Monday, July 11, 2011

David Brooks Helps Us Understand Ourselves: "The Social Animal"

One of best entries into the spring (now summer) reading sweepstakes has been The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement, by David Brooks. I highly recommend Brooks's book, and I found myself getting all caught up in the growth and development, transitions, adventures, and final resolutions of the couple Brooks uses to convey his message.

Harold and Erica are a fictional couple, and Brooks cleverly uses them as the vehicle, so to speak, to express his many ideas about the role of non-cognititive influences in our lives. Some reviewers didn't much like the technique, but it certainly worked for me. And despite to rough treatment from some of his critics (one reviewer stated that the fictional characters "do not come to life" and referred to them and others in the story as "mannequins for the display of psychological and social generalizations," a depiction that - to me - is 'way off base), Brooks's imaginary couple is a makes sense. Using this technique is a very good way for Brooks to tell his story and make his point.

Let me explain: I spend my professional life dealing with knowledge management (KM) and what we call - in our industry - knowledge services. One of the accepted tenets of good KM is story-telling. Why? Because it has been a technique used throughout mankind's history (well, as far as we know) and we know it works. Certainly for the last several thousand years, we've conveyed ideas and illustrated what needed to be conveyed by putting the content into a story of some kind. Much energy and effort has gone into the study of story-telling, and everybody accepts that it's easier to make a point with a story than simply to state and re-state a lot of facts.

So let's cut David Brooks a little slack here. He has some very good points to make, and if he chooses to make those points through characters he creates, why not? And his message is an important one, for Brooks is sharing the idea that the conscious decision-making "tools" we've come to accept over the years are supplemented - often to a great degree - by non-cognitive influences that we don't have much control over, or give much thought to.

Here's how Brooks described this idea in an essay obviously closely related to the book ("Social Animal: How the New Sciences of Human Nature Can Help Make Sense of a Life," in The New Yorker of January 17th of this year):

"Over the past few decades, geneticists, neuroscientists, psychologists, economists, and others have made great strides in understanding the inner working of the human mind. Far from being dryly materialistic their work illuminates the rich underwater world where character is formed and wisdom grows. They are giving us a better grasp of emotions, intuitions, biases, longings, predispositions, character traits, and social bonding, precisely those things about which our culture has least to say. Brain science helps fill the hole left by the atrophy of theology and philosophy."

Of course. And thanks to being to read about how all these different and hardly acknowledged (by most of us, at least) influences affect how Harold and Erica live their lives, Brooks has helped me understand some of what goes on in my life. And in the lives of lots of people with whom I interact on a regular basis.

"Mannequins"? Hardly.

Thanks, David Brooks, for providing me with such a well-told story and at the same time teaching me something about myself and the world I live in.


Eesti said...

This book is full of statistics and information about various studies. There is very little story line and the characters are not the least bit interesting. The book is just one ramdom fact after another. It is boring and I found myself skipping over the author talking about one study after another. If you are interested in just a book about social studies and things like that, then I guess you would enjoy this book. However, if you are interested in a book with a story and characters then this is not the book for you.

Guy St. Clair said...

Always good to hear from readers, even when we are not in agreement. Thanks Eesti for your comment.