and that’s been tested out now.

DB: Yeah, so one of the things we do is when we meet somebody is we align our vocabulary levels to each other. We align the rhythm of our speech. We align our breathing patterns but we align our vocabularies. For example, if somebody with an IQ of 80 will use one sort of word and somebody with an IQ with 90 another sort of word and say somebody with an IQ of 120 another sort of word. People very quickly in the course of their conversation figure out what sort of words they can use with each other and they align it that way. That’s one of the ways we’re kind of beginning to cooperate and make links with one another and we do it by gesture for example. Somebody said that 90% of all emotional or of all conversation of all communication is by gesture.

HH: I don’t like that from the radio prospective.

DB: No, but you have tone of voice and tone of voice is tremendously important which is why when we tell a joke or e-mail or twitter or something it doesn’t really come across because we lack the tone of voice.

HH: Now David Brooks, the second part of this segment is also about child rearing and I mentioned that I sent a note about your book to an expectant mom and saying you really want to go through this. How much of this synaptogenesis, and searchlight vs. lantern consciousness, how much of this is relatively new and how much have we known or suspected for decades?

DB: Well we’ve known for a few decades how important it is for parents to establish firm relationships with kids. That doesn’t mean you have to be super mom or super dad, but it does mean that you have to be constant, be regular, provide a sense of ordinary environment. That stuff is not new. Though to show how much it predicts through life, that stuff is new. For example, one sort of research there are some kids that they don’t really establish a good relationship with mom in the very first few months of life. They send signals to mom and mom doesn’t send them back and so they become sort of self-enclosed. We’ve learned that those people at age 70 are likely to have one-third fewer friends so these things can last a life time.

HH: Well the attachment theory stuff is fascinating-is that new?

DB: That’s been building. That’s what I’m talking about. That stuff has been building I’d say over the last three decades and now there are thousands of attachment studies. Some people say there is a woman named Judith Rich Harris who wrote a book saying parents don’t matter and I think that attachment research proves that wrong. I’ve never actually met somebody that parents as if they don’t matter. We all think we matter.

HH: Thirty seconds to the break, David. In all your research and reading do you have a particular theory as to why autism has gone so sky rocketing high?

DB: I don’t have a theory on that. They used to blame that on refrigerator moms and stuff like that but I’ve looked at development in this book no so much some of the problems people have.

HH: I’ll be right back with David Brooks. The books he referred to is The Social Animal. I’ve linked it at HughHewitt.com. We come back and talk about high school. There’s a lot you learn there. You don’t want to miss this next segment as we continue our discussion about The Social Animal.

***

HH: My guest this hour is David Brooks. We’re talking about not his columns however controversial and inviting they may be in the New York Times, we’re talking about his brand new book, The Social Animal which I have recommended heavily and will continue to do so. You will be fascinated by this. Before I move on to the social science of high school David, there is one segment were Herald is a 7-year old boy who experienced Saturday night trauma when his parents go out and it’s very moving and I’m wondering not just there but how many of these chapters are part of biographies of other people that you have borrowed for illustrative purposes here?

DB: I looked-I went to the research and found what the research showed and then I often would go to literature or biographies or my own experience and see if I could find a way to describe it narratively. In that particular section I’m trying to describe the confusion kids feel when they really don’t understand the world and the piece that I used for inspiration is an essay that I highly recommend to everyone read. It’s by George Orwell and it’s called Such, Such Were the Days. It’s about his own life as a boy in a boarding school in Britain and it’s a beautiful description of how childhood can be extremely confusing and terrifying. Some writers are just fabulous at remembering what childhood is really like and that’s one of them.

HH: Such, Such Were the Days. You quote another Englishman in the course of the conversation about high school. Chesterton. The real great man is the man who makes everyone feel great and you’re referring to Harold at this point and to this amazing social sorting machine which is high school. You mentioned it a little bit earlier and let’s go back for people who just joined us as we talk about The Social Animal that most of what is important in high school is not what you’re going to get didactically from the teacher in the front of the room.

DB: What you learn in the classroom matters. What kind of IQ you have matters so the way we do in life is determined by about the variation of job performance is determined about 25% by IQ. IQ is significant its 25% of how you’re going to do on your job later in life but that means that 75% is something else. That something else includes things like metus (?), which is the ability to look over a landscape and detect the patterns that are important there. My newspaper did a story about soldiers in Iraq that could look out over a street in Bagdad and tell whether there was a landmine planted in the street and if you ask them how to you know they couldn’t tell you. They just said that they felt coldness in their stomach. That ability to really observe closely that’s tremendously important. The second thing and I think the thing that is really important is the ability to read other people and that’s what Harold does so well in high school. He has the ability to understand what other people are like. They might be in a different click from him. They might be a geek. He’s sort of a jockey guy. They might be a theatre person but he can sort of detect what they are thinking inside and that ability to sort of sense what other people are thinking and feeling that’s probably the most important ability in life.

HH: You write that social genius of course does not lead to academic genius but that these people that develop the former as opposed to the latter are not going to fare poorly over a period of time. A chance obviously has its role here, but if you have social adaptability you’re gong to do well in most circumstances.

DB: Most work in groups and if you’re in a group that can read other people’s signals where you can take turns while having a conversation, your group is just going to do a whole lot better. I saw a study actually since I finished the book where somebody had the bright idea of looking at swim times in the Olympics and they compared the swim times of the individual performers vs. those same performers when they were part of relay team and they swam a lot faster when they were part of a relay team. They felt responsible for the group. They felt that they were part of something larger than themselves. The ability to perform well in groups is tremendously important. If you want to know who is going to do well in life, go into a kindergarten and ask a kid who is friends with who in this classroom and some kids are just extremely aware of social connections and social networks. Those people are likely to do pretty well in life.

HH: If I could Xerox and send to every teacher page 193 praise is essential as it encourages risk and I think this is often lost that praise is a great driver of people’s life and you capture this here as well as your argument that the only point to being a teacher is to shape the way that a student relates to the world. Do you think that praise word is widely understood in the world, David Brooks?

DB: Yeah. I think it’s important to praise the right way and there’s been a bunch of research on this. If you tell someone they are smart then they are going to want to keep proving to you that they are smart so they won’t take risks. They will do stuff they think they can do well so they will do the safe predictable stuff and they won’t take too many risks. That might not be the best message but if you praise somebody for working hard and taking risks, then they are going to want to keep showing you they can take risks and work hard. Again, praising for effort is a lot better than praising for intelligence.

HH: My guest is David Brooks. We will continue the conversation after the break. His new book The Social Animal is linked at HughHewitt.com. It’s at Amazon.com and in bookstores wherever they are still open everywhere.

**

HH: It’s Hugh Hewitt with New York Times columnist David Brooks talking about his brand new book The Social Animal which is a wonderful read. You will greatly enjoy it but you will be challenged by a lot of it including a character by the name of Erica. Erica is the partner to Harold in the book that we’ve been talking about. Erica is from a lower class family and undergoes many trials and rising to her potential and what’s interesting here is that I spend a lot of time with Jay Matthews, David Brooks talking about the Kip Academy and you’ve got the Teach for America people who are opening the academy that Erica prospers at. But there’s in here the Myth of Erica and I thought it was interesting for you about how she gets into the “academy” through the intervention of a hedge fund manager and a display of anger and she uses theatrics and she kind of bullies her way in. It’s all on pages 248-250 if people are reading the book and I put it down and I thought I wonder if David Brooks thinks that that is just if Erica using that kind of a technique with that kind of an intervention is a just thing.

DB: Well that’s a very good question. It shows her determination and we sort of have an unjust system where I think we have some great schools these Kip Academies, these charter schools which they are just tougher than a lot of normal high schools so the kids have to chant each morning and the teacher say, “what is earned?” and the kids have to chant, “everything is earned.” They make them walk in straight lines down the hallway. They make them look teachers in the eye. They teach them basic manners and basic respect and it has an phenomenal effect on students and it’s a great example the people who organize these schools have really taken a lot of the research I describe in the book and tried to figure our the schooling implications, and the implications are that you not only work on the stuff in the classroom, you also work on the stuff outside the classroom you work on character. The way you get into these schools in a lot of cities is it’s a lottery and so I guess its chance and I guess there’s some fairness to that and Erica basically understands even though she is 12 at this point that here life is sort of falling part and she needs some structure. She needs some order in her life so she bursts into the room of the people who run this academy in the middle of the day and they demand that she get out as she went bursting in and she says no you’re going to let me into the school. I refuse to leave unless you let me in the school and eventually the hedge fund manager who more or less funds the school flips a piece of paper across the table. . .

HH: Be careful how you quote your piece of paper!

DB: The paper after he sees her screaming demanding to get in and the paper says “rig the darn lottery.” He wants to rig the lottery to get her in and they agree to do that. It’s a sign that she’s tough and struggles early in life because her home life falls apart, but some people have this amazing toughness and resiliency.

HH: In that story did you intend to communicate or did you communicate unconsciously that above it all remains a super structure of wealth and privilege that will decide ultimate decisions again and again. I mean it’s like critical legal theories jumping out of a book here.

DB: That part had never occurred to me. I guess it’s because I know some hedge fund managers who fund charter schools and I don’t think-they’re trying to uplift people who are not as fortunate as they are so I don’t think there are exploiting them the way the folks in the critical legal study movement would say.

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