A review of The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement, by David Brooks

One of the most useful services a social scientist can render is to open up the technical literature on an important topic to a lay audience. James Q. Wilson gave us an early classic in this genre withThinking about Crime (1975), and then did it again with The Moral Sense (1993). Steven Pinker did it for cognitive science and evolutionary psychology in How the Mind Works (1997), and the late Richard J. Herrnstein and I did it for cognitive ability in The Bell Curve (1994). Enter social commentator and New York Times columnist David Brooks, who in his latest book, The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement, sets out to explain the role of the unconscious in shaping our lives.

The model for The Social Animal is Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Emile. But instead of Rousseau's Emile and Sophie, Brooks gives us Harold and Erica. Harold is the son of two upper-middle-class Anglos who met in front of a Barnes & Noble. Erica is the out-of-wedlock daughter of a bipolar second-generation Chinese-American woman and a Mexican-American man. Erica's mother gave her a disorganized childhood, occasionally rising to the middle class when things went well, then descending to rough neighborhoods and poverty when they didn't. Brooks uses Harold to draw upon the literature about the psychological, intellectual, and social development of people in the upper middle class, and Erica to draw upon equivalent literature about the disadvantaged.

The contrasting backgrounds of this couple are a good device for didactic purposes, but let me register a complaint about Erica's. The 5% sample of the 2000 census available for public analysis, all 14 million cases of it, reveals not even one unmarried Chinese woman living with her Chinese-Latino child. I can understand why Brooks didn't want to make Erica lower-class white or African-American—the former being too parochial for a white author, and the latter too dangerous—but the narrative about an unmarried Chinese mother with an underclass parenting style was never convincing.

The book follows Harold and Erica until Harold's death in old age, in the process imparting a treasure trove of information about what the psychologists and neuroscientists have learned. You name it, Brooks covers it: the development of the brain in utero and afterwards; the way that hard-wired parental responses kick in when an infant joins the household; the "map-making" young children employ to begin to make sense of the world; parenting styles and the nature of parent-child attachment; the underlying processes of academic learning; the development of temperament and its interaction with achievement; the role of culture in shaping expectations and behavior; the role of I.Q. in shaping life outcomes; how shoppers make choices; how adults make commitments; how morality develops—and that list gets you only halfway through the book.

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It is an ambitious endeavor. The literatures that Brooks had to absorb sprawl over several disciplines and involve abstruse quantitative methods. Though Brooks is not a professional social scientist (he has a B.A. in history from the University of Chicago), he is a very smart guy, has done his homework and apparently acquired a sufficient working knowledge of statistics to penetrate the jargon.

He is also one of the wittiest, most engaging writers around. Here he is on the pets of America's new upper class: "It has become fashionable in these circles to have dogs a third as tall as the ceiling heights, so members of the Composure Class have these gigantic bearlike hounds named after Jane Austen characters." On Erica's acquisition of upper-middle-class habits: "Her clothing was so prim, precise, and neat, she began to look like a ghetto Doris Day." On the members of a presidential campaign staff and their charismatic candidate: "Because of these minor genetic differences, they'd spent their lives as hall monitors and he'd spent his life getting away with things." Wonderful stuff.

The narrative is laced with broader perspectives on the human condition that call upon the likes of Matthew Arnold, Viktor Frankl, and Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments. Brooks brings the sensibility of an erudite, wise, and kindly grown-up to the array of social science findings that he lays out.

My technical quibbles are few. Among the literatures he surveys, the one I know best is the one on cognitive ability. I think Brooks is too uncritical about the evidence for malleability of I.Q. and understates the importance of differences in I.Q. at the upper levels. He uses an escape word to downplay the role of I.Q. in Harold and Erica's success, saying they "had no extraordinary physical or mental gifts." It depends on how you define "extraordinary." Harold's I.Q. had to have been in the top few centiles of the distribution, and Erica's in the top decile, given the specific cognitive demands of their accomplishments. But his summaries of the relationships of I.Q. to most outcomes in life are reasonable given that his topic is the effects of cognitive ability on individuals (small), not on social trends (large, but not his topic).

Another quibble is that Brooks does not discriminate between established bodies of evidence and more isolated findings, occasionally citing results that trigger disbelief. For example, when I read that "[s]tudies in strip clubs have found that dancers' tips plunge 45% while they are menstruating," I am skeptical that a change of that magnitude would be replicated in a carefully designed experiment. Nonetheless, Brooks's larger point is that a variety of sexual responses in men and women are affected by subliminal awareness of the fertility cycle—and he is correct. Over almost 400 pages with dozens of synthetic characterizations of research findings, he is consistently judicious. As a survey of social science findings for a lay audience, The Social Animal succeeds brilliantly.

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The conundrum posed by the social Animal is Brooks's insistence that the lives of Harold and Erica were well lived. Here is the book's opening paragraph:

This is the happiest story you've ever read. It's about two people who led wonderfully fulfilling lives. They had engrossing careers, earned the respect of their friends, and made important contributions to their neighborhood, their country, and their world.


How could Brooks possibly be serious? Harold and Erica did have successful careers. Harold wrote historical biographies and eventually became a scholar at a Washington think tank. Erica was successively an entrepreneur, CEO, presidential advisor, and secretary of commerce. Harold also had absorbing avocations centering on his love of history. Later in life, Erica read a lot of good literature and learned to appreciate art. But that's about it: career satisfactions, and the kinds of interests enjoyed by cerebral people. Otherwise, to my mind, they led impoverished lives.

"Earned the respect of their friends"? For a book entitled The Social Animal, friends played an exceedingly small role in Harold's and Erica's lives. After graduating from college, Harold had the kind of twenty-something friendships depicted in the television series Friends, but we hear nothing about the close, rock-solid friendships that can add so much to adult life. Erica had business friends who came and went with her jobs. In retirement, she reconnected with some college friends through Facebook. Big deal.

What about neighbors? Involvement in their neighborhood or community? None of that. Maybe they waited until retirement to connect with the lives of their fellow human beings? No. They retired to Aspen.

Religion? Both were secular and incurious, or worse. Given an invitation to try meditation as a path to spiritual growth, Erica recoiled:

The idea of peering directly inside herself filled her with a deep aversion. All her life she had been looking outward and trying to observe the world. Hers had been a life of motion, not tranquility. The fact is she was afraid of looking directly inside. It was a pool of dark water she did not want to plunge into.


Children? None. Here is the relevant portion of "the happiest story you've ever read":

Once, about five years into their marriage, [Harold] mentioned his desire to have kids, just in a normal, conversational way. "No, not now!" she screamed at him. "Don't you ever burst in on me with that!" 

He was startled and stunned. She stormed off to her office.

Those words were the only ones they had ever exchanged on the subject.

Nor was the rest of their marriage a thing of beauty. Harold and Erica got to know each other first as employee and employer. Then there was a romantic period. Shortly after they married, they began to live separate professional lives. Erica was often contemptuous of Harold's habits. They were not companionable: "As the years went by, they fell out of the habit of really talking, or even looking each other in the eye." When they did talk, they often fought. Brooks makes them into a loving couple in their retirement, but only through narrative legerdemain that left me unconvinced. Marriages are complicated things, and I suppose some people would say Harold and Erica's was successful. It sounded like a never-ending toothache to me.

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So what is that lead sentence all about? The nickel dropped when one of my AEI colleagues found me reading The Social Animal and announced, "All conservatives need to read this book. They will understand what liberals think constitutes a happy, successful life."

He was using shorthand. Many conservatives lead the lives of Harold and Erica, and most liberals don't, but central tendencies remain. Unpacked, my colleague's insight goes something like this: All people for whom some combination of family, community, and faith—along with vocation—are at the core of their happiness need to read this book. They will understand what a certain group of highly educated, affluent people, disproportionately from elite schools and with the modal political philosophy of Dutch sociologists, think constitutes a life well lived: a career that makes them important or at least semi-famous.

It is a variant on what I have elsewhere called the Europe Syndrome. The Europe Syndrome consists of the belief that a human being is a collection of chemicals that activates and, after a period of years, deactivates. The purpose of life is to pass the intervening time as pleasantly as possible. David Brooks's presentation is a variant because it assigns high value to work, a legitimate source of deep satisfactions in life. Harold and Erica both labor really hard at their vocations and at their avocations. But otherwise they are trying to pass the time as pleasantly as possible. Their lives are almost entirely devoid of the other three sources of deep satisfaction—family, community, and faith.

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Toward the end of the book comes a paragraph that seems much more in tune with Brooks's own view of life:

[Erica] was treated as a significant person wherever she went. Strangers would approach and say they were honored to meet her. This didn't make her feel happy by itself, but it did mean that she was no longer gnawed by the sort of ambition anxiety that had driven her through much of her life. Recognition and wealth, she had learned, do not produce happiness, but they do liberate you from the worries that plague people who lack but desire those things.


Combine that insight with all the social science evidence that Brooks presents about the satisfactions of family and community (he does not try to deal with faith), along with his personal history (an observant Jew, married for 25 years, with three children), and I will bet that Brooks himself doesn't think that vocational satisfactions are enough to constitute a life well lived. Why then did he choose to drape his intellectual tour de force about the mainsprings of human behavior on such a dreary couple?

I have a guess. David Brooks has always tried to reach across ideological lines, engaging liberal readers who would instantly stop reading if he sounded anything like the kind of conservative they despise. He continued to do that in The Social Animal. To have made Erica's happiness center on her children, to have embedded Harold and Erica in a community or in a faith that gave them deep satisfaction, or to have made their marriage sound anything like a traditional one, would have alienated those readers. It's only a guess. But I cannot read that lead sentence, "This is the happiest story you've ever read," as literal. It works too perfectly as an ironic observation about the one-dimensional vision of human happiness that is common among the readers Brooks wanted to capture—too common, for that matter, among America's best and brightest as a whole.