Review: David Brooks delves into fundamental questions of life with comprehensive, interdisciplinary research in 'The Social Animal'

Is David Brooks a novelist in waiting disguised as a New York Times opinion columnist and PBS pundit? That's one line of speculation raised by his multifaceted, compulsively readable and sometimes wayward new book, The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement.

Framed as the narrative history of a fictional American couple from infancy through old age, the book takes the kind of wide-lens view that such 19th century novelists as Thackeray, Trollope and Balzac did. The protagonists, Erica and Harold, are seen against a carefully patterned curtain of familial, cultural, political, economic and moral forces as they grow up, meet each other, fall in love and marry, begin their careers, diverge in various ways and poignantly reconnect.

The story propels the characters from the public housing project where Erica spends part of her childhood to the White House, where she works as deputy chief of staff and her husband is a policy wonk (and the author's alter ego). It plays out in college dorms and corporate boardrooms, in the couple's hard-charging 20s and their ruminative retirement years, in boisterous family celebrations and a guilt-shrouded hotel room.

Readers of the author's 2000 Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There will find the occasional bolts of wry social satire familiar. Harold's self-adoring college roommate and a corporate egomaniac are especially well skewered.

Engaging and entertaining as it is, this tale of a modern American marriage is actually a scaffold to support Brooks' larger purpose. He sets out here, with impressive ambition, to examine large and fundamental questions. Why do we believe and behave as we do? What drives our choices and decisions? What makes us happy and fulfilled, or thwarted and defeated? How do we connect to a larger world and find success and meaning in our lives? And how, finally, might the world become a better place?

For answers, or at least a search for them, Brooks taps what he calls a "revolution in consciousness." Calling on three decades of new research into the powers and processes of the unconscious mind, he argues for "the relative importance of emotion over pure reason, social connections over individual choice, character over IQ . . . and the idea that we have multiple selves over the idea that we have a single self."

But instead of being captive to these forces, Brooks maintains, we need to tune in and consciously guide them. "The key to a well-lived life," he writes, "is to have trained the emotions to send the right signals and to become sensitive to their subtle calls."

It's a fascinating and provocative thesis, deployed in an amalgam of storytelling and citations from psychologists, neuroscientists, sociologists, educators and poets. The result is a kind of weirdly compelling X-ray novel, with the characters' lives incessantly backlit by research studies, pithily charged insights and the occasional flabby generalization. Indeed, the citations and interpretations often crowd out the couple's story altogether.

In the chapter on Harold's comfortable middle-class childhood, Brooks invokes a study that uses "care measures" at 42 months to predict, with 77 percent accuracy, whether someone will drop out of high school. IQ is an irrelevant factor. Children like Erica, who are raised in poor families, hear 32 million fewer words by age 4 than children whose parents are professionals.

But baselines are only that, Brooks believes. In chapters on Norms, Self-Control, Choice Architecture and Freedom and Commitment, he builds his case that successful lives are made by people learning to draw on their deep, emotion-driven capabilities. Consider a Yale University study in which students were given the biography of a successful mathematician to read, followed by a set of problems. Students who were told the mathematician had a birthday that matched their own worked an average of 65 percent longer on the problems.

"Character emerges gradually out of the mysterious interplay of a million little good influences," writes Brooks, with "the power of community" at the core.

The Social Animal ranges widely. Like any good novelist, Brooks doesn't shy away from complexity and inconsistencies, acknowledging what Keats called "negative capability." The goal-driven Erica is susceptible to the conflicting pulls of her Mexican and Chinese heritages. Harold, who starts out with the ostensible advantages of a stable, well-off family, drifts into a long slough of loneliness in middle age. For all the scientific research has revealed about the unconscious, it remains a treacherous and paradoxical realm.

In the later chapters, with the somewhat contrived premise of placing his couple at the heart of power inside the Beltway, Brooks employs Harold as a mouthpiece for his own conservative philosophy. "Freedom," he writes, "should not be the ultimate end of politics. The ultimate focus of political activity is the character of the society."

By fostering healthy families, schools, neighborhoods, financial institutions and religious organizations, he believes, society can "influence the unconscious choice architecture undergirding behavior." We may be impelled by unconscious forces, but we need to understand and be responsible for them.

Brooks knows that some of his readers will part company with some of his prescriptions.

"Not many people seemed to agree with him," he laments of Harold. "There was a New York Times columnist whose views were remarkably similar to his own, and a few others."

Even as the light flickers in the couple's twilight years, The Social Animal keeps raising fascinating insights into the depth and power of our inner lives. Brooks' considerable achievement comes in his ability to elevate the unseen aspects of private experience into a vigorous and challenging conversation about what we all share.

The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement

By David Brooks

Random House,

424 pages, $27

Review: David Brooks delves into fundamental questions of life with comprehensive, interdisciplinary research in 'The Social Animal' 04/02/11 [Last modified: Saturday, April 2, 2011 5:30am]

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